The Canadian Imagination

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

Friday, January 14, 2005

Applause

As the tsunami waters slowly receded from thousands of kilometres of shoreline and millions of lives, word came quietly that Susan Sontag had died.

Many will remember her as one of the persons who had dared to aver openly, immediately after the images of September 11, 2001, that "cowardice" might perhaps not be the appropriate word to apply to people willing to sacrifice their own lives, not as a possibility but as an absolute certainty, to accomplish an end. Many reviled her for that.

Since that time, however, those images of a tower erupting in flames, so familiar by now in our minds, replayed again and again until the public perception was beyond saturated, until for most people they had long since ceased to have any immediate meaning and became merely bells to Pavlovian conditioning: be that response to resolve the evil threat out there once and for all; or to just turn the damn thing off already. However, the empathy aroused by an image, here, seems not to have amputated the will to act, Susan Sontag notwithstanding -- but the action may have turned out to be otherwise than can be explained objectively and rationally. Where the intellect staggers, the visceral finds alternatives.

At first, as with the tsunami, as with any terrible, sudden, apparently incomprehensible tragedy: those not directly involved saw, empathised in a moment of terrible pain, gave to the Red Cross in a spike of impulsive generosity ... and found completion, and a sense of ending. We find a personal relief in giving. Empathy aroused by the images, here, did not abrogate action, did not amputate in the slightest the need to do something. But in our distanced society, we no longer know how ... and so we resort to the equally distanced symbolic, something we have faith can be translated by someone somewhere into something else, hopefully of more substance; but as far as we can practically see it, no different than burning heavenly currency for the dead and offering sacrificial prayers for the living.

We don't know what might be of more substance, not really. Maybe someone somewhere has mentioned that blood plasma will be useful there and everyone rushes to give blood: it is something that can be done, never mind how factually useful for that specific event such donations will be on the opposite side of a country or a globe. Thus a one-time blood donation becomes a symbol, granting that feeling of directness that we crave in the face of extreme loss, for closure.

The most widely diffuse symbol, of course, is currency. Even if we see personal kits of plastic tarp and water purification tablets, it is not something "real", not something we can translate into our everyday lives. It is always the easiest way out, to throw money at a terrible thing. It gives us a warm, fuzzy feeling, while also absolving us of the need to consider that problem more deeply, to act beyond the superficial need. Maybe we are afraid to look at it too closely: maybe there is no solution, or worse, maybe there is a solution but it is neither quick nor easy -- or worse yet, we might find ourselves staring into the consequential mirror of our own responsibility. But now we don't need to. We have felt something. With the donation, we have done something. And now, for us, it is over.

We need it to be over. Too much, too soon, too quickly. We are evolutionarily geared to see the change, not the stasis - but if we choose to keep our eyes open, the images flooding in from every brutal thing that is happening globally may constitute more change than our senses -- and our psyches -- are readily equipped to deal with. Supersaturation leads to traumatic psychological shock, precipitated stillness of being, a way of distancing until the mind can begin to try to understand (or at least to accept): but in our media-saturated universe such supersaturation is now the norm. The body cannot survive in a permanent state of shock. For our very survival's sake it evolves filtres of ever-increasing density, ways of simply tuning out until it takes something like an unforewarned tsunami just to break through.

A callous calculus of empathy identifies the ratio and numbers of First to Third World deaths and tragedy, the ever-increasing plateau before we are able even to see what is happening. Below that threshold, a mild, distanced empathy tends to substitute for action of any kind -- but once that threshold is shattered, once again intellect staggers (how can it not?), and once again the visceral will act.

We find a personal relief in giving, but just as strongly most of us also find status. Not only does giving allow us to assuage our self-perception of helplessness, it also allows us to boost our image in the eyes of others. The appearance of action is easier to create than the actuality; and self-congratulation for having contributed to that appearance now substitutes for even that brief, aborted attempt to bridge the empathy distance and actually give help of substance. Once the scale of the disaster became more clear, several countries competed to be seen as most on the spot, most generous, most giving: a flurry of currencies and cartels and combined armed forces competing for title of Head Philanthropist, arguing over the conventionally unanswerable question of why a benevolent God would allow such a thing while abandoning those not in the glare of the media spotlight to their private grief in the shadows.

Potlatch is scarcely a new concept in the world, but in its original cultural framework it had built-in limits: so much you can give away, not more: because you don't physically have more. But for far too long now, we have been playing poker with chips borrowed against the future. While I might wish that we might stop with patting ourselves on the back already, give what we can not to step into the spotlight or to steal that spotlight from others but simply because we are fellow human beings: barring some truly global catastrophe I don't think we will easily be able to stop ... or want to.

Applause is a potent narcotic.

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