Proselytization is a fancy word for outreach and conversion. For reasons that will be clear to anybody arriving because of a post on Transforminator that presaged a series of posts exploring Capitalism as if it were religion, and because of just who I am that would be unsurprising to those closest to me, I have been observing the profession and work of public relations for corporate bodies with particular keenness.
I am in awe of it. For the most part it tends toward unscrupulous and insidious. Yet there is both an artfulness and plain success to it that is undeniable. It could be used for good; but generally it is rallied to a much lower cause. No matter. The same can be said for so many things from guns to sweetner.
The Pro-Corporate Proselytizers
I am, of course, referring to the use of public relations and other communication in the service of corporate aggrandisement. These are the foot soldiers in the campaigns to make corporate entities, their leaders, and their commercial offerings not just acceptable but desirable, irrespective of their inherent worth. They are not the only ones on the field with this mission. But, they are the most obvious and easily identified.
Very few immediately consider industry groups and think tanks, university-associated organizations, and chambers of commerce as missionaries for corporations. They are. They will try to make their play as about “business” or “economics,” and there is certainly some of that. But the questions, “What business?” and “What economics?” makes perfectly clear this is a story about very large corporate entities. The kind that can pay for the hagiographies.
The Missionary Men (Mostly)
In any case, let’s sit on the word “mission” that I used above. It is apropos to this point of view because the comparison I now make for these corporate missionaries is to religious missionaries. Christian missionaries to be precise, those dating back as far as, say, 47CE.
Christian missionaries from Paul (Saul) and onward to the Jesuits, sect-specific proselytizers like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, Baptists, the Evangelicals and their late 20th-century televangelist offshoots, and all of the Arena-Rock Christians (Hillsong) have been prodigious and prolific in their recruitment efforts through the millennia.
Where Proselytization is The Name of The Game
Christianity is, in fact, the largest global religion in terms of both adherents and diaspora for a very simple reason. It has always been about proselytization and conversion. (I am, of course, assuming that in the course of two millennia, a 7-century age difference between it an Islam is not a truly material factor. I could be wrong. But then again, Islam is a proselytizing religion as well. So there’s that.)
Not that any of us were there in the early days, or in the heyday of the Jesuit missions, but we have to assume that it was as potent then as the Evangelical movement and whatever Hillsong purports to be are today. The long and the short of it is that when it comes to publicizing one’s position and drawing over adherents, nobody and nothing holds a candle to Christianity (and Islam). It is the ne plus ultra of converting minds to a particular belief set.
Which brings me back around to the pro-corporatists I mentioned earlier. Without a doubt they—doling out money (as corporations will do when it serves their longer term purpose)—should be at an advantage over a movement that asked for demanded money to participate and belong. They aren’t. But the corporatist track record of convincing the world that its values and needs are everyone’s values and needs (maybe even ahead of everyone else), has been astonishing.
That in major nation-states the law codifies a share capital corporation as a “person” ought to be sufficient proof. If it’s not, then one need only look to how corporations control the political landscape. True, it buys that control with donations and so forth. But that’s not the jaw-dropping part: those who are losing to the corporate gain (i.e., people whose support from its government is withdrawn in favour of billions and billions of dollars worth of support for corporations) support the corporatist position.
If it were only the rubes that are easily convinced to say something stupid for a mock interviewer that put the corporate (or their proxies, the so-called 1%) interest ahead of their own, perhaps it could be laughed off. But it’s not. Were it only those that know which side their artisanal bread is buttered on that put their overlord’s interests ahead of their own, perhaps it could be excused to pocketbook allegiance. But it’s not. The belief is pervasive. Seemingly in good times and bad.
In fact, corporatism is arguably a successful belief system implanted in the broad psyche by a relatively brief (at least as compared to Christianity) effort to proselytize the non-believers. I could go on here, but the point is well made, I think. There will be plenty of time to elaborate.
Feel free to lurk about my “oeuvre” as it were to get a flavour for how the series on Capitalism as Religion is likely to bend some long-standing poles.
Since 2020, I, like everyone else in North America, have been treated to a regular though slowly diminishing force feeding of “news” about the “Lab Leak” source for the COVID pandemic. At first, when it was novel (like the Coronavirus underlying the pandemic), it made me wonder. Today, it makes me wonder—about the people obsessing about it.
The Novel Coronavirus and the Pandemic of the 2020s
A novel coronavirus took hold near Wuhan, China.
It rapidly spread, globally, because of the way modern society transits the planet and the fact that our virginal constitutions, at least with regard to this pathogen, were most hospitable hosts.
The factors beneath this virus’s communicability and mortality led to it being declared a genuine pandemic of concern.
To combat it, humanity in various parts of the world took various measures from the idiotic through to the excessive (and sometimes both together). That these were novel and tentative measures for which efficacy was still to be proven made some sense given the novelty of the situation.
The biological problem turned into a political problem as the underlying virus issues gave way to the social issues surrounding combat measures. This, naturally led to tribal fault lines and the anti-vax movement.
The WHO declares the official pandemic health emergency over. Right or wrong, we’re moving past the emergency posture. But the tribal fault lines remain as does the questioning about the source of the entire episode.
Through this latter period, one vector of attack and mis/dis/genuine information was the source of the virus itself. Did it arise organically as the result of a racoon dog in a wet market in Wuhan or was it a lab leak or was it something more nefarious.
The Source of the Novel Coronavirus
We are an inquisitive species by nature. If we’re that determined to source the origin of the universe BILLIONS of years ago, could anybody expect that we wouldn’t collectively insist on knowing “How this happened?” And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. In some form, most of us know that if you want to prevent the same thing from happening again, if you want to not make the same mistake again, if you want to… it’s important to be clear about the real cause.
In this case, there seems to be at least one naive and two clearly purposeful reasons behind the inquiry. None of which is of particular value to any but those with very particular interests and obligations. Ultimately, the source of the pandemic is a novel coronavirus in the same way that the cause of an ebola outbreak is the ebola virus, of SARS in the early 21st-century, another coronavirus…
This seems to be the broad-based response that perpetuates the interest in the “lab leak.” That ought to be true to officials of research and other containment labs, to public health officials, probably to wildlife officers and various other ecologists in remote parts of the globe—especially those that are now exposing their hidden treasures (more below).
The Pointless Constituency: The General Population
It ought to be mostly satisfactory to the broad population. The cause of our experience is a virus. What does it matter, beyond curiousity, to a house painter or an opinion columnist, what lays as a deeper root cause. Would this information, whether accurate or misguided, have any impact whatsoever on his or her daily life? And what does debating the merits of a theory about the source do for that person? Play out the two basic alternatives: it was or it wasn’t. Will that change the tilt of his or her life in any meaningful way? It is truly mere curiousity, probably combined with tribal weaponization of mis/dis/genuine information.
Alternatively, there are those for whom digging deeper could be more meaningful. The World Health Organization and other national public health administrators. Surely they have greater need for more insight. Probably. And, probably more importantly, they ought to also have more perspective on what that added insight means. That is, what value it contributes to the issue. But do they really?
Why Should They Care?
In the event that there were a similar outbreak and similar situation, would the method of combatting it be different based on knowing it’s origin? For bold relief clarity, if the source were a wet market in a Chinese industrial city v. a isolated tribal village in the centre of the Congo or the Amazon basin v. the top of Mt. McKinley or Mont Blanc? If the core uncertainty is that we’ve never seen this before and we have no further insight into it, does it matter where it came from?
Somewhat less facetiously, whether the novel virus came from a lab or from out of the deepest jungle is also irrelevant without further information. And, it is that further information upon which any kind of meaningful alteration in response action might be based.
The further information is whether the virus is indeed “novel.” Perhaps this usage does not conform with virological definition so let me specific that when I used the word novel, here, I mean have we seen this exact viral strain before and do we know anything about it. Ideally we know things about it that would leapfrog our experimental responses in the wild and allow the response to the pandemic to be more focused. And, ideally, more successful (and shorter).
Presumably, a lab leak of a virus would have this kind of added information load. So it would not be quite as novel. Let me go back to my painter. If this were known, what possible impact could this knowledge and understanding have? To him or her, who stands in as the vast majority of humanity not specifically in the public health (virology, specifically) world, it’s trivia.
Such information, that the source was a lab leak, ought to have significant impact for those public health officials as stated. But, logically, the value of that information does not persist. It diminishes as time passes. As the fight against the virus and the pandemic wears on, the underlying virus becomes less novel. It becomes less relevant where it came from because generations of evolution have turned it into something else. And (and this is the important part), we have more meaningful and valuable insight about the virus problem than any amount of understanding about it in December 2019 or March 2020 much provide. In short, at some point, even for those on the front line of virology and immunology, determining the origin of the virus is ancient history.
Today’s Value of the Lab Leak Determination
Not to diminish but simply to overlook and ignore the value of this inquiry from a tribal, political perspective, there are two constituency that has an ongoing need to know for sure whether there was a lab leak. My painter is nowhere close to either one. (By the way, dear reader, don’t get to fixated on the “painter” as a painter. As I’ll explain later, it’s a broad-based stand-in.)
The Primary Constituency: Public Health Administrators
The first constituency that should know that there was a lab leak is the community of administrators and operators of similar containment facilities. In this case it’s so-called level 4 virus containment laboratories, but it could be study spaces for bacteria or any other biological or non-biological pathogenic research. If what’s being studied is inherently dangerous to humanity if it is not engaged with through strict protection protocols, arguably it would qualify. So, atomic experimentation fits. But it seems the focus should be on pathogens that can be extremely destructive to humanity without human help. More or less, we’re talking about biological pathogens.
This constituency deserves to know if for no other reason that to understand and remedy similar conditions in their own facilities. Strengthening protocols to prevent leaks and so forth would be a good outcome—obviously, IF there were a leak. Good faith errors happen. When the consequences can be so extremely bad, it makes sense to ensure there are fail-safes, buffers, and other backstops. What if this were the first virus to develop the ability to evade all such defences in some “novel” way? Again, knowing and understanding—and sharing—this information is to the good of humanity, full stop.
The Secondary Constituency: Governments (Including Defence, Military, and Public Safety)
All this is good and well. It represents the valid ethical and humanitarian reasons for searching out the source or cause of the virus entering our human biosphere and doing its damage. And, as I’ve stated, there is at least one good reason why determining a lab leak was the cause—and hence a lab—was the source of the novel coronavirus. It is, of course, not nearly the end of the story.
One way or another, sometimes only whispered because saying it out loud is diplomatically charged at best and racist at worst, the real reason EVERYONE is so interested in whether a lab leak is behind this is not the “leak” part, but the “lab” part. The point of the lab leak hysteria is whether there was a Chinese lab involved. More specifically, was a Chinese lab purposefully holding this virus in the Wuhan lab (that the origin is Wuhan, at least, is beyond dispute)? And did the virus “leak” from that lab?
Leak is a funny word in this situation. It’s banal obvious meaning is that perhaps through error or for any other of a hundred reasons, the virus being contained simply “got away.” Kind of like a lion escaping from a zoo. Maybe a keeper left the gate unlocked; maybe years of rain and heat corroded some part of the enclosure. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that (a) there was a lion there and (b) it got out.
The constituents in the heading are interested first in confirmation that this otherwise unknown virus was or was not known to “the enemy.” Let’s assume that’s proven, which in that world can mean anything from it is a very strong rumour that everyone feels good about through to there is absolutely unimpeachable, conclusive proof.
Once that has been “established,” a number of further allegations can be supported in a way. First, they “had” and knew about a novel virus that they kept from “us.” Obviously (natch!) this can only mean that they were seeking to use it as a biological weapon directly or as a stepping stone to something more deadly.
Such labs are known to perform gain of function experimentation. We do it for obviously good reasons. But maybe they were doing it for obviously(!) nefarious reasons. Either way, we obviously didn’t know about it. So, if we can establish there was a lab leak, then we know they were doing something and can focus attention on where they might have been going.
Even if we can’t prove “they” were doing something nefarious, we know that (a) they were being secretive and (b) they’re sloppy. In either case, we have a Western feel-good narrative. But wait, what if the nefariousness were not merely in what was going on inside and a mistake? What if the “leak” (see, I told you “leak” is a great word in this situation.) were purposeful? What if the pathogen’s release were not accidental but meant? What if the zookeeper wasn’t actually a little doddering but, in fact, left the gate open to see how many children the lion would eat before it were caught?
Speculation. Leave It For The Speculators
Who knows? Who cares? The point I’ve been trying to make is that it doesn’t really matter to the vast majority of us that neither administer public health facilities such as containment labs nor tread in the international diplomatic/military waters.
Sure, maybe my painter (who could be a divorce lawyer, dentist, accountant, investment banker, car detailer….) has some kind of morbid fascination with such things because he or she doesn’t have enough to do, a good family life, or an interesting hobby. But to get riled up by politicians and media using this as something to further deepen the chasm between political tribes is a little silly.
This aging red herring is almost certainly being poked to stink as a distraction from what’s important and to lend urgency to what’s not.
ethics, politics, societyComments Off on Easily digestible conspiracy and pseudo-insight: strong misdirection?
Misdirection. A few days ago something exploded over the Kremlin. It was such an elaborate pantomime of an attack that only the willful, gullible, or compelled would not make common league with the conspiracists to consider the whole episode remarkable bullshit.
That Russia immediately took to its airwaves and any other channel that would sustain its message to say that it was a drone attack intended to kill Putin was the next proof point. One could argue that is a reasonable thing to allege in the circumstance. But, of course, it was conveniently—literally out of the blue—the doing of Ukraine apparently.
That kind of sealed the deal that it was likely a “false flag,” given that it had never even come close to happening in the past and that as the Ukrainian leader said, they don’t have enough ammunition to waste in defence of their territory. Why would they waste drones on an inevitably futile gesture? It beggars belief. Then, when that didn’t really stick the Russians took another tack: it was the United States (through Ukraine).
My usual response to ALL the idiotic allegations of “false flags” that have erupted in the past 6-years in the United States, is to roll my eyes. But in this case, it’s hard not to firmly believe that’s exactly what we’re witnessing.
But this is not my real point.
My point, as the title of the post would suggest, is that in all the shouting about false flags and injection of “false facts”, the simplest answer is to follow Occam and conclude there are a lot of idiots with the opportunity to spew their stupidity far and wide. And, when stupid meets up with stupid, it multiplies. It’s probably the right answer.
But what if it’s not the right answer. What if the answer is more sinister? What if there are, in this equation, some rational actors that are being “underhanded” (for lack of better word)? What if there’s a conspiracy about conspiracies?
“WTF are you talking about?” You might ask. Fair enough.
I could just as easily have focused this post on my second analog: magic. A false flag has a different intent and extent might be different, but ultimately these are of a kind. Let’s stick to magic and more particularly to illusion.
There is typically nothing “magical” about magic. It is nothing(!) but the rigorous and directed application of physical and psychological conditions, constraints, and phenomena to achieve goals that somehow seem miraculous or impossible or, at the very least, improbable. That’s it.
A magician will use our brains against us including how it process the stimulus of light (I.e., vision). Magicians play with perspective. Our brains will attribute importance to things seen recently, more frequently, for which they have been “primed,” or longer. Magicians “force” card choices in this way. Some magicians—commonly known as “mentalists—use the same and other techniques to convince you that they have extrasensory powers and such.
Magicians, mentalists, and so many other persuaders (like lawyers, priests, reporters, analysts, executives, etc., etc.) use one technique more frequently and often than others. That technique is misdirection. We are all such frequent targets of it that it’s a wonder it continues to escape us. (And, by the way, when I say “us,” I’m not being falsely inclusive. The fact of that matter is that EVERYONE, irrespective of experience, education, raw cognitive or emotional intelligence, is at one time or another, with greater or lesser credulity and frequency, a (willing) victim of misdirection.)
As it’s name would suggest, the point of misdirection is to get the target person to focus on something else. (It’s important to understand that when a human focuses on something, everything else goes out of focus—to the point of being ignoring or overlooking a guy in a gorilla suit walking right in front of you.) In the service of the magician, the point is to make sure you aren’t watching too closely when (s)he palms the coin or such contrivance that is decidedly NOT magical. Politicians and advocates will emphasis something to get you to ignore another (probably damning) thing.
This post is about conspiracy theories, false flags, alternative facts, and all the other forms of wasteful attention-sucking misdirection that is going on in the world—especially in social media. It’s actually not that far removed from the theme and plot of many sci-fi stories: how the dupes are tricked into focusing on something silly while the “overlords” have their way. Or, getting closer to home, maybe watch the movie Wag the Dog. The boldness of the relief used in art, however, usually makes the premise ridiculous.
But isn’t there something just a little too on-point about the concept?
Why is it that when, more often than once daily in the United States, people (children! in schools!) are killed or injured en masse with a firearm, the usual suspects from the NRA and the GOP appear to redirect everyone’s attention to the Constitutional right to bear arms? (Like somehow the right to have firearms is related to the right to pull the trigger and kill… and all the logic that leads from possession to death…)
Why is it that when a Hollywood icon is proven out as a racist, misogynist, paedophile, or what have you, suddenly (with rare exception) talk immediately shifts to the value of “the art”?
Why is it that politicians and political parties and hypocrites (but I repeat myself) are caught up in their own lies and reversals, the focus immediately turns to something else? Pro tip: if the issue is small, widen the focus; it it’s broad, focus on the particular. Or, in the words of advice given to every second year law student: “When the facts are with you, pound on the facts. When the law is with you, pound on the law. When neither is with you, pound on the table.
I don’t care about the answer to any one of these questions. They are merely representative of the larger question that we all ought to recognize and expose. And that question is not about the direct nefarious reason for it (“…false flag”) or its truth or falsity (“check the facts”).
The question to ask is what else is going on that this person/organization wants us to miss? Why are these events or arguments going on? Why are these idiotic “facts” or what-have-you being sprayed out into our perceptual field like attack countermeasures from the back of an airplane or submarine?
Because we can only focus on one thing at a time, what is it that we’re supposed to not see?
Maybe it’s just magic; a form of entertainment. And it will evaporate. But that’s the risk we have to take. Because it could just as easily be something serious.
ethics, societyComments Off on “Everybody Lies” — But normalizing it is wrong
Politicians lie. Trump lies. Criminals lie. But now I’m repeating myself. The point is that lying is human and it wouldn’t be central to every single ethos since the species became social if it weren’t. The quotation, however, come out of the mouth of fictional doctor Gregory House—itself… a lie, of a sort.
Oh the Lies, they are a changin’
Maybe it’s the excess or, if not excess certainly exuberance of the the lying going on in the first quarter of the 21st-century. Maybe the sheer volume and velocity of lying going on; maybe it’s the shamelessness and hypocrisy. Something has, however, triggered attention to be especially intensely directed toward lying. Even if the lying is banal or not even there, we see it. Some of us are creating conspiracies out of phantom lying. (Or maybe it’s real lying but merely pales by comparison to what we see every single day from those in positions of trust. There’s usually a pretty reasonable core to every conspiracy theory. )
But let’s get back to lying. There can be no doubt that it is capturing our attention. Media “Pinocchios” and flagrant political/corporate liars abound. Whether that is representative of anything more than that class of people (and by class I do not mean socio-economic, only “cluster”) is unclear. Though there is certainly a lot of evidence in “exaggerated” social media posts to suggest that the problem is wider spread.
I will concede that it is entirely possible there may not be a widespread lying problem. It could be that the big lies (not just The Big Lie) are overrepresented and the vast majority do not actively create, generate, and propagate their own lies over and above what has been typical and normal through human history. In conceding this though, there is no accounting at all for the obvious gullibility and rampant willingness for people to believe the lies they are told and repeat them.
I’m sure it’s splitting hairs to prosecute them as liars and conveniently unnecessary since they are fools and maybe idiots anyway. And, in point of fact, could be liars in their own right in a much smaller arena that doesn’t grab wide attention—probably because they’re not placed appropriately for it to be seen. (I’m still going with fools and idiots. I’m a believer in Occam’s Razor.)
There are a lot of cognitive biases in play for anybody (and by “anybody”, I mean practically “everybody”) focusing on how much lying is going on. Despite the fact that it may have always been that way, we may be noticing it as a result of thinking errors like:
Confirmation bias — we see what we want to see and what supports our conclusion. More people are lying, we believe, so we notice more lying.
Base Rate fallacy — Essentially thinking the specific is the norm. We have noticed a lot of lying going on, so we jump to the conclusion that this is the broad norm: everyone is lying a lot and egregiously.
Illicit Transference — Applying the specific to the general and vice versa. Together with our base rate misunderstanding, we attribute specific (Ted Cruz) to the norm.
Frequency illusion — Once you notice something, it’s everywhere. The volume and voracity of lying from some parts is front of mind, so now we see it in everyone.
So, there are reasons in our heads. BUT, it’s not all in our heads.
Everybody lies. I lie.
Sometimes its banal, like when I say, “Doing great,” in response to the obligatory, “How’re you doing?” greeting instead of getting into my prevailing concerns or woes. Sometimes it’s significant but I weigh the lie as better than the alternative. There is absolutely no win in telling your spouse, “No, I think those pants make your ass look extra wide.” Nor is there any real point in pointing out to your child that his rendering of his recital piece made dogs howl. Just say it’s great, go for ice cream, and move on.
Some lies are obviously wrong in every respect, not least in law. Fibbing during sworn testimony is plain wrong. It is unredeemable lying. And could land you in jail. Even if you get away with it in the moment, the truth will out eventually. For those who are religious, I’ll point out that lying to God or God’s representative on earth is also a very strict no-no.
Between these extremes are shades of gray(son). It is here that theologians, philosophers, ethicists, lawyers, and so many others can wile away their days. And to what end? It is extremely unlikely that a definitive rule can or will be set. If for no other reason than the lying is contextual and other values come into play. It is almost certain that any choice on lying will end up bumping into and having a significant impact on some other (possibly moral) matter. (Is a “negligable”—in the sense of nobody being materially harmed—lie, in the service of a greater good, righteous?) This warrants a separate thought; let’s explore righteous lies just a bit.
By the transparency zeitgeist motivations and demands for personal freedom and uninhibited knowledge of everything, a national leader that makes a decision to keep something secret is hunted down politically at least and pilloried. After all (s)he knew and kept it from us, and lied about knowing it, and well, we really wanted to know because, we have freedom and agency and the right to know and… You get the idea.
If that secret saved thousands of lives, kept the economy stable, and let the country or the world get about its business was it worth it? Just because a relatively few wanted to know and felt that they should be part of the “need to know” crowd, but the vast majority didn’t need to know, wouldn’t know what to do when they found out, and knowing or not knowing made no difference to them anyway, does that make radical transparency alright? Does it make the lie less righteous?
This is territory that the vast majority of the population is ill equipped to trek. What the vast majority ought to be interested in is whether lies affect them (negatively) and what that does to their level of trust in the teller of those lies.
The real concern ought not to be on whether somebody is lying any more than on whether (s)he is speaking English, French, or Mandarin. It is something to be accepted, embraced, understood, and evaluated. That allows attention to be put on the purpose. What is the purpose and the outcome? Is the lie told to take unfair advantage? Is it to save another’s feelings? Is it for the benefit of the teller or someone else? Does it break the law? Does it do harm? If you swing that way, does it break a Covenant with your Lord?
We’re too focused on the lying and paying insufficient attention to the reasons and outcome.
None of which is to let the big orange Pinocchio off the hook for his LIFETIME of lying. It is to say that after so many years, we know it’s a lie. We (and by “we” I mean those who are followers) need to look at the end for which lying was the means. In his personal life, in his business life, in his sporting life, in his political life. In all these ways and for all these purposes the lying was for self-dealing and illegal, unfair advantage.
Enough said. Everybody lies. (Some more than others.)
For more thoughts and ideas check both other posts and my oeuvre.
societyComments Off on Let’s Think This Through: Do we really want to destress teenagers?
The Ontario government may be open for business but it’s not helping prepare Ontario youth for the working world. One example is the move to eliminate final exams as a requirement to pass any courses. Apparently final exams take too much of a toll on the teenage psyche.
The mothers at the table next to us in the ski lodge were having none of it. “It’s too stressful? LIFE is stressful…”
They’re right, of course. And not just because they were probably using it as cover for wanting their kids in school studying and writing the exam just that little bit longer. They’re right because the benefits to the child (to the extent there are any) are immediate and personal while the harm is delayed and societal as well.
But is it the kids or us that is to blame? Maybe “the call is coming from inside the house.”
In a microcosm I, too, have been guilty of not putting more pressure on my child. (And, by contemporary standards, my child’s experience was pretty demanding unless the standard is that of an abandoned inner-city child fighting out of poverty. In which case, my child loses… by a lot.) It make me, certainly, feel good to bat away some of the harder things I had to deal with and learn from in my youth. It feels good to let my child benefit from some of what it took me a lifetime of experience and effort to gain–be that monetary or moral… or mere fortitude.
Sadly, it was probably more to my benefit than my child’s. But I take solace in knowing that relative to peers my child is far more “worldly” in a fundamental way. Even though the bar appears to be a lot lower than when I was a youth.
Tempering: it’s not just for steel and glass
I presume everyone knows that “tempered glass” or “tempered steel” is harder and more durable.
If it works for knife blades and diving mask glass (and shower doors), why would we not apply that same logic to education and development of people. I can’t be the only one that has heard the adage that “Tough times don’t last; tough people do.” How exactly do people get “tough.” Is it genetic and if you weren’t born with it you’ll never have it, so we (as an education system) are loathe to challenge you?
Children are naturally resilient. Why do we insist on sponging that out of them? Wouldn’t it be better to build (or “nurture”) those natural tendencies to make more resilient, and mentally capable/durable adults? Isn’t it sufficiently proven over millennia that those qualities are selected naturally through the generations?
In any case, let’s attempt a simple pros/cons assessment.
Benefits of Structurally “Destressing” High Schoolers’ Lives
To be clear, this is only about limiting, if not eliminating final exams. It does not contemplate the many other ways that we avoid teaching the next generation. Usually these techniques are given cover under the aegis of “modern” teaching or “experiential” learning. I’m referring to not compelling a student to perform at a chalkboard (whiteboard) because of the anxiety, to not compelling memorization of multiplication tables even to 10; to not addressing or focusing on fundamentals of language and mathematics. All to the extent that there seems to be nobody under the age of 45 that can estimate change at a retail counter or tabulate a 15% tip in their head.
High self-esteem – This personal plus is the unblemished self-esteem of naivety. If we don’t have to endure the exam that’s good. To be unaware of how we might fare is bliss.
Less supervisory work – This is a personal benefit to the teacher or proctors. If some students write the exam, it’s a truly marginal gain though since supervision is required anyway—only for fewer students
Less marking work – Again, for the teacher, saved time accrues because the time needed to mark an exam is freed. Both this and exam creation, let alone supervision, can be a 100% gain to the teacher if/when the exam is completely abolished.
No dread and stress leading up to the exam – For the student, this gain benefits the individual’s mental well being, freeing up capacity to be concerned about important things like the state of social engagement.
Parents narrowly and society more broadly don’t have to endure angst-ridden teens complaining about how “ridiculous” and “unfair” having to write a final exam that tests knowledge of the whole course, and (of course) how hard it is on them.
Costs of Structurally “Destressing” High Schoolers’ Lives
On the other side of the ledger, there are costs—most of which will not be revealed for years or decades.
A generation of innumerates and illiterates – This is both a personal and societal cost that I’ve noted above. Of course, not everyone will be so, but the entire enterprise of a basic education that would bulge the middle of the capabilities normal curve is being decimated. The curve is likely to regress to a more U-shaped one with those (many) who are falling behind and those (fewer) that are both relatively and maybe empirically gaining ground. The impact here will be to all aspects of a more riven society: political, economic, social/community… At a personal level, those who would be in the middle will be in a middle that is at the bottom.
A generation wholly unprepared to deal with life – This is arguably the point of the ladies lunching at the ski hill. If we aren’t prepared to put this controlled level of stress on students as part of their education about numbers and letters—with its knock-on effects on resilience, durability, (time) prioritization, perspective (on relative importance and so forth), is it reasonable to expect that when these baby birds are released from the nest they will magically have those capacities. Do we believe it’s instinctual? This very real personal and societal impact should be a concern to everyone. It’s outcome would be general regression and the juvenilization of the nation.
A society where the blind lead the blind—or where the one-eyed (wo)man is king/queen – Today we can always count on an old fogie, who had been forced to stay in school and held back grades until (s)he passed with required knowledge, to step in as necessary. That level of knowledge and information provided a higher baseline and bar for leaders to exceed. So they did. Years ago that meant there were a lot of “adults in the room” for serious discussion. More serious discussion had even more serious and more educated adults. Anybody notice that happens less frequently these days?
Are national competitors gaining ground in this respect? – This is definitely a societal impact and one I can only speculate on because I have no interest in finding out what is happening around the world. But, and I know I’m going out on a limb here, I would bet that Asian nations are being a little more forceful about fully educating and preparing their youth. (And not, I really don’t want to get into a debate about the morality or philosophy that’s being imparted. I’m referring only to numbers, letters, and “stressors” to help prepare youth for independent adulthood.
Well, I seem to land decidedly on the side of applying some degree of stress. In school, there is nothing that could be deemed a life-threatening level of stress. (At least not in Canada; the USA is another matter, but that has nothing to do with curriculum.) Nothing that a healthy child should not have to face, will overcome, and will be a better adult for it.
On that basis, precious little recommends the alternative.
Radical transparency is in demand; that much is obvious. Anti-vaxxers and the “Fredum” thugs, anti-business anti-government anti-[insert what bugs you here] and conspiracy theorists all demand greater transparency just in case (or because) somebody’s trying to pull one over on us.
Of course, none of them actually believes the information provided. So there’s that.
Transparency is the new black
I got to thinking about this again seeing Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene reveal classified information during a public committee meeting. Her unabashed reasoning was that she thought Americans should know [operational boarder information]… On another front, I’ve been seeing a lot of Sarah Kendzior’s book, They Knew (mostly as she promotes it). I believe—as I haven’t read the book—her theme is: you’re not paranoid if they’re really out to get you, and I have the receipts. By her reckoning, there are provable (government) conspiracies in the USA with different, complicit participants in each instance. The conclusion is apparently that (a) “they” knew a tragedy was coming and (b) it was largely to “their” gain and at “your” cost.
I’m not a fan of either. It goes without saying there will always be groups with privileged information they keep to themselves. In business, it’s called “trade secrets.” Investors hoard and use information for trading advantage and profit. In affairs of state there are countless reasons for keeping things opaque, shall we say. Military and defense activities among an alliance, such as NATO, is a good example. Justice is another.
There are good reasons for this behaviour, which is perfectly reasonable and normal. Besides, information typically requires context to be meaningful and tracts of it requires skills, training, and comprehension that eludes most of those “doing their own research.”
(Valuable) Information can resemble a Rorschach blot: (a) sure to be misunderstood; (b) revealing more about its analyst than the underlying subject; and (c) raw material to manufacture disinformation—rarely for a good purpose.
Secrecy, Conspiracy, Collusion…
Information itself and conspiring to hold it from others is not in and of itself untoward. It can be sane and sensible. We can’t all be polymaths and expert at every esoteric area of expertise. (Except, of course, Elon Musk and Donald Trump.) We don’t all have a direct say in how the government operates. We get our say periodically to elect representatives to represent us. We certainly get no say in the human resources and processes by which modern states operate any more than one-share stockholders can demand a say in corporate structure and operations. It has never happened before; it will not happen now, and; it will not happen in the future.
The division of labour, a foundational Capitalist principle, compels us for efficiency and effectiveness to leave tasks and the necessary carrying out of those tasks, including choices about information (disclosure), to nominated or designated people.
This bedrock principle upon which the Western, democratic world (and arguably every other part of the world) bases itself and its affairs is dependent on one of two things. In North America anyway, these are rapidly changing.
The first is trust the second is fear. Fear, in this context, is much to fraught to tackle here, so let’s focus on trust. In a social context this is trust in institutions and the people that populate, particularly lead them. Social trust is in tatters on its way to being shredded.
For some justifiable reasons, the populous has lost trust in the institutions of government and the representative politicians (of the other tribe). In the USA, the political tribes have fully separated and certainly the Republican party has done everything it can to actively drive mistrust of not only Democrats but government in general.
Side note: Probably because it spends much more and has accumulated better PR, “business” luxuriates in higher levels of social trust. This is bizarre when a substantive record of how and why trusting “business” has failed the masses. But, whatever.
Absent trust, credibility is an early relationship casualty so every institutional error is perceived as having ulterior motive. That leads to genuine withholding of information for good reasons. Thus the doom cycle commences and continues.
Sometimes it behooves leaders of all sorts—business, government, families—to withhold information for the broadest benefit of the whole. Using a tired philosophical saw, yelling “fire” in a crowded auditorium results in pandemonium. People—in herds—responding to information they may not understand or have the tools to effectively address, are known to panic… regularly. The crowd will stampede and many will not make it out.
(This used to be axiomatic: given today’s level of “doing my own research” rejection of authority, who knows how many would rampage—perhaps for altogether different reasons—anticipating more palatable facts to surface.) A leader may not mention the fire, using a ruse or some other oblique rationale for orderly withdrawal. More people are unharmed. Is that so bad?
Transparency on what’s more cancerous than benign: Corruption
One of those justifiable reasons for trust diminishing I mentioned earlier is the overwhelming evidence of corruption and (their tribe’s, of course) self-dealing. Withholding information, even as a syndicate, should be expected. What may also be expected but is definitely beyond the pale is self-dealing, benefitting unjustly, and harming others—those others who have given their faith to the “good faith” of those empowered. (Let’s also not restrict ourselves to politicians and governments; this applies to businesses and other organizations be they charities or labour unions or…)
We have stumbled into the area of corruption, not conspiracy or secrecy or withholding information. The legal phrasing generally contains, “…conspiracy to….” The word “to”—not “conspiracy”—is the operative one here. The conspiracy part merely refers to a group; “to” leads to a crime.
The issue is not conspiring or colluding or anything else until they become instrumental to implementing and executing a crime. At this point the rabble rousing and transparency demanding has a crisis: the choice forces many to create the artifice of crime out of whole cloth.
When bankers, oil & gassers, other industrialists and oligopolists collude to maximize movement of wealth from the masses to the few, that warrants uprising. When chemical companies conspire to influence regulation or cover-up lethal toxic impacts of their making to avoid culpability, that might warrant pitchforks. When the government and the political leaders (of their tribe) self-deal by pocketing hundreds of thousands or billions of dollars by virtue of their privilege, that warrants blowback.
Competent, employed professionals entrusted with a particular division of labour, making good-faith decisions for the greatest good based on imperfect and shifting information, probably is not. Certainly anyone or any organization holding operational information without a criminal intent has no obligation to disclose all of it just because “one shareholder” wants to see it. Even government bodies.
If there is a crime at hand, pursue the crime. Prove it. There are rules for information disclosure with provable probability of crime. (Caveat: Just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean it’s a crime. Corrollary: Just because you do like something doesn’t mean it it isn’t a crime. You know who I’m talking about.)
Incidentally, Sarah, none of this suggests or recommends NOT being vigilant about potential crimes—especially coups d’état, which are inarguably social harms… and crime. But yeah, “they” probably or maybe definitely knew! They’re there and you’re not. And Marjorie: some things don’t need to be radically transparent just because you—loosely said—think so.
Why are good ideas perverted, leaving an ineradicable bad condition?
This is an update to the post only to serve as a pointer to a genuine journalist who is on the same track and published very soon after this was posted. Ezra Klein’s Times piece, “This Changes Everything” (NYT 12/3/23) is well worth the read.
Name one “wonder” technology that wasn’t brought into the world on the crest of great promise of only good things that wasn’t quickly exploited for much less glorious purposes. It’s hard.
Imagination gets perverted
The printing press certainly opened knowledge to the masses, yet it was but a small hop to printed propaganda. Firearms probably were sold as the defensive equalizer, and … (Oh who’s kidding whom: firearms always had only one purpose: maybe noble, even necessary, but rarely “for good.”) What about social media? (cellular) telephony? the Internet itself? All wonders. Or crypto-currency? No, forget it. Again, there is really one purpose and value—and it’s not any sort of societal, human advance.
All were sold based on how they would enhance society or address unscratched itches, blah, blah, blah. To a one, each is non-trivially corrosive. They are technology lye: useful but will eat the skin right from your bones.
Wonders or not, the genie’s out of the bottle. So there’s no point in pretending it could be otherwise. More than that, it would never be otherwise. We are an imaginative and creative species. We will explore, discover, invent, and innovate. All of which will always be sold on the basis of the great good they can do because we are generally an acquisitive and ambitious species.
I’ve been talking to (smart) people about this for a while. What is almost never given adequate attention is the “malevolent imagination.” That is, the highly creative counterpoint to beneficent creativity. It exists. We see examples in every movie, novel, or other story featuring an evil mastermind. Some of us, within the fantasy of the story, admire the way the author has taken what we know as good and turned it to something bad. (It’s like how I admire a good burglar.) Even if it comes dangerously close to the loopier territory of conspiracy and conspiracy theory.
Why isn’t such innate creative talent put to better use at the birth of these wonderous technologies? Why isn’t there considerably more open evaluation and understanding of new technology exploitation? At the very least it would create a richer appreciation for the technology and its potential—a boon for the innovator and promoter.
More important here, it would identify where caution should be taken and attention paid for the general good. For example, why is it that only with AI have many of the brightest minds come forward to say, “Hey, slow down. This could be really dangerous…?” Were they the only once primed by Terminator 2?
I am in no way suggesting that technology innovation should stop or even be curtailed (mostly). I am saying that there are an awful lot of stupid people that will amplify and push a technology because they are not clever enough to see the hazards. Even more people may see it but, frankly, don’t care because in the short term anyway, it’s valuable (to them).
So it’s incumbent on the relatively few remaining—so vastly outnumbered—to sway the rules of the game to account for these contingencies and risks. Even if they do not succeed in the short run, wouldn’t it be great to be aware of what could happen? What the warning signs might be, and what correctives could be applied? As in everything: forewarned is forearmed.
This thought is about the malevolent imagination. It exists and like the technologies identified, is neither good nor bad. In some circumstances, coupled to a IGNOBLE heart, it lends itself to the “evil mastermind.”
But what of the malevolent imagination attached a NOBLE heart? (It’s probably easier to think of this as partners rather than an individual; though it makes more sense in an individual.) In its most virtuous sense, the noble heart might ensure a dangerous technology were stillborn because of the terrible future the malevolent imagination sketched. Probably that only delays the inevitable. But having bought only some time, the noble heart could prepare countermeasures.
What if Oppenheimer’s later regrets were manifest globally prior to the atomic bomb’s development? More proximately, what if one saw the blindingly obvious eventuality of the attack/defense arms race of cybercrime or how “freedom of speech” becomes license to anonymous libel and extreme incivility in a global town square? Would the Internet or social media never happen? Would that particular path be erased?
Not in the least. But it is possible that we all might have given clearer thought to prophylactic measures viz. cybersecurity or time to take action to ford up civil connection at every level as a vaccine to the coming decadent societal impacts.
Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do that thing. Fording up social trust, reinvigorating morality or some other ethic may have been the bulwark. It may have worked. It may have had ripple effects. But these are different times.
Still, as a red team or by whatever name you choose, going dark early could be the only way to preserve the light.
If you’re intrigued, there’s plenty more to make you think about creativity and other things in my oeuvre.
So apparently scientists at Lawrence Livermore Lab, in California, managed a fusion reaction that generated net energy–that is, more energy than went into generating the reaction. There was 3.15 megajoules energy output from the 2.05 megajoules that were input by the laser to fuse the atoms. Of course, the laser drew 300 megajoules to initiate the process. Still, it’s an huge development with the potential—in 30-50 years—to provide unlimited, non-carbon energy.
I’m of two minds on this.
On the one hand, I am amazed by the creativity and persistence that led to this. It may be a solution to our carbon-created climate problem. Which leads me to the second hand…
Way more climate change resisters were not denying the problem and maybe not even the unfortunate end-state to which it would inevitably lead than there were denying the situation. (Our focus has mainly been on the deniers. This is, in retrospect stupid because they are idiots.) And this only lends strength to their underlying belief that science will solve the problem. In other words, the vast majority of those opposed to the “climate change movement” were not denying it so much as they were blithely ignoring it because (a) any climate remedying action would negatively impact their economics or comfort or both, and (b) somebody (aka science) would come to the rescue.
My issue with this is that it’s kind of a weak argument and not a guarantee. Maybe this path of fusion energy will help us dodge this bullet. (Maybe. Jury’s still out. And there’s that little unknown about the timing of the solution…) But eventually there will, in fact, be a problem that science will NOT be able to come riding to the rescue like a white night to our civilizational damsel in distress.
“Whom the gods want to destroy, they send 50 years of good luck.” Your mileage may vary.
Something prompted me yesterday to dig into the “red pill” phenomenon that is at the root of just about all social upheaval in (at least) North America. In my imagination, I was going to deconstruct the ridiculousness and inconsistency of those who use this shorthand to justify their antisocial positions. I was going to spend some time considering how it is decontextualized even from the movie universe in which it arose. Then I remembered, It’s FICTION. MADE UP. LOGICALLY ATTUNED TO ITS OWN ILLOGICAL CONTEXT. It doesn’t matter how much one points out the flaws in raise it–even as shorthand for some kind of awakening and realization–it will remain a useful tool in the hands of idiots. That was it: “idiots.” And I moved on to another stream of thought.