The Canadian Imagination

What it means to be Canadian; examining and reworking Canada as a nation.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

About me

Whatever else, I am not trendy.

Blogs have been in fashion for how long? And I am only just discovering the medium now?

I do better in dialogue -- or so I thought, until I discovered that my voice too frequently was silencing those of others, that too often many would wait to hear what I said and then agree, without voicing anything further. Yet what does either of us gain out of such agreement? I don't even know if anything said held any intrinsic value, for it has never been tested. Certainly I have learned nothing new. The seconds-long sound bite I dismiss out of hand as having no value other than delivering and reinforcing a desired message: again, not what I seek. The essay and academic paper remain traditional routes of debate: but their audience is limited, and their authors too easily drift from the quest to learn into the quest to be proven right. I have no wish to be right. I wish only to learn, to learn together, in an environment of mutual respect -- yet even upon that small shoal ships have foundered, and the tallest are among the most vulnerable. It seems that 'do unto others' or even 'do not unto others' depends almost entirely on the capacity to empathise, to be able to imagine what a similar action would in fact feel like when one is the recipient and not only the actor: and empathy is a learned talent sadly lacking of late. The newspaper column, then, where I am only one voice among many -- and the blog.

I am not a hawk.

Military superiority is not moral superiority. I abhor unnecessary death. I have no wish whatsoever to inflict it upon others. I find no reason which can possibly justify that. Not a resource. Not a new power base. Not a change in regime. Not an ideology. Certainly not ego.

I am also not a dove.

In this world of continually attempted polemic contrasts, that may come across as something of an oxymoron. If one is not a warmonger, then obviously one must be seeking peace, and never mind the cost. And yet I do hold with self defense -- where self defense is actually needed. If one party constantly pushes, is it so surprising that the other might possibly push back? Do we then defend against the pushing back and call it self defense: "He started it, Mom. He had the temerity to hit me back!" I also hold with there being things I hold more valuable than my own life -- if not that of others. For it is for others to judge for themselves what they value, and how highly. It is not for me to decide such things for others: although I may give aid where such is specifically requested by those requiring it as they deem necessary in order to protect their own lives. Non-native moralities inflicted upon an existing society from without rapidly become pragmatic lip-service and then, when no one is watching, fade away entirely. It is only another variant on the question of how two consenting adults, both of sound mind, might choose to interact. There is no necessity for one path to be the single correct path.

I tend to speak up where someone else's path demands my compliance and where such compliance would be contrary to who I am, be it in the small things or the large: with the means and degree of the objection depending upon the means and degree by which compliance is enforced and what the result of that compliance is to be. (Sometimes, this means that I learn of a gap, hitherto unseen, between my self and my actions. And sometimes, I discover that I do not know myself so very well after all.) I do live in a society, and thus to some extent I have implicitly agreed to compromise with those around me insofar as to allow my government to speak on my behalf: but there is also an understanding I hope to be mutual, a contract between me and the society to which I belong, that a society I embrace as my own will not adopt tenets demanding compliance contrary to who I am. How many truly appreciate the refugee-immigrant's dilemma? How many understand what it means to have to turn one's back on the land of one's birth? Yet the tenets basic to who I am are so very few that a near infinite space remains for diversity: how many possibilities are not closed off -- how many are indeed opened anew! -- by holding (for example) to the single limitation of life (for all those born, at least) being a fundamental right? On these few things -- whatever they are to be -- all members of the society should hold near-agreement: for such a code of tenets are part of the glue holding the society together. In all other things: diversity can only ever grant a wider understanding of what it means to be human.

Thus I am not a unilateralist. There is not and has never been any one right path embracing all of humankind. I would never wish any society to be limited solely to what I am capable of imagining, let alone to be created exclusively in my image. How can one possibly grow in an environment become unchanging and homogeneous? The capacity to evolve demands a certain flexibility, and flexibility can come only from willingness to encounter and explore the unfamiliar. (As with physical flexibility, initial attempts to develop such social flexibility will often be uncomfortable.) Even all the variations of "do unto others" are controversial: what makes us arrogant enough to believe that, just because we value a thing, another must necessarily want it for themselves? or, for that matter, be jealous of us for valuing it? What makes us never once consider that others might indeed pity us in our blinkered single-mindedness?

I am not a fan of inconsistency where it masquerades as the voice of authority. (This is fundamentally different from [for example] Taoist paradox: where is the place where there is no inconsistency?) Nor do I advocate rigid inflexibility as the voice of authority. I have seen some who lay out their position without ever once questioning its validity, leaving it entirely the responsibility of others either to compromise, to bend to that position, or fight, or leave:
Quaker farmer to would-be burglar: I would not harm thee for the world, friend, but thou standest where I am about to shoot.
The joke lies precisely in that no Quaker ever would say such a thing. A Quaker's primary basic tenet after the belief in the Christian Trinity is non-violence, without even the presentation of possible violence: to break with either tenet would be to no longer be a Quaker. Yet, having been spoken aloud by the Quaker surrogate: there would be little value in its saying without a real possibility of carrying the action through. Once the action has been chosen, it must not be altered, lest -- what? What would be so terrible were the surrogate to alter a stated line of action which holds the potential to harm others -- or, perhaps, not to initiate it at all?

I have also seen one who with equal conviction advocated one position when responding to a person holding that position, and its opposite when approached by one holding that opposite position -- without ever once noticing that the position might have changed. This is not dancing on water. This is not even an attempt to understand, to appreciate an unfamiliar position from within its native perspective: not when accompanied by active advocating. This is inability to commit. And is it not odd that inconsistency and rigid inflexibility alike arise so very often from fear? Inconsistency: external framework substituted to avoid fear arising of too close knowledge of self. Rigid inflexibility: precisely the same source.

And yet: my convictions, our morality, your rigidity, his/her fanaticism. (Irregular nouns, those.) Touch me at one of my core tenets and I will seem unyielding, rigid. Touch me anywhere else and I will seem so yielding as to seem to lack a spine. Much depends upon the perspective from which we choose to observe. Even more depends on the extent to which there is a need to exert control over the other -- lest, of course, they take control over you first. Fear, fear, fear.

I have heard that some feminists hold the political to be personal. I have difficulty seeing how it could be otherwise. What is politics (and economics, and religion) but a structured sociology? What is sociology but the interaction of individual psychology? From what other sources could sociology, and religion, and economics, and politics possibly spring than from the individual mind, the individual mind, the individual spirit? What is held individually cannot but impact upon the greater structure. The greater structure cannot but reflect individual tenets. Where different individuals are held to be of different values (or perhaps of environment-dependent value) and the dominant tenets also dominate: well, it is a difficult thing, to hear what remains silent. (And yet how many know beyond the shadow of a doubt that they and they alone express the views of the silent majority?)

I do not accept inertia as an adequate reason for continuing a given line of action. Equally, I do not accept inertia as an adequate reason for not initiating a course of action. It becomes far too easy to justify any given situation simply by accepting that, well, it was already in process at the time. But does that make it either generally desirable or right?

Life goes on around me. Some work, some play, some starve, some watch CNN or study weaponry or treaties and think that they know war. Escapist and action film themes have been increasing, and continue to increase. The sum of western individual entertainment budgets might run only slightly below the sum of western military spending, even without including alcohol, and tranquillisers, and gambling. I think, perhaps, that those or us who live in the west might be staring in stunned silence at what is transpiring in the world and wondering how this situation came to pass. But silence still implies consent, however we might have it otherwise: and any lack of vocal objection will -- must -- be read by the rest of the world as tacit support. To turn off a television, to avoid all sources of information altogether, accomplishes precisely nothing. Even to speak semi-freely, in some contexts, accomplishes its opposite: for it serves only to demonstrate that clearly free speech does still exist, so why the whinging?

I dislike hypocrisy. How very easy to tell others what should be done, but to judge the risk too high for oneself! How very much easier to see in another what one is completely incapable of seeing in oneself! The lenses we choose to wear will shape what we see: and so we will always be able to find what we look for. But it is difficult, difficult, to consider that there are in fact lenses, that we do in fact see the world with utter clarity and that it is others who squint as through a glass, darkly. After all, our very basis for all our knowledge, all our experience of the world, must come through our eyes. If that loses coherence, what else of stability remains?

I have tried, in this initial entry, to give you some sense of myself, and of the lenses which might be fogging my own eyes. Now, you know at least some of how this particular segment of the universe has come to look at itself. It may forewarn you as to some of the biases inherent in this particular perspective: as indeed biases will be inherent to any limited perspective, for it is the nature of perspective itself to consign frames around personally selected seeings. In the past, I have found that being overt about possible personal biases is most often interpreted within an instinctive assumption that those who do not admit bias must be unbiased. Yet, if nothing else, the very action of translating thoughts to word and word to a language we pretend to hold in common will alter the way in which that translation will in its turn be translated and perceived by you. How accurate either of our translations is, you will have to determine for yourself.


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