Catch-22: A Masterpiece by Joseph Heller

WARNING! This post is an analysis and celebration of Joseph Heller’s novel, Catch-22, and it DOES contain PLOT SPOILERS. If you wish to read the novel for the first time, do not read this post.

“Give the first twelve chapters a chance” has long been my advice to anyone who asks about Catch-22, Joseph Heller’s modernist masterpiece that critiques the absurdity of the military during wartime. If you haven’t read the book, I will hardly spoil things by explaining how eagerly we witless first-timers set out to read such a lauded modern classic, only to be confronted by what might be the most frustrating paragon of show-versus-tell in existence. (However, I will be discussing spoiler details from here on, so be warned.) From the seemingly disparate chapter titles to the disjointed narrative, which repeatedly folds back upon itself, from a maddeningly mirthful plot device, which tempts you to toss the book aside and deny its existence, to an irresolute closing – if you make it that far – the book continually challenges readers to deduce what’s happening and piece together what’s happened. Toss in what seems like an endless cadre of characters, ranging from odder to oddest to perhaps not so odd, the book is a challenge, no question.

For seven years, I assigned this book as summer reading for returning seniors. Oh, how the students complained about those twelve chapters – excessive! pointless! irritating! – only to feel more aggrieved at hearing, “Exactly,” my necessary reply. Once the venting subsided – usually at least half the first lesson – we’d begin discussing why Heller’s book could only be written this way as compared to some more conventional, accessible way.

For one thing, we need to meet the protagonist, Yossarian, and understand his circumstances so that, at appropriate upcoming times, which of course will have already occurred, we won’t criticise but will instead favour him. To this end, the entire story is told out-of-sequence, opening apparently in media res during Yossarian’s hospital stay. We have character introductions and letter censoring, foreshadowing how words and language will be manipulated while characters will be isolated, alienated, and demeaned. Subsequently, we learn the logic of Catch-22 from Doc Daneeka. And that Snowden dies. If we’ve navigated the twelve opening chapters and lived to tell about it, we learn that Yossarian, originally a young, excited airman, once needed two passes over a target in order to bomb it successfully, which gets his crewmember, Kraft, killed. Yossarian is further distressed upon returning when he receives a medal for the mission. Meanwhile, Milo opens his syndicate. The tension of tedium, the injustice of fortune. The folly of command, the depravity of humankind. Capping the story is the gruesome account of Snowden’s death, the key incident that incites Yossarian’s fear and lands him in hospital, where we first meet him – naturally, Heller waits until the end to tell us the beginning.

Heller writes with an absurd, illogical narrative style that characterises Yossarian’s internal eternal predicament, wending its way through isolation, alienation, discord, misery, paranoia, fear, senselessness, deception, vice, cruelty, even rape and murder. Catch-22 being what it is, its victims have zero-chance to overcome because the antagonists are permitted to do whatever the protagonists are unable to prevent. All along the way, Heller has Yossarian wanting out of the military (fly no missions = live), and he continually ups the ante between Yossarian and all the disturbing confrontations and contradictions that antagonise him, from his enemies and his commanders to his acquaintances and his comrades. But ultimately, and most potently, he has Yossarian suffering from his own self-interest. As the narrative flits and tumbles about, in its own progressive way, Yossarian’s self-interest evolves or, better to say, devolves. What does evolve, inversely to self-interest, is his compassion as he gradually grows more concerned for the men in his squadron, and which by Chapter 40, “Catch-22,” has extended to all innocent people beset by oppression, prejudice, and exploitation. So when Colonel Cathcart’s promised deal to send him home safely, definitely, comes ironically (fittingly!) at the expense of the squadron, Yossarian ultimately recovers enough self-reliance to overcome his personal anguish but not enough to remand himself to the cycle of absurdity. Given Heller’s dispersed timeline, describing Yossarian’s character development as a narrative arc or an evolution is less accurate than the piecing together of a jigsaw or the unveiling of a secret.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Yossarian’s instinct for self-preservation is the source of his personal torment. His despondency and disgust over the preponderance of all human self-interest finally turn Yossarian’s decision to go AWOL, at criminal risk but personal safety. That such a climax works is because readers – like Yossarian – are no longer fighting back but giving in, yet even then Heller offers no respite – the story ends ambiguously, leaving readers to satisfy their own vexation. Even so, I suspect that Heller appreciated John Chancellor’s life-imitating-art intiative as one inspired by more than a spirit of fandom. So where some characters have been subjects of compassion, others agents of absurdity, readers’ resultant responses have also undergone a perfectly natural evolution, mirroring Yossarian’s character development and culminating with his terrifying walk through Rome. The horrors of “The Eternal City,” in this light, are not only an essential but an inevitable piece in Heller’s plan.

Yossarian’s shall-we-say militant decision to desert is borne of Snowden’s ugly death during the Avignon mission, only a week after the death of Kraft and the award of Yossarian’s medal. Seeing Snowden’s innards spilling rudely from his body nauseates Yossarian and haunts him throughout the entire (or, from Yossarian’s perspective, for the rest of) the story. Yossarian, inset by Heller on behalf of soldiers as a protagonist, has no way of making things better. His futile effort at comfort, “There, there” (p. 166), is comically insincere for its honest helplessness, an understated shriek from all soldiers continually sent to face death – not death without context but without resonance. However, for Yossarian and his comrades, the context of sacrifice is all too irrationally clear: thanks very much. Catch-22. Soldiers face the dilemma of following orders that entirely devalue their very existence.

Participation as a soldier offends Yossarian to the core, yet it also helps him to reconcile his fear over death: “… man is matter,” finite, mortal and – without spirit – simply “garbage.” In fact, this sentence sums human worth as a blunt statement: “The spirit gone, man is garbage” (p. 440). Six words of sad, harsh consequence, war, no longer wearing a comic mask. The absolute phrase, a terse syntactical effect, annuls man’s significance – spirited briefly, gone abruptly, an empty corporeal body left over, garbage. Garbage is a harsh image – rotting flesh, buzzing flies, scum, residue, stench. Pessimism, cynicism, worthlessness. On such terms, one wonders whether anyone might willingly die to save themselves, as it were, another troubling revelation engineered by a masterpiece of unprosaic illogic. Yet even on this point, Heller’s genius is flawless. Haunting though it is, Snowden’s death gradually reveals to Yossarian the very path to life and safety that he has pursued ever since the opening chapter in the hospital – which is to say, ever since Snowden’s death drove him there in the first place.

This is why Heller refers to Snowden’s death, specifically his entrails, as a “secret” because to reveal it any earlier would be to end the novel. And he calls it Snowden’s “grim secret” to illustrate Yossarian’s suppressed mental anguish. Heller has Yossarian recall Snowden a number of times, each admitting more detail, each growing more vivid, each driving him a little closer to his final resolution. Heller’s portrayal of Yossarian’s traumatised memories in this way suggests the nightmarish flashbacks that people, particularly soldiers, endure following the horrors of war. His final flashback in Chapter 41, “Snowden”, is prompted when Yossarian wards off the mysterious stranger in – where else? – the hospital. It’s most revelatory for Yossarian – and readers, by extension – because, here at the end of his patchy, appalling flashbacks, he is finally secure enough to divine for himself – or is it to admit to us? – the grim secret found in Snowden’s entrails. In the same way, the climax is most revelatory for readers who – at the mercy of Heller’s dispersed narrative structure – have been made to wait until the closing, when the time is finally ripe.

To get there, we are dragged unwittingly by Heller down a path of frustrating sympathy, illogical absurdity, and agonising anticipation. By the time Yossarian is introduced (in the opening chapter!) censoring letters and conniving a way to escape the war, he is that much nearer to desertion than we can yet know. Certainly, Snowden will convince us to desert as surely as he convinces Yossarian, but that will happen later, after Heller has aggravated our tolerance and mottled our innocence. Heller must drag us down Yossarian’s agonising path, or else he places us at risk of passing premature judgment upon not merely his protagonist but his entire message. Finally, when the moment arrives that we gather full appreciation of Snowden’s death, we have all we need to share in the vindication of Yossarian’s desertion.

So here is our way to grasp the grim secret behind the novel’s dissembling structure as restlessly and imperturbably as Yossarian does: the root of conflict, Snowden’s death, can only occur at the end of Heller’s narrative path, not Yossarian’s. The story simply works no other way.

Suppose Trivial Grammar Were Actually the Road Map

Sometimes, the hardest part of teaching felt like finding a way to reach students when they just didn’t get it. But if there’s one thing I learned while teaching, it’s that it takes two. In fact, the hardest part of teaching was coming to realise it wasn’t them not getting it, it was me not getting them. In my own defense, I think we just never can know what another person’s motive truly is. It was times like that when I realised the true constructive value of respect and a good rapport. To have any hope of being open-minded, I intentionally needed to respect my students’ dignity, and I needed to be more self-aware as to how open- or closed-minded I was being. Humility has that way of being, well, humbling. These days I’m still fallible but a lot better off for knowing it. And, yes, humility’s easier said than done.

Over sixteen marvellous years teaching secondary English in a high school classroom, I learned that teaching is a relationship. Better still, it’s a rapport. I learned that it takes two, not just hearing and talking but listening and speaking in turn, and willingly. And, because bias is inescapable, I learned to consider a constructive question: what motives and incentives are driving anyone to listen and speak to anyone else? It has an admittedly unscrupulous undertone: what’s in it for me, what’s in it for them, who’s more likely to win out? The thought of incentives in high school likely evokes report cards, which is undeniable. But where listening (maybe speaking, too) to some degree means interpreting, what my students and I valued most was open-minded class discussion. With great respect for our rapport, we found the most positive approach was, “What’s in it for us?” The resulting back-and-forth was a continual quest for clarity, motivated on everyone’s behalf by incentives to want to understand – mutual trust and respect. Looking back, I’m pleased to say that tests and curricula seldom prevented us from pursuing what stimulated us most of all. We enjoyed very constructive lessons.

Of course, we studied through a lens of language and literature. Of particular interest to me was the construction of writing, by which I mean not just words but the grammar and punctuation that fit them together. My fascination for writing has been one of the best consequences of my own education, and I had encouraging – and one very demanding – writing teachers. In the classroom and on my own, I’ve always been drawn to structure as much as content, if not more so, which isn’t unorthodox although maybe not so common. The structure of writing gets me thinking on behalf of others: why has the writer phrased it this certain way? What other ways might be more or less well-suited for this audience? How might I have phrased something differently than this writer, and why? Most English teachers I know would agree that pondering such questions embodies a valuable constructive skill, these days trumpeted as critical thinking. I’d argue further that it’s even a pathway to virtue. Situated in context, such questions are inexhaustible, enabling a lifetime of learning, as literally every moment or utterance might be chosen for study.

In that respect, we loosely defined text beyond writing to include speech, body language, film, painting, music, architecture – literally any human interaction or endeavour. I’ll stick mostly with listening and speaking, reading and writing, just to simplify this discussion. The scope being so wide, really what our class sought to consider were aim and intention. So when students read a text for content, the WHAT, I’d ask them to consider choices made around vocabulary, syntax, arrangement, and so forth, the HOW. That inevitably posed further questions about occasion and motive, the WHY, which obliged varying degrees of empathy, humility, and discernment in reply: for a given writer, how best to write effectively on a topic while, for a given audience, what makes for skillful reading? What motives are inherent to each side of the dialogue? What incentives? These and others were the broader-based “BIG Question” objectives of my courses. They demanded detailed understanding of texts – heaven knows we did plenty of that. More importantly, the BIG Questions widened our context and appreciation even while they gave us focus. When times were frustrating, we had an answer for why studying texts mattered. Questions reflect motivation. Prior to exercising a constructive frame-of-mind, they help create one.

Questions, like everything else, also occur in a particular context. “Context is everything,” I would famously say, to the point where one class had it stencilled for me on a T-Shirt. So much packed into those three plain words – everything, I suppose. And that’s really my thesis here: if we aim to be constructive, and somehow do justice to that over-taxed concept, critical thinking, then we need to be actively considering what we hear and say or read and write alongside other people, and what it all makes us think for ourselves – especially when we disagree. (Is active thinking the same as critical thinking? I’m sure the phrase is hardly original, but I’ll consider the two kinds of thinking synonymous.) During my last 3-4 years in the classroom, all this came to be known by the rallying cry, “Raise the level of discourse!” These days, however, the sentiment is proving far more serious than something emblazoned on a T-Shirt.

I’m referring, of course, to the debacle that has been the 2016 U.S. Presidential election and its aftermath. Specifically, I have in mind two individual remarks, classic teachable moments inspired by current events. The first remark, from an NPR article by Brian Naylor on the fallout over the executive order banning Muslim immigrants, is attributed to the President. The second remark is a response in the comment section that follows Naylor’s article, representative of many commenters’ opinions. To begin, I’ll explain how something as detailed as grammar and punctuation can help raise the level of discourse, especially with such a divisive topic. From there, I’ll consider more broadly how and why we must always accept responsibility for this active language – sometimes correct grammar should matter not just to nit-pickers but to everybody.

In the article (February 8, 2017), Brian Naylor writes:

“Trump read parts of the statute that he says gives him authority to issue the ban on travel from seven predominantly Muslim nations, as well as a temporary halt in refugee admissions. ‘A bad high school student would understand this; anybody would understand this,’ he said.”

We all know the 45th U.S. President can be brusque, even bellicose, besides his already being a belligerent blundering buffoon. This comment was received in that light by plenty, me included. For instance, by classifying “bad” (versus “good”), the President appeals at once to familiar opposites: insecurity and self-worth. We’ve all felt the highs and lows of being judged by others, so “bad” versus “good” is an easy comparison and, thereby, a rudimentary emotional appeal. However, more to my point, his choice to compare high school students with lawyers, hyperbole or not, was readily construed as belittling since, rationally, everyone knows the difference between adult judges and teenaged students. That his ire on this occasion was aimed at U.S. District Judge James Robart is not to be misunderstood. Ironically, though, the President invokes the support of minors in a situation where they have neither legal standing nor professional qualification, rendering his remark not just unnecessarily divisive but inappropriate, and ignorant besides – although he must have known kids aren’t judges, right?

To be fair, here’s a slightly longer quotation of the President’s first usage of “bad student”:

“I thought, before I spoke about what we’re really here to speak about, I would read something to you. Because you could be a lawyer– or you don’t have to be a lawyer: if you were a good student in high school or a bad student in high school, you can understand this.”

Notice, in the first place, that I’ve transcribed and punctuated his vocal statement, having watched and listened to video coverage. As a result, I have subtly yet inevitably interpreted his intended meaning, whatever it actually was. Yet my punctuation offers only what I believe the President meant since they’re my punctuation marks.

So here’s another way to punctuate it, for anyone who feels this is what the President said:

“Because you could be a lawyer, or you don’t have to be a lawyer – if you were a good student in high school or a bad student in high school, you can understand this.”

Here’s another:

“Because you could be a lawyer. Or you don’t have to be a lawyer. If you were a good student in high school or a bad student in high school, you can understand this.”

Finally, but not exhaustively, here’s another:

“Because you could be a lawyer… or you don’t have to be a lawyer; if you were a good student in high school or a bad student in high school, you can understand this.”

Other combinations are possible.

Rather than dismiss all this as pedantry, I’d encourage you to see where I’m coming from and consider the semantics of punctuation. I’m hardly the only one to make the claim, and I don’t just refer to Lynne Truss. Punctuation does affect meaning, both what was intended and what was perceived. To interpret the President’s tone-of-voice, or his self-interrupting stream-of-consciousness, or his jarring pattern-of-speech, or whatever else, is to partly infer what he had in mind while speaking. We interpret all the time, listening not only to words but tone and volume, and by watching body language and facial expression. None of that is typically written down as such, except perhaps as narrative prose in some novel. The point here is that, in writing, punctuation fills part of the interpretive gloss.

Note also where a number of news headlines have used the word “even” as an interpreted addition of a word the President did not actually say. Depending upon how we punctuate his statement, inclusive of everything from words to tone to gestures to previous behaviour, perhaps we can conclude that he did imply “even” or, more accurately, perhaps it’s okay to suggest that it’s what he intended to imply. But he didn’t say it.

If we’re going to raise the level of discourse to something constructive, we need to balance between accepting whatever the President intended to mean by his statement with what we’ve decided he intended to mean. In the classroom, I put it to students as such: “Ask yourself where his meaning ends and yours begins.” It’s something akin to the difference between assuming (based on out-and-out guesswork because, honestly, who besides himself could possibly know what the President is thinking) and presuming (based on some likelihood from the past because, heaven knows, this President has offered plenty to influence our expectations). Whatever he meant by referring to good and bad students might be enraging, humbling, enlightening – anything. But only if we consider the overlap, where his meaning ends and ours begins, are we any better off ourselves, as analysts. Effective communication takes two sides, and critical thinking accounts for both of them.

Effective, though, is sometimes up for debate, not merely defining it but even deciding why it matters. Anyway, can’t we all generally figure out what somebody means? Isn’t fussing over details like grammar more about somebody’s need to be right? I’d argue that taking responsibility for our language includes details like grammar precisely so that an audience is not left to figure things out, or at least so they have as little ambiguity to figure out as possible. Anything less from a speaker or writer is lazy and irresponsible.

In the Comments section following Naylor’s article, a reader responds as follows:

“Precisely describing Trump’s base…bad high school students who’s [sic] level of education topped out in high school, and poorly at that. This is exactly what Trump and the GOP want, a poorly educated populous [sic] that they can control with lies and bigoted rhetoric.”

Substantively, the commenter – let’s call him Joe – uses words that (a) oversimplify, blanketing his fellow citizens, and (b) presume, placing Joe inside the President’s intentions. Who knows, maybe Joe’s correct, but I doubt he’s clairvoyant or part of the President’s inner circle. On the other hand, we’re all free to draw conclusions, to figure things out. So, on what basis has Joe made his claims? At a word count of 42, what was he aiming to contribute? Some of his diction is charged, yet at a mere two sentences, it’s chancy to discern his motives or incentives, lest we be as guilty as he is by characterising him as he characterises the President. Even if I’m supportive of Joe, it’s problematic defending his remarks for the same reason – they leave such a gap to fill. At 42 words, where he ends is necessarily where the rest of us begin, and maybe I’m simply better off ignoring his comment and starting from scratch. Maybe that’s fine, too, since we should all have our own opinions. In any event, Joe has hardly lived up to any measure of responsibility to anybody, himself included – here I am parsing his words months later in another country. I’d even say Joe loses this fight since his inflammatory diction and sweeping fallacy play to his opponents, if they so choose. Unsurprisingly, Joe’s comment is not at all constructive.

For all its faults, his comment aptly demonstrates the two-way nature of dialogue. On the one side, responsibility falls to each reader or listener to bring their research and experience, then discern for themselves what was meant. In that regard, Joe has left us with a lot of work to do, if we’re motivated enough to bother. Yet I chose his particular comment as mere illustration – literally hundreds of others, just as brief and labour-intensive, scroll by below Naylor’s article… so much work for us to do, or else to dismiss, or perhaps to gain-say, if not insult. On that note, consider the other side: responsibility falls to the speaker or writer to offer substantive claims as well as the evidence that prompted them. In this instance, no matter the justification for offering something at all, what can a two-sentence comment add to issues as complex and long-standing as, say, Presidential politics? Whether or not on-line comments are democracy in action, certainly offering 42 words in two sentences struggles to promote a meaningful, substantive exchange of ideas.

I used to liken such on-line comments to my students as standing in line, debating with others while waiting for coffee, before returning to our cars or our lives, none the more informed except perhaps annoyed by some while appreciative of others. With the best intentions, we might excuse people, overlooking that we’re the ones who walked out and drove away – maybe we were late for work that day. We’ve been closed-minded to the degree that we haven’t sought to reach a thorough understanding, and certainly we’ve failed to raise the level of discourse. Would it have been better to just say nothing, grab our coffee, and leave?

Yes, I think so, which may not be easy to accept. Conversely, consider that reasoning from presumption and enthymeme is not reasoning at all. Further, consider that two sentences of 42 words or a few minutes spent chatting in the coffee line will barely scratch the surface. Who can say what motivates people to contribute so readily yet so sparsely? Recent times are emotional, growing more volatile, and potentially far more dangerous, as a result. We see in Joe’s comment, and so many others like it, that trust and respect are divisively encased in separate echo chambers. By virtue of us versus them, both sides are challenged to be open-minded.

Worse, the so-called era of “post-truth” impedes exactly the constructive dialogue we need right now, raising ire and diatribe in place of substance and equanimity. Satire compounds disagreement and grows that much more venomous, and ridicule has a way of locking closed doors. I don’t support proceeding from pretence or unfounded opinion – there’s nothing whatsoever to show for an exchange-of-opinion based on falsehood. The burden of post-truth is far too high. A bias and the truth can co-exist, and they do, guaranteed – one truth, objective, and one bias per person, subjective. Bias is an inevitable fact of existence. Left unchecked, bias obviates respect, which is why a constructive approach is so crucial. As I’ve said elsewhere, post-truth is anti-trust, at least for me, and, at its furthest extent, a threat to civil security, which sounds alarmist – good, let it. We need to attend to this. More than ever now, we need respect or, failing that, at least greater tolerance. That’s for starters.

Worse still, in this post-truth world, fictional claims face no arbiter but the other side so distrusted and maligned. The kind of polarised situation made infamous in Washington, DC is spreading, realised in a zillion on-line comments like Joe’s with every article published. Hopefully not this one, unless maybe someone hasn’t actually read this. On such a perilous path – facts in dispute, emotions enflamed – each side qualifies “open-minded” as unique to themselves and misappropriated by the rest. That’s significantly divisive and the recipe for unrest that I spy, and it sounds my alarm. In that divided state, in lieu of anything left to discuss, even as reality has its way of catching up, what damage might already be done? Especially when facing fellow citizens, whatever we choose now must accord with what we’re prepared to accept later. Let that sober thought sink to the core because the less we share common goals, the more we’re set to clash over unshared ones. But it’s within us to converse and to converge.

Let’s be willing to listen with empathy, understand with compassion, research with diligence, and respond with substance. Do your own investigation. Accept responsibility to inform yourself. Yes, take what you find with a grain of salt until you can believe to your own satisfaction what is right and trustworthy. Yet, even then, be tolerant if not respectful of others – too much salt is harmful. We all have our own motives and incentives for listening and participating, so let’s dig deeper than how pissed off we are with the other side: walking the high road with pride or smug assurance is really the low road and a path of hubris. It’s closed-minded, but not in the sense that we haven’t sought to reach a thorough understanding of the other side. It’s closed-minded to the degree that we haven’t sought to understand how and why the other side reached their position to begin with.

None of this is hard to understand. Once upon a time, we decided that education mattered, and it’s no accident that the trivium – grammar, rhetoric, dialectic – was given a central role. These days, its value in niche markets, notably private Christian education, is enough to switch some people off, which sadly exemplifies this entire discussion. I believe classical education is valuable for all. We’ve neglected it to our detriment, perhaps to our peril. We have a lot in common, more than we might credit, with our neighbours and fellow citizens. It’s not like they grew up on Mars. We’re not significantly different – hands up if you’re a human being. Start with that, some basic human dignity.

There’s a lot to be offered by rapport in our relationships, and little to expect without it. All we can do is understand the other person’s interpretation, and they ours, and go from there – or else not. And it’s easy to nod and say, “I already do that while others do not.” But reflect upon yourself anyway, in every conversation, debate, or exchange. Humility is a virtue, even when kept low-key. Everybody bears responsibility for their own participation. The more we live up to being respectful, even of those whom we oppose, the more progress we’re liable to make – however slowly it might happen.

As I said at the outset, yes, humility’s easier said than done. But by the same token, why write this essay if 42 words would do? We must neither hide ourselves away nor proceed prematurely. We must be able to discern flaws of reason, and we must be able to communicate with humility if we aim to deliver – and, more critically, if we hope to be received – from a place of thoughtfully considered understanding. Whether or not we truly trust one another, let’s help put the logos back in dialogue and accept our own responsibility to approach people with intentional self-awareness. Let’s seize the opportunity to be role-models – you just never know what somebody else is thinking. Let’s raise the level of discourse. And let’s remember that taking the high road must be open-hearted as well as open-minded.

 

 

The Three Appeals Must Be Measured

Have you seen this? This photo has been published via Twitter by The Humane League, an advocacy group who “[work] relentlessly to reduce animal suffering through grassroots education to change eating habits and corporate campaigns to reform farm animal treatment.” In broader respect, their aims relate to mine here on this blog – that is, to reach people by way of their decision-making in order to effect change in our (what I take to be cultural) behaviour. They post this photo on-line, where I’ve had it show up in my Facebook news feed after a friend “likes” it. Twice when it appeared, I posted my thoughts, which I share now for the third (and last) time.

The statement on the sign is clear enough, but what is the process behind enacting the words, specifically “we” and “use” and “leaves”? “We” who, which land owners, which legislators, in which jurisdictions, incentivized how, by whom, coordinated in what manner, measured by what instruments or methods, affirmed by which authorities… the list of questions goes on. The statement on the sign is clear enough, but the sought-for outcome seems way more complicated to achieve than simply eating less meat because Paul Rudd holds a sign.

How could any coordinated effort ever be done, any assurance that you not eating meat, and me not eating meat, and him, and her, and them, any of us… how could we ever know we were making an active difference versus just randomly taking turns not eating meat? On Mondays. Surely, if it were this easy… Meanwhile, the rest of the world who missed Paul Rudd’s signs and movies eats meat.

He ought, at the very least, to hold up a sign with instructions for organising or joining an effort to set aside land as a reserve. Wouldn’t it require financial incentives built in for whomever would otherwise use the land, i.e., to replace the revenue they were getting from this particular sort of agriculture? There’s one more word on the sign that is far too vague: “agriculture.” Specify… Wouldn’t changing the control of the resources, not the consumption, be a more directly effective approach? This ad seems to oversimplify, and that undermines whatever might be worthwhile about the issue.

But further, and maybe more troublesome, oversimplifying does little to flatter the ad’s proponents beyond portraying some collective feel-good wishing for a better world, which would seem to play right into the hands of anyone whom they’re disputing. Farms and land-use and pollution and economics and history are realities to be dealt with responsibly, that need intentional, incentivized discussion between however many various sides. Reality is life – decisions and consequences. If certain land-use can be proven ill-suited, or destructive, whatever the case, then approach with efforts on that basis, but don’t undermine the issue and waste valuable time and attention with fame-dropping. That must be very insulting to people who work hard and earn their livelihood farming, the very people who need to be engaged in the discussion.

It seems to me that employing (financially or colloquially) celebrity appeal as the method for touching an audience emotionally is most responsibly done when it’s also stabilized or held accountable by a detailed plan, like what roots do for plants, being a means of gathering water and nutrients as well as an anchored foundation. Emotions stirred up by reputation ought to be channelled or marshalled or else they could run rampant, and suddenly the whole message gets lost in the maelstrom – or maybe better to say, a new message takes hold. However, responsibility and effectiveness do not always converge.

This photo relies on [whomever]’s favour for a given actor – Paul Rudd, of all people, but it might have been anybody. So at least they chose a fairly peaceful, fun-loving actor and not someone more polarizing or controversial. Evidently, Paul Rudd consented to pose for this (or else hasn’t complained that he was photoshopped? …doesn’t matter, not the point), but in any case, The Humane League believed he’d appeal to the audience they sought. Doubtful they were seeking me! even though (a) I’ve always liked Paul Rudd’s acting and (b) I can sympathise with animal advocacy. But whomever they were seeking, they seem to rely upon the appeal of an actor to suffuse their ad with substance. And if I’m wrong on that point, if The Humane League can point to some ongoing program that addresses what I’ve raised, then this ad is not only a failure of wasted effort but unnecessarily provocative and irresponsible for what it might stir in spite of real programming.

The Humane League, professing that a “sense of purpose drives every action in our unrelenting march forward… ,” was not an organisation I ever knew prior to their ad showing up in my news feed. Despite their advocacy, they worry me – not about a march that’s unrelenting so much as a march that’s unchecked, which is why I bothered posting three times. I’m hoping to reach an audience, too, not with purpose merely sensed but more consequentially realised.

On Sharing the Road with Those Who Consider Themselves

There’s a pro-cycling argument that vilifies car drivers. When you drive, you kill the planet.

Fallacies aside, there are cyclists who also own cars, whom I’ve heard defend their car usage as judicious and planet-healthy by taking only long highway trips, and by only driving on weekends, and so forth. It’s a shame that any motorist behind a wheel isn’t afforded this same discriminating benefit of the doubt. What I mean is it’s a shame for cyclists because, without that benefit of the doubt, this pro-cycling argument amounts to little more than bald hypocrisy.

So, for those who cycle yet also drive a car, stay out of the debate, period. Your conflict of interest serves neither side and only self-aggrandises you.

Now, obviously, we have evidence that cars pollute. We also know about many other behaviours that damage our environment. We don’t monitor every cyclist’s off-bike behaviour – I’m sure that could only be an invasion of their privacy – but if we did, what incriminating behaviours and choices would we find? Would it admonish the pro-cycling crew to consider where, in their do-no-wrong lifestyles, an injudicious choice might be helping to kill the planet? The only people I’ve ever met who had any authentic voice in this argument were some tree-hugging Outdoor Ed counsellors, and (every one of the following details is true because I saw it-slash-they told me themselves) even they took the ferry to Langdale after leaving their minibus at Horseshoe Bay and piloted to and from Gibsons in boats and shopped at grocery stores and took hot showers and bought jeans from Old Navy and lived in the 21st century with their iPhones and their Snapchat. They kill the planet, too, just way slower and perhaps more subtly than the rest of us. Stick that in your spokes and pedal: we’re all killing the planet, just some of us at a faster rate than the planet can counteract. Perhaps that excuses these counsellors’ hypocrisy ever so much more than those cyclists whose holier-than-thou militancy is no oxymoron.

Speaking of which, the next time a cyclist criticises a motorist, consider that the driver may be in the midst of five errands, efficiently driving from place to place. Or consider that a lone driver has just left home, on the way to pick up carpool partners. Or consider that a driver needed the car that day because their child was too young to walk, or their parent was too old to walk, or their appointment was too far to reach in the time available. I’ve driven every one of these experiences since January – that’s six months ago – and have still found time on other days to walk to the bank, the grocery store, the park, the coffee shop, and my Dad’s apartment because there was no need to drive, or there was too much snow, or too much traffic. On none of these trips did I spy any stealth cyclist tracking my whereabouts, by which I mean, of course, my howabouts.

That time a cyclist ran the 4-Way at full speed, and I halted my car in order not to run him down, he saluted me with a scowl and a finger. Understand, this was a 4-Way, in Vancouver, so having finally inched my way forward to be next, I halted my car 4-5 feet past the stop line on account of the cyclist sailing through – at full speed, pretty sure he hadn’t inched his way forward – narrowly missing my front bumper because I stopped it from hitting him. Not the first time I’ve seen cyclists blow a 4-Way intersection, by the by. Even if he were to argue the point that he’d had right-of-way (I mean, if he weren’t otherwise unconscious or dead on the pavement), I’ve always understood that we yield to the right when simultaneously arriving at intersections, and he came from my left. So I’m pretty sure it’s safe to conclude that this cyclist was simply an asshole, the very people about whom I write.

You see, I respect cyclists who spend their time and energy obeying traffic law as opposed to scorning motorists, cyclists whose priorities settle upon sharing the road – you know, like all the cycling promo-ads suggest. Those cyclists who obey the law make driving predictable, which helps to make the road safer. So, all, feel free to second-guess a cyclist’s scowl or criticism the next time you see one in the roadway passing on the right side of a moving vehicle, or the next time you see one evade a traffic light by joining pedestrians in the crosswalk, or the next time you see one completely blow through a stop sign at full speed rather than obey the traffic control, the next time you encounter that cyclist whose self-portrayal is the unmistakably hypocritical, dogmatic extremist – you know, the one saving the planet by putting themselves in harm’s way, such heroism.

Safe driving is predictable driving – everyone doing what is expected, which by definition has been prescribed by law, which counts for motorists, too. As it is, on account of safety, the city engineers have eliminated nearly every uncontrolled intersection by adding bulges, circles, and diverters because, even with rules of the road, people operating moving vehicles are still known to make unpredictable decisions. But while I check the news each day, I haven’t ever seen such motorists asking for special dispensation. I’m simply addressing those cyclists who are asking for it.

Safe driving is predictable, everybody doing what’s expected and understood as the law. I even have a license, issued by government, to show that I’ve met the standard. But license or not, when people adjust to their own interpretations of the law, which is all over the place all the time, the rest of us are forced to adjust, too, in a chain reaction. At that point, you just rely on peoples’ abilities, then cross your fingers and hope no one’s taken too much by surprise. And yes, a car flying at full speed through a stop sign is extremely dangerous to everybody. I saw that happen 2-3 blocks from the 4-Way, maybe a month later. Just as stupid. That driver is a reckless threat and should be punished. But a cyclist flying at full speed through an intersection, or down a sidewalk, or across a crowded parking lot might still get him- or herself killed by the unsuspecting driver’s car. Whether or not that driver was reckless or safe, either way, that cyclist is reckless and dead. The laws of the road are there to make the roads safe and predictable for everybody on them or near them. For safety, the same argument is as true for drivers as for cyclists, and also pedestrians: only by obeying the laws can we ensure some measure of roadway predictability. And without enough police to enforce obedience at every turn, cyclists and motorists alike must rely upon each other, dare I say, trust each other. It’s hard to trust by way of criticising, then asking for special treatment, then flaunting the very laws that help keep you safe.

If bicycles, with higher manoeuvrability yet lower mass and speed, are to share the road with more lumbering, polluting cars and trucks, then roadway predictability and efficiency trump convenience. Why? Because cars and trucks will not be disappearing any time soon. That’s a reality at odds with city planning founded upon ideology, a topic for another day. Then again, an ideology offers feel-good reassurance. If it’s really time to cure the planet of pollution, if it’s really time to do something dramatically effective, then maybe it’s time for a flat-out ban of cars and trucks from roadways, period. Jet planes, too, all planes. Ships and boats. Motorcycles? OK. Not likely for any of this to happen, but maybe it’s time. Maybe it was time seventy or eighty years ago. With no motorized vehicles around, cyclists could start their own delivery businesses, conveying fresh produce from Superstore to your kitchen, or new shoes from Payless to your closet, or a traveller with luggage from the airport to her home, or kids from home to school and back, and on and on. It would end all that arrogant hypocrisy aimed at drivers if only because they’d be huffing and puffing too much to speak anymore although, eventually, I’m sure they’d find something new and offensive to bitch about. Ideology’s funny that way.

Meanwhile, reality never stops. And if we run that intersection, we’re sure to get run down.

Teaching Open-Mindedly in the Post-Truth Era

I had brilliant students, can’t say enough about them, won’t stop trying. I happened to be in touch with one alumna – as sharp a thinker as I’ve ever met, and a beautiful writer – in the wake of the U.S. election campaign last winter and wrote the following piece in response to a question she posed:

How do you teach open-mindedly in the post-truth era?

I was pleased that she asked, doubly so at having a challenging question to consider! And I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to compose a thoughtful reply. Not my own best writing, perhaps, but containing some insight, anyway.

I’ve revised things here a little, for a broader audience, but nothing of substance has changed.

How do you teach open-mindedly in the post-truth era?

Good heavens. Hmm… with respect for peoples’ dignity, is my most immediate response. But such a question.

Ultimately, it takes two because any kind of teaching is a relationship – better still, a rapport, listening and speaking in turn, and willingly. Listening, not just hearing. But if listening (and speaking) is interpreting, then bias is inescapable, and there needs to be continual back-and-forth efforts to clarify, motivated by incentives to want to understand: that means mutual trust and respect, and both sides openly committed. So one question I’d pose back to this question pertains to the motives and incentives for teaching (or learning) ‘X’ in the first place. Maybe this question needs a scenario, to really illustrate details, but trust and respect seem generally clear enough.

Without trust and respect, Side ‘A’ is left to say, “Well, maybe some day they’ll come around to our way of thinking” (that being a kind portrayal) and simply walks away. This, I think, is closed-minded to the degree that ‘A’ hasn’t sought to reach a thorough understanding (although maybe ‘A’ has). Anyway, it’s not necessarily mean-spirited were someone to say this. With the best intentions, ‘A’ might conclude that ‘B’ is just not ready for the “truth.” But broadly, I’d say this is more like quitting than teaching, which is to say a total failure to teach, at least as I take “teaching” from your question. It would differ somewhat if said by the learner vs the teacher. Then we might conclude that the learner lacked motivation or confidence, for some reason, or perhaps felt alone or unsupported, but again… scenarios.

Another thing to say is, “Well, you just can’t argue with stupid,” as in we can’t even agree on facts, but saying this would be passing judgment on ol’ stupid over there, and likewise hardly open-minded. Personally, I’d never say bias precludes truth, only that we’ll never escape our biases. The real trouble is having bias at all, which I think is what necessitates trust and respect because the less of these is all the more turmoil. I figure any person’s incentive to listen arises from whatever they think will be to their own benefit for having listened. But “benefit” you could define to infinity, and that’s where the post-truth bit is really the troublesome bit because all you have is to trust that other person’s interpretation, and they yours, or else not.

Yeah, I see “post-truth” as “anti-trust,” and for me, that’s a powderkeg, the most ominous outcome arisen of late. People need incentives to listen, but if treating them with dignity and respect isn’t reaching them, then whatever they wanted to begin with wasn’t likely a positive relationship with me. That’s telling of the one side, if not both sides. At the same time, it’s harder to say of students that they have no incentives to listen or that they don’t trust teachers on account of some broader post-truth culture – that might be changing, who knows, but I hope not.

But I’m leaving some of your question behind, and I don’t want to lose sight of where it’s directed more towards the person doing the teaching (how do you teach open-mindedly…).

That part of the question was also in my immediate reaction: respect peoples’ dignity. If it’s me teaching, say, then to have any hope of being open-minded, I intentionally need to respect that other person’s dignity. I need to be more self-aware, on a sliding scale, as to how open- or closed-minded I’m being just now, on this-or-that issue. So that’s empathy, but it’s self aware, and it’s intentional.

Me being me, I’d still be the realist and say you just can never really know what the other person’s motive truly is – pre-truth or post-truth world, doesn’t matter. But whether or not you trust the other, or they you, the real valuable skill is being able to discern flaws of reason, which is what I always said about you – you’ve always been one to see through the bull shit and get to the core of something. I’m no guru or icon, I’m just me, but as I see it just now, the zeitgeist is an emotional one more than a rational one, and there’s plenty to understand why that might be the case. Given that emotional dominance, I do think post-truth makes the world potentially far more dangerous, as a result.

Whatever incentives people are identifying for themselves, these days, are pretty distinct, and that’s a hard one for unity. That saying about partisan politics – “We want the same things; we just differ how to get there” – that doesn’t apply as widely right now so, by virtue of the other side being “the other” side, neither side’s even able to be open-minded beyond themselves because trust and respect are encased in the echo chambers. Things have become distinctly divisive – partisan politics, I mean, but I wonder how deeply those divisions can cut.

So, for instance, lately I find with my Dad that I listen and may not always agree, but where I don’t always agree, he’s still my Dad, and I find myself considering what he says based on his longevity – he’s seen the historic cycle, lived through history repeating itself. And I obviously trust and respect my Dad, figuring, on certain issues, that he must know more than me. On other issues, he claims to know more. On others still, I presume he does. Based on trust and respect, I give him the benefit of the doubt through and through. One of us has to give, when we disagree, or else we’d just continually argue over every disagreement. Someone has to make “benefit” finite by acquiescing, by compromising themselves right out of the debate. If you want peace, someone has to give, right? So should I trust my Dad? I respect him because he’s given me plenty good reason after such a long time. Certainly I’m familiar with his bias, grown accustomed to it – how many times over my life have I simply taken his bias for granted?

I see it even more clearly with my daughter, now, who trusts me on account of (i) her vulnerability yet (ii) my love. The more she lives and learns alongside me, as time passes by, the more cyclically that outlook is reiterated, like how self-fulfilling prophecy works. Other parents keep warning me that the day’s coming when she’ll become the cynical teenager, and I’m sure it will – I remember going through it, myself. But I’m older, now, and back to respecting my Dad, so at least for some relationships, the benefit of the doubt returns. My Dad preceded me, kept different circles than me, and has lived through two or three very different generations than I have. Even as we see the same world, we kind of don’t. So this is what I wonder about that deep cut of division, reaching the level of family – not just one given family but right across the entire population. Do I fact-check my Dad, or myself, or maybe both? Should I? Because neither one of us is infallible.

Anyway, the child of the parent, it’s as good an example as I can think of for questioning what it means to learn with an open mind because there’s no such thing as “unbiased,” yet love, trust, and respect are hardly what we’d call “closed-minded,” except that they are, just in a positive way. They leave no room for scepticism or wariness, the kinds of traits we consider acceptable in healthy proportions. But “teaching” with an open-mind takes on so much more baggage, I think, because the teacher occupies the de facto and the de jure seat-of-power, at least early on – school is not a democracy (although that seems, now, to be changing, too), yet teachers are no more or less trustworthy on the face of it than any other person. That’s also why I reduce my response to respecting human dignity because, even if it’s positive closed-minded, at least it’s a do-no-harm approach.

That jibes with everything I’ve learned about good teaching, as in good teaching ultimately reduces to strong, healthy relationships. Short-term fear vs long-term respect – it’s obvious which has more lasting positive influence. And since influencing others with our bias is inevitable, we ought to take responsibility for pursuing constructive outcomes, or else it’s all just so much gambling. At the core, something has to matter to everybody, or we’re done.

On Friendships On-Line

Lately I’ve been having a shift of perspective.

The first I heard of Facebook was from a Gr. 11 student, Sarah, back in 2005-06. I understood the basic idea and remember calling it, I think, “narcissistic,” or no, it was “otiose,” throwing down the vocab-gauntlet to impress and intimidate all at once. Of course, I was mostly kidding, in that Haha-Foolish-Youngster-Teacher-Knows-Best kind of way. And of course, the friendly feud that followed lasted several weeks or longer: “Mr Rob,” they’d ask, “when are you going to sign on? We want to Facebook you.”

I’d say stuff like, “… neither of those words is a verb,” or “How many more ways do I need to stay in touch with people?” or “You go on wasting your life in front of a glowing blue screen.”

Jokes. All in fun, just kidding, except for… a touch not.

What I didn’t say, from underneath, was, “I’ve never felt much need to draw attention to myself.” Maybe on a performance stage but, even up there, for me, definitely all for fun, not passion. We’re all built differently, what is me is strictly me, and passing judgment wouldn’t have been right or fair, just condescending. So I didn’t say.

I did say “narcissistic,” in fun, to play my role, push the joke. But what I didn’t say was how look-at-me syndrome had always made me itch a little: “Look! Look at me! Are you looking at me?” There’ve been times I’ve even looked away from someone, on purpose, feeling so grated by it. That’s aloof, I admit, and not to excuse it. But again, not mean-spirited, just really different hard-wiring beneath my control. For all our kidding around, adults vs kids, feuding generations, I really just didn’t understand my students’ enthusiasm for sharing themselves on Facebook. For the same reason, not unlike others I’ve known, I never felt much desire to be sharing my own life and times – on-line or off, made no difference.

So, naturally, the day I did sign on, August 2013, Sarah was the first Friend request, right after my brothers. And, naturally, she had me eating crow. And we laughed and said how glad we were to hear from each other. There I was on Facebook, a mere eight years behind the wave – typical me: still waters running deep where the currents are inexorable, even sluggish. I finally joined for the ease of staying in touch with another friend, Mark, one of those friends for a lifetime, going on forty years, who’s been living 700 miles away for nearly half that time. It’s been great hearing from him more regularly, and catching up was pretty seamless – same laughs, same interests, same ol’ good ol’ friendship. In fact, my gradual unfolding with Facebook has found me appreciating friendship a little more altogether. But, more than that, my experience has found me appreciating otiose, narcissistic Facebook itself.

Facebook’s essential concept – people connecting, sharing, and expressing themselves – hasn’t changed much since its launch in 2004, and I still spot the odd look-at-me in my newsfeed although, to be fair, those pleas have lately seemed fewer and further. By lately, I mean the past two, three years – sluggish currents. Introvert that I am, I’m wary of over-posting my life, and I try to select only what I feel my audience of friends would appreciate or spend time to see (which is somewhat closer to how I’d describe stage performance, and writing too, though still not exactly). I’ve been pondering my rising appreciation for what Facebook is, or what it can be. I’ve been wondering whether all my itching over limelighters merely amounted to me guarding myself, and if so, from what? Or whom? And I’ve been wondering about what my old profs called the liminal space, specifically the overlap where Facebook ends and I begin, or maybe better to put it the other way around. I no longer wonder whether, deep down, my inexorable currents are able to ebb and flow. Lately, I’ve been having a shift of perspective about connecting and sharing and friendship.

It’s come about not from Facebook but from travelling. In the past when I travelled, I knew somehow, deep down, I wasn’t getting full value. Some part of me, too much, remained at home. I was afraid to let go, which is another story, but it was essentially the same reticence I had for sharing myself on-line. Travel, though, has that enticing way of inviting us to venture and explore, familiar wisdom that the more we learn, the more we realise how much there is to learn. In more recent travels – by recent, I mean the past five, six years – the more places I went, people I met, the more I learned that sharing myself wasn’t some desperate grab for attention, some break with humility. It was acknowledgement that others would judge me for themselves – not “look at me” but “Hey, this is me,” said with self-confidence and a willingness to meet other people in the overlap. Emerging from the cave is humbling, and either daunting or encouraging, but it doesn’t just broaden our horizons. It can transect them, if we let it. And fair enough, not all at once. But if I’d only ever stayed home…

Questions linger, a sluggish introvert like me doesn’t change overnight. Certainly, though, I’m far less guarded these days, more outgoing, more willing to share in that friendly confident way. When I travel now, I no longer leave some part of me at home when I depart so much as I leave a piece of me behind when I return. By travel, I mean anywhere, from London Drugs to London, England. If we travel to see for ourselves, we’re running errands. Travel should be for sharing. Life is a chance to tell the world we exist, to leave a little of ourselves behind, and to bring some of the adventure back home.

One friend I met while travelling I credit the most for opening my eyes. Today, 2300 miles apart, I consider Audrey one of my best friends. Early on, Audrey shared a travel story with me about appreciating something unexpected all the more for its rarity. Her story – but, really, her generosity and respect – helped me reconsider the traveller – but, really, me – as uniquely worthy of recognition. Audrey offered me the space to overlap. Where her story ended, mine was able to begin. We’ve stayed in touch ever since …by e-mail. Audrey feels a little averse to Facebook and social media which, to be fair, is not uncommon. Maybe you know somebody similar.

So, am I glad I signed on to Facebook? I definitely don’t kick myself for waiting, not like Sarah did, anyway. On the other hand, I scroll through it every day, so maybe I’m addicted. Like I said, questions linger. But it’s unlike the utility, say, of plain old SMS, which I find really useful – where texting is an errand, Facebook is for travel, and travelling’s something I’ve learned to enjoy. I’ll need more time to decide about blogging, and I have an opinion about on-line comments, too. As for the bulk of social media apps – Twitter, Instagram, all the rest – shades of grey. How many more ways do I need to stay in touch before the means become the end? But let’s take care not to judge with real offense, not with real people at each end of every message.

To let Sarah and Mark stand as representative of my Facebook experience, the value and quality I’ve found on-line is not that of drawing attention to myself so much as people taking genuine interest in hearing from me – like I said, a shift of perspective. More importantly, a shift for the better. Life can still get lonely, at times, because where there’s a place for Type A, that’s just never been me. But the current, somewhat-improved version of me is glad to be more outgoing than before and glad to have an outlet for expression. In an odd sort of way, Facebook helped me practise, and if not for that, I wonder whether I would have spoken to Audrey that first time.

Facebook has offered me something I’d thought neither possible nor desirable, the chance to let the world know I’m here. Facebook makes that possible. What I must never forget is that my friends are what makes it worthwhile.