I AM CAUGHT BEHIND THE FORMER IRON CURTAIN, AND MY POSTS CAN'T GET OUT.
I'LL TRY AGAIN NEXT WEEK FROM FRANCE.
SORRY 'BOUT THAT
Are People Really That Stupid? Fortunately, the answer to the above question is usually "No." However, people do enough fairly-stupid to seriously-stupid things to keep the rest of us entertained most of the time. Unfortunately, the human race is in the middle of doing a couple of really stupid things that may result in wiping ourselves off the face of the planet. Given this scenario, the blogger might be forgiven if the subjects he covers range from the sublime to the ridiculous. Feel free to join in. Maybe you'll say something smart.
Due to the mobile-unfriendliness of the present format of this blog – apparently a larger and larger percentage of you are reading on your tablet or phone – we are switching over to a Wordpress format. So the "Are People Really That Stupid?" (Usually "Are We Stupid?" for the sake of brevity) has a new address. Starting on April 26, you will find us here:
The biggest news on the social front in Canada today is the alarming number of Aboriginal women who have gone missing or been officially declared murdered in the recent past. 600 in British Columbia alone, by one count. Many people are demanding a national enquiry. I saw and interview on CBC with Wally Oppal, commissioner of the British Columbia Missing Women Commission of Inquiry. His opinion? Forget the enquiry. Why? Because we know enough. It’s time to act. Spend the money on solving the problem, not talking about it: “housing, addiction, poverty and all of those things ” were his targets. “Those things that he was too polite to mention” would include abuse: physical, mental, and sexual. What he says sounds logical, but I’m sorry Mr. Oppal, it’s not going to happen.
Why no action? Because it’s too expensive, both in money and in lost political ground. You see, to solve the problems Mr. Oppal mentioned above, first you have to recognize that they exist. And to do that you have to admit that our society is failing a huge number of its members, and not just the convenient scapegoats with the wrong colour of skin. What about the bigger picture? The media is so full of the “Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women” headline that it’s impossible to find the bigger statistic. How many missing and murdered women of all races are there in Canada? Perhaps 1,100. The Aboriginal problem may be a good one to focus on: we have a few special conditions, such as race and residential schools, that make it easier to get a handle on this one. And aboriginal women comprise a huge percentage of the overall total. Just like aboriginal men make up a disproportional number of the prison population. Definitely something wrong there. But trying to solve the aboriginal problem without dealing with the rest of society’s problems is like putting a bandage on a broken bone. You could pour a whole lot of money into the aboriginal community (How much has already been spent?) and perhaps make a dent in their statistics. But this would have little effect on the whole situation, and most of that expenditure, as it has in the past, would be about as useful as bailing a puddle in a rainstorm.
Not Just an Aboriginal Problem The BC Commission report makes interesting reading, because it does not restrict itself to one ethnic group, and it takes a broader look (worldwide) at the problem. One inescapable fact that arises is that most of the victims are in the disadvantaged layer of society, especially prostitutes (who would have guessed?) The second chilling fact is that victimization of prostitutes is increasing. In the 1970’s, 16% of the victims of serial killers in the US were prostitutes. In recent years this level has risen to 69%. Which is what I mean by political disadvantage. As long as our society considers that the huge disparity in earnings between the top and the bottom is a natural and decent way for humans to exist, none of this is going to be solved. It is perhaps too simplistic to equate the increasing disparity of income in the US with the increase of victimization of the dispossessed, but the two statistics do sit there, side by side, inviting comparison. The disadvantaged are not going to get much help from political parties whose credo is based on the Victorian attitude that prostitutes are sinners who deserve punishment.
“During my consultation with family members about potential recommendations, I was shocked to learn that strangers would tell them that their loved one “deserved” what had happened to them.” - Wally Oppal, “Forsaken: The Report of the Missing Women commission of Inquiry”
Why Are There Bars? It is a disquieting idea, but one symbol of our society is bars. Bars on windows to keep people out. Bars on jails to keep people in. Bars that separate the haves from the have-nots. And that’s only talking about the money. I think the issue of respect goes much deeper into the problem. If you belong to a school of thought that insists on blaming these people for their problems, it’s not likely you’re going to allow them the respect that they need to raise themselves from their penury.
Respect People who are making a decent living and are treated with respect are much less likely to steal. Their kids are more likely to get an education, and thus they will cost society less. The respect is probably more important than the total amount of money they make. Lack of self-respect runs up and down the whole social/financial scale, and causes more problems than we think.
Trickle-Up Policies Do Work. Money spent on improving the lot of the poor, and especially the children of the poor, is the best money a society can spend: education, (and not only the scholastic type; what about parenting, money managing?) support, medical services, (both physical and mental). These are what a good society provides. And the whole of society benefits. Common wisdom says that you can judge a society by how they treat their weakest members. Who cares about being judged? Let’s be practical. You treat your weakest members better and in the end they cost you less money. That’s just good business.
The Prognosis? So, will the federal government lay out a plan to deal with the inequities of our society, thus solving the indigenous problem along with all the others? Not a chance. Our society, still in the throes of the “trickle-down” economics of the 1960s (and the 1880s for that matter), will continue to allow the winners to dictate policies that allow them to keep their places at the top. They will pretend that they care about the losers at the bottom, but create no policies to help them, only take actions that will keep them down. And it is too simplistic to blame only the Conservatives for this. One can hope, I suppose, that when the Liberal party deigns to release their policies for the next election they will have something important to say on this topic. Or will they follow the example of their forebears and maintain the status quo?
No Alternative If Canada wasn’t so high up the scale on economic equality and treatment of the dispossessed relative to the rest of the world, it would be a lousy place to live. We can only hope for progress.
How Safe is Too Safe? The problem of how adventurous to make children’s play areas is one that has been going around for a long time. A recent study brings this conflict to the fore. Are playgrounds too adventurous, or are they safe to the point of too boring?
A Case in Point. An Elementary school I was teaching at a few years ago had a great project. The parents, students, teachers and community all got together and raised money for a beautiful new Adventure Playground. Opening ceremonies, rah, rah, and all that. Everyone ecstatic. Students of all ages loved it so much that the administration had to schedule separate times for older and younger kids. It was all plastic and padding and, as far as I could see, as safe as you can get, and so much fun that I used to join the students when I was on supervision duty. I returned for a visit to the school a few years ago and the playground was gone. Safety hazard. Liability risk. Politically correct bandwagon. In some people’s eyes, the damn thing was too adventurous. Now I’m reading in the paper that “studies have been done” showing that modern playgrounds are too boring, because there isn’t enough risk involved. What’s going on? "A Man Hears What He Wants to Hear and Disregards the Rest" (Paul Simon) I have a suspicion that these researchers have fallen into a psychological trap called “Confirmation Bias.” This is a common human failing I describe more fully in my book “Why Are People So Stupid?” It goes something like this:
“When our beliefs are challenged by some of the facts, we emphasize the value of the data that supports our belief, and ignore data that disagrees.
In other words, while it is quite possible that children are not using the playgrounds as much as they used to, jumping to the conclusion that it is the fault of the playground is rather suspect. On the other hand, there is no doubt that playgrounds are getting safer. The question is if you can ever make a playground “safe enough.” And whether you should ever try.
The point is that playground design – along with many other elements of public life that are subject to the highly emotional influence of the public – has been driven by political correctness rather than proper analysis of the needs of the clients. Heaven forbid we should ask kids what they want.
I took PE teacher training at a time when responsible educators were touting the theory that if you teach children the safety rules, they will never go beyond their capabilities. Sure. I was willing to buy into this theory, because I felt my safety training was pretty good. Besides, it made it easy for me to teach PE. I could concentrate on the lessons and forget about all the worry. (See “Confirmation Bias” above.) Until I had a Grade 6 boy jump off the top of a 3-metre climbing apparatus and break a tooth on the (concrete-backed lino) floor. Sort of a wakeup call. Yeah, for him, too. Certain kids will push the limits, no matter what type of equipment you provide for them. It’s the nature of the beast.
Points on Dealing With Kids (and other people): 1. Variety. Some kids will risk anything. Others are wimps. The rest fall (sorry, bad choice of expression) somewhere in between. You can’t build a playground that will be safe enough for one end of the spectrum and exciting enough for the other end. 2. Accidents will happen. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, somebody gets hurt. All parents make decisions on a daily basis on how hard they’re going to try to control their child’s environment. Too little control and the chance of injury becomes unacceptable. Too much control and the child’s growth atrophies. 3. What doesn’t kill us makes us strong. The problem is that, as a society, if we want to make our children strong we have to be willing to kill a few of them in the process. Stated in those terms, that is not an acceptable tradeoff by modern standards. However harsh they sound, though, “no pain, no gain” and “no risk no payoff” are facts of life. Get over it. 4. The widespread nature of media reports gives us the idea that rarely occurring events happen all the time. They don’t. Sure, it’s possible that your son’s hamster will chew his way free, escape into the wall, gnaw the electricals and burn your house down. Maybe it happened to someone in Portugal five years ago, but there it is, all over our media screens. The solution is not to ban all hamsters from human habitation. And no, I’m not going to tell you the solution, because I have no idea.
How to Choose? If you’re in the market for a playground, the important factor to consider is which child you’re building it for. I mean, why are we building these things at all? The answer most people will probably give is that children are spending too much time in structured activities and non-active pursuits. We want to provide them with a creative, active experience because it’s good for their health and development. All right. So there are a few adventurous souls who think our playgrounds are too tame. Should we care? If we are going by the objective above, probably not. That child is not our target audience. We want a safe, friendly, creative environment for children who are not motivated enough to seek out a creative and active experience for themselves. The kid who wants more is way beyond that, and has exceeded our targets for activity already, so no problem. Let him ride his bike in heavy traffic if that’s what gives him a thrill.
Problems to Solve: 1. Parents who substitute overprotective parenting for taking the time to train their child properly. And then think they can bully the rest of us into doing it for them. 2. A legal system that does not recognize the responsibility for parents and children to take care of themselves. Canada isn’t as far gone as United States on this, but we’re headed in that direction.
We’re not going to solve those any time soon, so what do we do? Do we listen to this survey, and run out and make all our Adventure Playgrounds more dangerous on purpose? Not a chance. Do we panic about how our darlings are going to bump their little noggins on the playgrounds we have, and tear them all down? (The playgrounds, not the kids.) I certainly hope not.
What we should do is keep putting up playgrounds, exercising due diligence in making them as safe and fun as possible, and keep taking our kids to them and encouraging them to use them safely. That’s the idea, remember?
Beware when someone offers to do what you want, but for the wrong reasons. It probably means you are about to discover the whole point about the “end justifying the means” argument. This is also called politics.
An Example: Iraq Once upon a time there was a leader in Iraq called Saddam Hussein who was a very nasty person. He was terrible to his own people, he supported terrorists, and it was generally agreed by everyone that the world would be a better place if he wasn’t in it. However, international politics being what it was at the time, and humanity being what we are, nobody really wanted to take the responsibility for Doing Anything about him. As it turned out, with good reason. Fortunately for the world, there was a tough-guy Texas lawman-type president of the United States called George W. Bush. His father had been president when Iraq broke out of its cage the last time, but everyone said that George Senior hadn’t gone far enough in winning that war, so somebody was going to have to do it over again. (Sort of like the Allies didn’t go far enough in finishing off Germany in WWI, hence WWII. Which is another story). So George W. decided to go in and slam Hussein down, chase him like a fox to his lair and dig him out and finish him off. I mean, Somebody was finally Doing Something, and everyone was oh, so happy. Or maybe not so happy. Because as time went on it became evident that the reason George W. was Doing Something was not because Something Needed Doing, but because he wanted to be seen as the Person Doing Something. Which is quite a different thing. Our first clue was when, instead of checking around to make sure that everyone really wanted Saddam ousted, he just got together with a couple of his buddies and attacked. And it turned out that, oh drat, it isn’t good enough to just go and Do Something. It’s much better if you first have a Plan. Which isn’t something George W. was good at. But the Americans had such a fun ride in Iraq that they jumped on the next train that came through the station, and a bunch of other countries thought they had learned enough from George W’s mistakes that they could Do Something in Afghanistan. Where they got completely derailed.
And Now for the Next Act So now, almost a decade later, the theatre of war has shifted back to Iraq, because everyone got tired of losing Our Boys in Afghanistan, and in Iraq we can make sure it’s Their Boys getting killed instead. This seems like progress. Except now Barak Obama, who got the Nobel Peace Prize for existing, is asking Congress for permission to turn American soldiers loose on the ground again.
And the Question is, Why Send Troops into Iraq? Is it because Something Needs to be Done? Or is it because the Democrats only have two years to get their act together before the next election, and this is a great way to draw the wind out of the war-mongering Republicans’ sails?
Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch (in Canada) And in Canada we have a Prime Minister who talks big on the international scene, but can’t really come through because he has gutted our Armed Forces so he can pretend he has a balanced budget. Because Stephen Harper has decided that he will win this year’s election on a Fiscal Responsibility platform (with a touch of militarism thrown in).
The Joys of Xenophobia But before he wins the election, Mr. Harper needs to raise a whole lot of money. When you’re morally bankrupt, a big lump of cash fills the gap nicely with the voters. In order to do this, he must persuade the Party Faithful that he is Doing Something about things they believe in, like Law and Order. And they are so happy that he is Doing Something about the Terrible Threat of Terrorism, that they don’t realize that the Terrible Threat has been created by…guess who? Stephen Harper. Because the issue of Terrorism just happens to be the sexiest issue to get all the Conservatives’ xenophobic supporters opening their wallets the widest. Perhaps it has escaped these people that the RCMP have pulled 600 officers off other jobs, which suddenly don’t seem so important anymore. After all, the Organized Crime figures and Motorcycle gangs are home-grown threats, and thus not such sexy media targets as those foreign terrorists. And when you think about it, a biker club leader or organized crime capo isn’t that much different from a lot of the power junkies you deal with on a daily basis in the business world. If they aren't the same people. So they’re just not such useful boogeymen as the drug addicts and mental cases that are performing the terrorist acts. I mean, these are people that you can’t really Deal With in any respect. But Mr. Harper will Do Something about them, and we will all feel safe. And, since the Liberal party is refusing for some reason to reveal any of their policies (maybe they don’t have any?), and Justin Trudeau is proving to take more after his mother than his father, there’s a good chance Harper will win. Again. And he will continue to Do Something about a whole bunch of things that would be better left alone, and Do Nothing about another bunch that really need work. But that’s how it goes, because looking like you’re Doing Something is what gets votes. And political donations. And that’s politics, folks. Until, of course, a lot of you voters get the idea and Do Something about it. Like turf out of office any self-serving politician-types who don’t act with the good of the Canadian people in mind.
A big fuss in the media lately because some people are suggesting that, with all the inclusiveness and multiculturalism and other politically correct ideas, Canada is soon going to have no recognizable culture at all. Couldn’t be further from the truth. Oh, Canadian culture doesn’t look like the old cultures did. You won’t see obvious physical qualities like dress and music and religion any more. But if you go looking for Canadian culture what you will see, if you know how to look, is an example of how the concept of a culture is changing as humans create more civilized societies.
Where Did the Sense of Culture Come From? Well, why do soldiers wear uniforms in battle? In the old tribal days, the cooperation of the tribe was essential to survival in the big, dangerous world. In those threatening and difficult days, anyone from another tribe was competition for food and territory, so all the other people out there were The Enemy. It was important to be able to recognize at a glance who was Us and who was Other. Tribes recognized people who were like them in easily recognizable aspects like clothing, art, food preparation and religious beliefs. The need for cooperation in order to survive created in the human psyche a deep-set need to belong. Culture provided the clues by which you recognized your safe group.
Society Isn’t Like That Any More In modern society the tribe has expanded to nation size and beyond. Now we are expected to recognize and identify with people who live thousands of kilometers away, whom we have never met. We can hardly expect them to wear the same clothing, eat the same food and play the same music as we do. (Well, unless we’re all teenagers.) By the standards of the old tribal culture, Canada is completely fractured. However, in order to exist as a people in our huge and far-flung nation, it is necessary to define culture in a broader and more modern sense. Because we communicate, not in person, but through media and through ideas (A plug here for the good ol' CBC), the culture we have developed can be recognized as a group because of similar experiences, social beliefs and ideals. In that sense, Canada is doing just fine, thank you very much.
A Look at the RCMP Now there’s one of the worldwide symbols of Canadian culture. There was a time recently when people of the Sikh religion wanted to be RCMP officers but still wear their turbans. Of course, there was a big outcry. “They won’t look like real RCMP any more!” But how do you define RCMP? If it’s just a guy in red serge and one of those Smoky the Bear hats, then no, they don't look like that any more. But can a woman in a skirt and a Sikh in a turban still be officers of the Canadian people who uphold our Canadian laws in the form we have come to expect? Of course they can. Just because the look of the uniform has adapted doesn’t mean the essence of the force has changed. And speaking of the RCMP, I suspect that a lot of the internal troubles they are having right now come from a group of good old boys within the force who wish to keep things the old way, because they’re very uncomfortable with the new Canadian way of doing things. Probably the best reason to change.
And Then There’s Quebec. Can’t let this discussion finish without hauling out the biggest “non-Canadian” cultural group we have. I mean, they don’t even speak English! Oh, no. The main conflict between the culture of French Canada and the culture of the Rest of Canada nowadays is not because of the language. It is because of the attitude the Quebecois have towards non-French speakers. In their defence, it must be noted that the French developed their culture during a couple of bigoted centuries when the English majority in the area would have been quite happy to see the Habitant language and culture disappear, and the sooner the better. But now things have changed. Quebec culture and language is vibrant and growing, and holds its own as a part of the whole Canadian mosaic. The French no longer need to attack the English language at every opportunity. So people in the ROC get most upset at the unfairness of Quebecois policies. Francophones expect special treatment for their culture and language, yet they trample on the culture and languages of their own minorities. This clash might lead us to suspect that one of the strongest elements of modern Canadian culture is an attitude of fairness and acceptance of differences. Who knows, some day it may be even more important to us than, “We aren’t Americans.”
Change or Die Another aspect of a mature, developed culture is its ability to change. This quality is in direct opposition to the old type of culture that wants everything to stay the same, catering to the old primitive fear of the different. We can no longer say, “We must do everything exactly the same as we always did or we will lose our culture.” Now it has to be, “We can’t cling to old elements of culture that have no relevance any more, or a new culture will come along and take over from us.” Not that I suggest wholesale change for the sake of change. It takes a generation or so for a new element to slip into a culture. At least it used to. Who knows, now? And I wouldn’t go too far down the path of defining “what is Canadian culture?” That sort of navel-gazing is valuable to some extent, but a culture should be an amorphous and growing thing. Defining it too closely will cause it to ossify. (See the preceding paragraph) I find it difficult not to suspect the motives of those who wish to put a noose around culture. What will they get out of it?
“I Can’t Define It” Doesn’t Mean "It Isn’t There" There is a bottom line of course; if someone asks you your nationality, and you are proud to say that you are a Canadian, then yes, Canada still has a culture, and it is still working as it is supposed to, helping bring us together.
Gordon A. Long is a semi-retired teacher living in
Delta, British Columbia. There he indulges his life-long interests in writing,
theater, photography, travel, dogs, and sailing (not necessarily in that
He also runs Airborn Press and helps beginning writers with
editing, proofreading, designing, publishing and marketing their books. His
business experience includes providing technical and management services in the
theatrical and convention field for forty years, from school and amateur
theatre all the way up to the 2010 Olympics.
Has he invested in the Stock Market? Yes. Was he successful? Yes. Did he
make a killing? Not a chance. He isn't that smart. Or that stupid.