A friend emailed me this news article today. It’s about Canadian politicians and the currently famous picture of the drowned Syrian refugee boy.
I have one strong case to defend the conservatives…overload. They have a lot of cases to deal with, many of them tragic. But people don’t like that excuse. I don’t envy the government officials, this is an issue that really demonstrates the difficulty of governing, at a personal level. Most of us are glad to be free of that burden.
Overall, I am most offended by the opportunism of Trudeau in this context than the conservative’s policies. What’s the quote? “You can’t decide you have compassion after the fact…etc..”(something along those lines). Mulcair’s response was much more subtle and much more palatable, but still opportunist. Harper’s response pissed me off, too. But I think it comes from a solid, respectable conviction, a conviction I disagree with, but one that is useful for the moral debate, at any rate…because it is consistent, it has merits as well as severe problems. Ultimately, I don’t know if politicians can turn that opportunistic part of their personality off, when you have been campaigning aggressively night and day, you lose sight of reality.
Yet…what I actually see in this story is the moral ineptness of our people. This is a case in which I would say, people read about it, blame someone else, and go back to their lives. If you were to bring up the refugee crisis before this photo was published, and before this story was published, people would assign it a low priority in the overall election debate. Now that the international community can blame Canada for inaction, all of a sudden it is a priority (or not, we shall see). But the problem is that I have a longer memory than the news cycle. I know from my personal experience that people don’t care until they have something tangible. A big reason is the lack of imagination and the lack of committing time to thinking about the suffering of others, and an abundance of time thinking about which beach resort to trot off to next, or which streams to go a-fishing on.
If we entered this conversation with the acknowledgement that our real set of values in this life do not place human lives above our own amusements, then we can go somewhere. But people find this appalling. So I’ll admit it, that I don’t universally value human lives above my own pains and pleasures, and this is a moral failure. This is why I feel qualified in saying that we are a morally inept people, I have to look no further than my own life. It upsets me that this is a condition of modern life, but there are reasons: lack of power to change anything; lack of information to remind me of this problem. Etc… Perhaps if society were structured differently, I would not be such a failure.
Many of those who get involved in the ’cause’ will find this position frustrating, no doubt. I have been in both sets of shoes, as an activist in certain causes and as the myopic worker bee. There are very marginal expressions of power available to people (Canadians in this case), perhaps starting with who you vote for. However, these marginal expressions of power do not produce the feedback needed to incentivise an individual to remain vigilant and committed to a cause. Rather it is the acknowledgement of like-minded peers that matters.
This is what leads me to my conclusion that these types of injustice will be a fact of life until someone comes along with a mechanism to express power, or a mechanism to sustain commitment to a cause. I would imagine a currency of some sort, ‘freedom points’ if you will, a way to contribute to the overall good of humanity in a measurable, publicly displayable fashion. The closest thing I am aware of are the works of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum…things like the happiness index. But these are macro-societal initiatives that do not communicate to individual “morality” balances.
Another interesting observation I can draw from this article is the power and real world value of art. Call a photo what you will. The narrative of this newspaper is a work of art, it is not a scientific report. It selects the facts that might compel the readers to act. If you ever doubt the fundamental power and primacy of the humanities (maybe not in an academic setting, but in the real world), here is your evidence. It’s not a scientific narrative, it’s a moral and philosophical one that is being reported.
But to focus on art. It serves the purpose of communicating emotion. And what we need in this world is a ‘free market’ of emotion. We need to obliterate emotional distance and the best tools we have, at the moment, are works of art. The sad reality is that arts in commercial settings are too often used to fuel our lust for materials, what else is pop music? It is not something I will ever really feel spiritual about, I can basically guarantee that much. If you want more evidence of our moral ineptness, turn on any television, and remember the statistic that in the time use surveys conducted recently, television is still the number one way people pass time. How many moralistic programs can you find? Well, a bit of a trick question, but the morality of the television is highly consumerist. And is a TV mirror or a window?
Anyway…Adorno basically wrote all of these ideas 50+ years ago. Nothing has changed. Thoroeau wrote this same thing 150+ years ago. Who else in history? Marcus Aurelius? The stoics? The difference is that we have technology to viably communicate these things, and most people don’t even feel guilty for wasting the opportunity.