Play’s the Thing…

I used to say to my students, “Find the overlap between our English coursework and, say, Trigonometry, or the link from persuasive writing to PhysEd. Where does Hamlet end and organic chemistry begin? Find that one out… there’s genius in that.” The courses my Department offered were called “English” and, helmed by some teachers, they were more traditional, as one might expect. The most common feedback I received from students, though, was how unlike English our coursework seemed to them. I took those remarks as a measure of success: my aim was to prepare young people, soon enough entering the world as older people, to be responsible… to families, communities, careers, and so forth. For me, that’s the purpose of school and its teachers.

What prompted me to reflect was reading Science, Order, and Creativity, by David Bohm and F. David Peat – specifically, such remarks as “the appropriate relationship between thought and experience… [in which] creative new perceptions take place when needed” (p. 49). That distinction between thought and experience reminded me of another distinction, this between dialogue and conversation. And again I was prompted to recall my English courses – what we had, I’d say, were definitely conversations, scratching new surfaces and digging into things with fluid spontaneity, as compared to the “my turn / your turn” protocol of dialogue, which might dig one trench but deeper and deeper. Where dialogue strikes me as instrumental, a means to an end, conversation is an end in itself, without start or finish but continual – that is, until the bell rings. We notoriously lived beyond the rigour of scheduling in some of my courses.

Those conversations were hard to let go. And what exactly were we after? “The creative person does not strictly know what he or she is looking for,” say Bohm and Peat. “The whole activity [is] play itself,” and no better description of teaching (at least, my teaching) have I ever read. Who knew I was so creative? Not me although I did have fun. So who knew teaching was just so much play? “The play’s the thing / wherein I’ll catch the conscience of–” well, anybody, really. I should clarify that I respected my colleagues and our Departmental philosophy as well as my professional obligation to Ministry curricula. At the same time, I relied on my own interests and concerns to guide our coursework, by day and by year. The result was a mixture of reading, discussion, writing, and presenting about topics as disparate as literature, film, fine art, civics, politics, economics, philosophy, etymology, all manner of topics – yes, even science and math – all bundled together in a process of classical rhetoric. Eventually, I developed a suitably disparate canon of texts, too, that flowed meaningfully from English 9 through 12. And I relied on students’ differences to alter and adjust the flavour however they might. I loved teaching for how creative it allowed me to be, and for how much creativity it provoked in my students. “Let come what comes,” Laertes tells Claudius – brazen, even foolhardy. Genius, perhaps?

Bohm and Peat seem to suggest that genius is not creativity per se so much as the effect of having challenged some assumptions, and maybe that’s mere semantic distinction. Either way, I like the notion. Later, reading Allen Repko, I found myself nodding likewise at what he calls “boundary crossing” (p. 22). There it was, this discovery of common threads in disparate disciplines, this crossing of amorphous boundaries, what my students have heard me call “genius” although I might now redefine that trait as “ingenuity.” Accompanying “boundary crossing” is a reaching across disciplines, with intent, what Repko calls “bridge building.” This, I think, I would call visionary. Discovery and vision, both what I would forever consider, as a teacher, to be meaningful developments of the learning process.

Repko also points out the origin of the word, “discipline,” deriving from the Romans and their need to “relate education to specific economic, political, and ecclesiastical ends” (p. 32). How delightfully Roman! I thought, reading that. Such instrumentalism, “the logic of utility.”[1] Finis at its finest: How long, O Lord! Will their legacy never end? But I trust in teaching and my unfailing students.

I enjoyed sixteen years teaching Secondary English to brilliant students. In that time, we developed a philosophy, addressed the BIG Questions, and fed our curiosity. But my planning process was seldom more than make-it-up-as-we-go. “We could never get away with this in Math,” I used to say to them, “although if you do find a way, I’d love to hear about it.”

 


[1] Phelan, A. (2009). A new thing in an old world? Instrumentalism, teacher education, and responsibility. In Riches, Caroline & Benson, Fiona J. (Eds.) Engaging in Conversation about Ideas in Teacher Education, (105-114). New York, NY: Peter Lang.

 

From The New York Times – “Free Speech and the Necessity of Discomfort” and further Reflections on Journalism

A needfully challenging appeal to raise the level of discourse, and an appropriate inclusion to The Rhetorical WHY, from an Opinion piece in The New York Times (Feb 22, 2018) by Op-Ed columnist, Bret Stephens:

This is the text of a lecture delivered at the University of Michigan on Tuesday [Feb 20, 2018]. The speech was sponsored by Wallace House.

“I’d like to express my appreciation for Lynette Clemetson and her team at Knight-Wallace for hosting me in Ann Arbor today. It’s a great honor. I think of Knight-Wallace as a citadel of American journalism. And, Lord knows, we need a few citadels, because journalism today is a profession under several sieges.…” [continue reading]

 

'Oddly enough, I feel offended...'
All That’s Fit to Print, Wiley Miller

Some thoughts of my own on the significance of a free press to our lives…

Next, I offer a series of responses I made to remarks by Hannah Arendt, published October 26, 1978 in The New York Review of Books, itself a report of her interview with Roger Errera). I encountered them in a Facebook post from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

 


Arendt: “… how can you have an opinion if you are not informed?”

Everybody has opinions – our five senses give us opinions. In order to be “informed,” we need discernment enough to detect accurate information.

Arendt: “If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer.”

For me, continual lies ultimately yield zero trust, but again, how would I know who’s even lying, but for my own discernment and experience?

At the least, if I were aware that all around were lies, that much I’d know is true. It’s not that “nobody believes anything any longer,” so much as it’s “everybody goes about searching out truth on their own.” The downside is when those individual searches for truth become disrespectful, as we’ve seen lately, or worse, chaotic.

Nevertheless, investigate! Accept responsibility to inform yourself. Accept or believe all with a grain of salt until such time as you can prove to your own satisfaction who and what are trustworthy. And, at that point, be tolerant, if not respectful, of others – this applies to everybody, all sides, liberals and conservatives and all points between. Taking the high road is not to be done with pride or smug assurance. It’s easy to nod and say, “I already do while others do not,” but even so, reflect upon yourself with each conversation, each debate, each exchange.

Open-minded and open-hearted – both are virtues, but they don’t have to be the same thing.

Arendt: “If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer.”

On its face, this statement could only be accurate if you had some clairvoyance or a crystal ball.

By “everybody” doing their own investigation and accepting responsibility to inform themselves, I mean everybody. We’re able to trust news & media sources to the extent that they have lived up to their responsibility… to the extent we’re aware that they have. I support proper, professional investigative journalism and public intellectualism, both of which I gather to be in decline.


'Well, apparently you haven't heard. . . personal opinions are the new facts.'
The New Facts, Chris Wildt

Finally, I offer two sets of remarks about journalism by two long-retired anchor-journalists of PBS fame, partners Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer. The first is transcribed from an exchange between them during a tribute to MacNeil upon his retirement in October 1995. The second – comprising two parts – is Lehrer’s closing words upon the “retirement” of his name from the title of the PBS NewsHour, on December 04, 2009. Following that, I’ve included a thoughtful follow-up by the PBS Ombudsman, Michael Getler, published the next week on December 11.

MacNeil’s remarks upon his retirement (October 20, 1995)…


MacNeil: You know, I’m constantly asked, and I know you are in interviews, and there have been a lot of them just now – I’m constantly asked, “But isn’t your program a little boring to some people?” and I find that amazing, because, well, sure, it probably is, but they’re people who don’t watch. The people who watch it all the time don’t find it boring, or they wouldn’t watch.

Lehrer: That’s right.

MacNeil: And it’s the strange idea that’s come out of this medium, because it’s become so much a captive of its tool – as its use as a sales tool that it’s driven increasingly, I think, by a tyranny of the popular. I mean, after all, you and I’ve said this to each other lots of times – might as well share it with the audience: what is the role of an editor? The role of an editor is to make– is to make judgments somewhere between what he thinks is important or what they think is important and what they think is interesting and entertaining.


Jim Lehrer’s guidelines of journalism (December 04, 2009)…


Lehrer: People often ask me if there are guidelines in our practice of what I like to call MacNeil/Lehrer journalism. Well, yes, there are. And here they are:

* Do nothing I cannot defend.

* Cover, write and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me.

* Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.

* Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am.

* Assume the same about all people on whom I report.

* Assume personal lives are a private matter, until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise.

* Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories, and clearly label everything.

* Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes, except on rare and monumental occasions.

* No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously.

* And, finally, I am not in the entertainment business.

Here is how I closed a speech about our changes to our PBS stations family last spring:

‘We really are the fortunate ones in the current tumultuous world of journalism right now. When we wake up in the morning, we only have to decide what the news is and how we are going to cover it. We never have to decide who we are and why we are there.’


 

I am struck by the continuity of their respective final comments, about entertainment – each, in his own way, seeks to distance journalism from vagary, each thereby implying that we are susceptible to emotional or whimsical tendencies, which evidently seem capable of overtaking our focus to learn; otherwise, why mention the point at all?

 


  • Watch Lehrer’s remarks here, in a functional if awkward series of video archives of that 2009 broadcast.
  • In May 2011, upon Lehrer’s retirement, MacNeil returned to offer his own reflections upon his friend and colleague that include some further worthwhile commentary upon contemporary TV journalism
  • Watch them during a more recent (October 25, 2016) retrospective interview from 92nd Street Y, a Jewish cultural and community centre in Manhattan.

 

I recall “Lehrer’s Rules,” as they were called, making a small stir – some of it more substantive, meaningful, and some the critical “woe-is-Us” lament at the passing of favourite things. In amongst it all, as I mentioned, were the following comments from PBS Ombudsman, Michael Getler, which I include here, at length, on account of PBS webpages’ tendency to disappear.

In fact, a number of the PBS pages where I found these articles are no longer active – where possible, I have checked, updated, and even added weblinks. But I believe Getler’s comments, like the rest, are worth preserving, on account of their potential to provoke us to think and learn more about a free press and its relation to ourselves.

 


“Lehrer’s Rules” by Michael Getler (December 11, 2009)

A couple of people wrote to me in the aftermath of that Dec. 4 sign-off to say how much they liked Lehrer’s guidelines and asked how they could get a copy. That’s why they are reproduced above. A subscriber to the widely-read Romenesko media news site also posted them there on Dec. 6 and they also were posted on the campus site of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). “Whether you agree with all of Lehrer’s guidelines, or not,” that posting read, “he has surely earned our attention.”

That’s certainly true in my case. I’ve also been a devoted watcher of the NewsHour in all of its evolutions during most of the past 30-plus years, long before I took on this job four years ago. Although segments of the program have been the subject of critical ombudsman columns on a number of occasions, I’ve also said many times that it remains the best and most informative hour of news anywhere on television, and it has never been more important. I follow the news closely but almost always learn something from this broadcast every night.

Boring, at Times, But a Luxury Always

Sometimes, of course, it can seem boring. Sometimes the devotion to balanced he said/she said panel discussions can leave you frustrated and angry and no smarter than you were 15 minutes earlier. Sometimes the interviewing is less challenging than one might hope. But the luxury of an uninterrupted hour of serious, straight-forward news and analysis is just that these days, a luxury. And, in today’s world of media where fact and fiction, news and opinion, too often seem hopelessly blurred, it is good to have Lehrer – clearly a person of trust – still at work.

I had the sense when he added his guidelines to that closing segment last Friday that the 75-year-old Lehrer was trying to re-plant the flag of traditional, verifiable journalism that he has carried so well all these years so that it grows well beyond his tenure – whatever that turns out to be – and spreads to all the new platforms and audiences that the contemporary media world now encompasses.

Oddly, I did not get any e-mail from viewers commenting on the new NewsHour format, other than one critical message that said “do not post.” Maybe that’s a good sign since people usually write to me to complain.

Make no mistake, the now defunct NewsHour with Jim Lehrer is still quite recognizable within the new PBS NewsHour. So those who wrote earlier and said they didn’t want any change won’t be terribly disappointed. I, personally, found the first few days of the new format and approach to be a distinct improvement. The program seemed to have more zip and energy, faster paced, with good interviews and without the always predictable language that introduced the show in the past. It presented its news judgments more quickly, benefitted from the early introduction of other top staff members as co-anchors, and from the introduction of a promising “new guy,” Hari Sreenivasan, a former CBS and ABC correspondent who presents a headline summary from the newsroom and is the liaison to an expanded NewsHour Web operation.

Now, just to keep this a respectable ombudsman’s column, let me add a few quibbles when it comes to Lehrer’s rules, as posted above.

First, one of the interesting things about American journalism is that there are no agreed-upon national standards, no journalistic equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath for physicians. There are, of course, many universal values and practices that vast numbers of journalists have voluntarily adhered to generally for many years, best exemplified by SPJ’s Code of Ethics. But the fact is that all major news organizations – from the Associated Press to the New York Times to PBS and CBS – have their own guidelines and standards that they try and live by. And they all have their differences.

Naturally, a Few Quibbles

Lehrer’s guidelines embody lots of the good, praiseworthy stuff, and we come out of the same journalistic generation and traditions. But I think on a couple of points they are actually too nice, too lofty, cruising somewhere above some of the grittier realities of journalism.

For example, “Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am. Assume the same about all people on whom I report.” Really? Bernard Madoff? Osama bin Laden?

Then there is: “Assume personal lives are a private matter, until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise.” I would argue, and have, that the NewsHour withheld from its viewers at the time a legitimate turn in a major story – reported by all other major news organizations – last year when it declined to inform them that a former senator and former candidate for the vice-presidency, John Edwards, issued a public statement and went on ABC Television to acknowledge that he had had an extra-marital affair with a woman who had been hired by his political action committee to make films for his campaign. That’s news.

Finally, there is, “Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes, except on rare and monumental occasions.” I agree about the blind quotes when they are used to attack someone personally. But anonymous sources have often proved to be absolutely crucial to the public’s right to know what’s really going on in scores of major stories as they have unfolded from Watergate to secret CIA prisons overseas.

The most accurate and important pre-war stories challenging the Bush administration’s on-the-record but bogus case for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were based on anonymous sources. Many of those stories, in part because they were based on anonymous sources, got buried or underplayed by newspapers at the time. Many of them never got reported at all on television, including the NewsHour. But there are times when there are mitigating circumstances – like internal threats within an administration or maybe jail time for leakers – when some sources must remain anonymous and when editors need to trust their reporters. And often you don’t know if the occasion is “rare and monumental” until it is too late. Pre-war Iraq, again, being Exhibit A.


 

Freedom of the Press_ Matteo Bertelli
Freedom of the Press, Matteo Bertelli

Some other links…

World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers

World Press Freedom Index

Ryerson School of Journalism

Edelman Trust Barometer

Freedom House

From KQED News – How a Chilliwack School Ditched Awards and Assemblies to Refocus on Kids and Learning

What a terrific story from Chilliwack, BC being covered by Linda Flanagan for California’s Bay Area PBS news outlet.

Photograph credit: Flickr/Sarah

Agreed! Excellence is a culture.

Some leaders talk a great game, but no matter the words coming out of their mouths, people respond to the culture they’re part of, and within it, they respond in both overt and subtle ways.

By the way, leaders aren’t limited to those in the head office… leaders are people who take initiative, work to their strengths, and lift others to do the same thing… so pay attention to making your strengths and inspiration constructive instead of deflating or injurious.

If you aren’t getting the results you expected, then reflect and consider what reality people are experiencing and which messages they may be receiving around your place, maybe unintended ones, that might conflict or work against your aims for attitude and behaviour.

It’s a shame when aims and culture contradict. It’s hypocrisy when aims are ignored or undermined by deliberately contradictory culture.

No shame in reflection. Reflection is learning, and learning’s a virtue.

Also agreed! School education should be “looking beyond the short term and thinking more about what kinds of adults they’re trying to develop.” That’s always been my approach.

Post-secondary, career, parenthood, civic involvement… all these and more will come about, and with guidance, let each person find their own way. But the adult human beings making their life decisions need a virtuous, thoughtful, positive foundation, and that’s what school education should always be about.

Click here to read Linda Flanagan’s story.

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.

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.