WTF is wrong with people these days?

What's wrong with people these days?Into everyone’s life comes the realization that we are not young and in between the time when we were, the world has changed. Not always for the better, either. In fact, it’s hard not to conclude the whole world has gone to shit since the internet arrived.

Aging is not something that, as a culture, we embrace. After all, who wants to be old? Being a senior today is way too often portrayed in the media as being vulnerable, out of touch and cranky, as if we emerged from the chrysalis of middle age into a hunched curmudgeon shuffling along with a walker, incontinence and a squint, grouching about how we miss rotary dial phones.

No, mostly we’re too busy to notice that it’s been a gradual but inexorable slide. We have jobs, hobbies, entertainment, pets, families, and even ukuleles to keep us from noticing the daily drift. We’re forever young as long as we don’t look inward. Then suddenly we look up and WTF? How did things get this way? How did I get this way? It’s like waking up with a start when you hear a door slam in the night.

I was a skeptic from an early age, but of late it seems I shake my head at human follies more often than I nod in appreciation of our accomplishments. But we all have more and more reason to be angry and astounded at human stupidity. Just spend an hour on social media or watching YouTube videos and you’ll be saying “You gotta be kidding!” so often that your Google Home device will start telling you to shut the fork up.

For me – and maybe for many of my readers – when I read headlines and news stories these days, or watch YouTube videos like those above, they are often followed in my head with a simple question: “What’s wrong with people these days?” And it’s not a once-and-a-while thing. It’s several times a day. I mean, just look at these recent stories and headlines and try not to ask yourself that question:

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The Ten Bulls

Search for the BullA series of ten Buddhist drawings make up what are known collectively as the Ten Oxherding Pictures or sometimes just as the Ten Bulls. Each one graphically illustrates a stage along the path to enlightenment or self-realization, but they can also be seen as a metaphor for a wider range of human development and growth. (they are not, as Lifecoach screams ungrammatically but histrionically in its headline, “The 10 Secret ZEN Steps Straight To ENLIGHTENMENT!” There is no secret about them, and they are not steps but metaphors for steps.)

I first encountered these illustrations as a section in the book, Zen Flesh Zen Bones, by Paul Reps. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones was published in 1957 and has since gone through several editions.

Discovering the FootprintsI was given a paperback copy of the book in the late 1960s by the Buddhist owner of a farm in BC where I briefly stayed during one of my peripatetic explorations of Canada. I managed to hang onto that copy all these years and all the miles in between and I have read it several times since I first received it. That copy still sits on my bookshelf, well read and well worn, one of a very rare few that survived my travels and my frequent changes in interests.

In fact, Buddhism — or perhaps more correctly it would be Buddhist ethics — has been one of the few things I have been relatively constant with in my studies, something I still read and learn about. And attempt in my humble way to practice. (I lean towards the Zen-like North American Buddhism rather than the schools that still include supernatural aspects and elements (Tibetan, for example), although all share common themes in ethics and morality.)

Perceiving the BullThe Ten Bulls has long been a particular favourite of expression for me, both artistically and as a metaphor. At any point in our lives, if you think about your progress in whatever it is you are doing, whatever goal you pursue, we can all identify with every image, every stage. That’s why this series has such a universal appeal. It can be read in reference to, say, learning a musical instrument (“In his song “Ballad of the Absent Mare,” Cohen interprets the Ten Oxherding Pictures through the eyes of a western cowboy balladeer… singer-songwriter Cat Stevens made reference to the Ten Oxherding Pictures in the title of his album Catch a Bull at Four.” See here for more.). Or writing a novel. Or accomplishing a fitness goal. Even financial accomplishments have been paired.

Catching the BullYou can also read the series as a political metaphor: chasing the bull(shit) of modern politics (see Herding facts and their alternatives in a post-truth-era). Even without the scatological reference, politics is itself a learning experience (at least for those in it who care about more than themselves) with stages of growth that can be represented by these images.

But don’t be fooled into believing that each image is an isolated step like some sort of enlightenment hopscotch: each is rather a snapshot of a progression, or as one writer puts it, the “…action unfolds in poetic leaps that cross over several stages. The leaps from one stage to another are driven by the ongoing interaction between subject and object, which is captured poetically rather than logically.”

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Collingwood and cannabis stores

Buffer zones

Credit where credit is due: Collingwood council this week voted unanimously to allow a cannabis store to open here. That came as somewhat of a surprise given earlier negative comments from come councillors, but in the end they all agreed to it. It made sense to say yes, given that pot is now legal in Canada. Saying no would have made the community seem both out-of-touch and fusty, and would have reinforced the resolutely-closed-for-business reputation that last council gave our town.

But the staff report also shows that there is still a deep prohibition-era thinking in town hall. Take a look at the map, above, showing in blue the 200-metre buffer staff thinks need to created to prevent stores from opening nearby. Like parks, for example. Although there is no logical reason to ban sales near parks, the proposed 200 meter buffer basically rules out all of the commercial space and strip malls along First Street.

And who decided 200 metres is appropriate for anything? Would anything change if it was reduced to 100? or 50? How about 1.5m, the width of most sidewalks? Is there some scientific research that says a community is safer, more morally upright if cannabis stores are 200 metres from, say, an arboretum, bench or labyrinth? I half-expected staff to show council a clip from the 1936 film Reefer Madness as the reference to back up their recommendations.*

Within those very buffer zones, the town already has retaillers selling alcohol, tobacco, and prescription drugs. You can get drunk in a dozen restaurants and bars along First Street, but staff think someone selling pot nearby is a threat? Do staff really believe that selling legal pot will corrupt park visitors in ways that, say, legal opioids or cheap whisky don’t? Or that strollers walking their dog along a trail will suddenly be overcome and engage in crimes of moral turpitude when they inadvertently come within 200 metres of a cannabis store? I say we got trouble my friends, right here in River City… **

And as for tobacco – it’s the most insidious, nasty product you can buy legally: addictive, cancer-causing, and dirty. Our parks, streets and beaches are already heavily littered with toxic cigarette butts. Butts are the ocean’s “single largest source of trash” according to data collected by NGO Ocean Conservancy. Smokers are universally dirty – I’ve never met one in all my years who didn’t litter. Just take a look at the sidewalk in front of the coffee shops downtown, or the deep reefs of discarded butts beside Wal-Mart or other box stores where staff go to smoke. Do town staff (who do nothing about the toxic butt problem let alone smoking on public property) really think a single pot store is worse than all those smokers and the outlets where they can buy their drugs?

Personally, I would prefer to see a store downtown because it would be good for the downtown economy. But I don’t think it should be the only viable area offered for a retail outlet: location should be the retailler’s choice based on their business model and own studies (and concerns like parking). Arbitrarily limiting its location might be a fine way to do things in the old Soviet planning system, but those of us who still believe in free enterprise have always found that system rather stifling.

Cannabis should be treated the same way as alcohol and other drugs. We already have zoning in place to limit where retail or commercial operations can take place. Why create artificial buffer zones when we already have all the necessary planning rules? All that will do is add another unnecessary layer of bureaucracy to the process in a town already labelled closed for business.

But maybe that’s the goal.
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You’re going to die. Again.

Which end?Yeah, I know: we’re ALL going to die sooner or later. No one gets out of here alive. But that doesn’t stop people from saying the end is nearer than we expect. Right around the corner, in fact.

The latest Magical Event being touted online (which event is absolutely not like all those others they predicted in the past…) starts December 21 (apparently “the week of Hanukkah in December 2019” because nothing says Jewish festive occasion and worship like the Christian end of the world…), according to wingnut and serial false predictor David Montaigne.

Montaigne has written six books of “prophecies” including several that predict the end of the world – most recently in June, 2016. Oops. They have catchy titles like, Antichrist 2016-2019: Mystery Babylon, Barack Obama & the Islamic Caliphate and End Times and 2019: The End of the Mayan Calendar and the Countdown to Judgment Day.

Like the other times it ended, December’s End of the World  will be courtesy of Jesus. Well, sort of. It’s the oddball version of Jesus that some fringe religious wingnuts have cooked up. You know: the one where the dead guy returns, blaze of glory, takes all the white Republicans into heaven then tortures the rest of us for all eternity. Yet despite numerous predictions, the Republican Jesus has so far failed to end the world and take his Chosen Few White Dudes up to heaven. Maybe it’s the thought that counts, not the actual Rapture.

Rapture hatchYeah, that Rapture thing those wacky Xtians invented to scare each other with. An event that comes with a nudge-nudge-wink-wink-all-your-sins-forgiven for the faithful and eternal damnation for anyone not White Republican. Did I mention this is mostly an American delusion? Yep, and widely believed among those folks who voted for Donald Trump. Imagine that.

Oh, and don’t forget the Antichrist they throw into the mixture: their favourite demon. Someone liberal. Or Barack Obama.

Seriously: Obama. Why? because he’s not a white Republican. He’s black. And a Democrat. And smart, well-spoken and witty, too! Who knew there were white supremacist religious nuts in the Repugnican party? Okay, we all did. But back to David Montaigne.

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Musings on leadership

Dilbert
What makes a good leader? Or a bad one, for that matter? That’s a long-standing debate that reaches back into history.* Of late I’ve been reading about and pondering the characteristics of leadership.

Some people are promoted, elected or appointed to positions of authority. This makes them leaders by definition or responsibility, but not always by capability, style or attitude. Simply being in a position of authority or having a title doesn’t necessarily mean these people have leadership qualities.

We’ve all had the experience of people who were promoted or appointed beyond their ability; people who became martinets, bullies or who lost control of the group they’re supposed to lead, either by incompetence or inability.

The Peter Principle states that “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” This can been seen in politics, too. We’ve watched many MPs, MPPs and councillors promoted to the ranks of the government, taking on important roles only to show themselves as incapable of handling the task. Not everyone is suited for the role of leader. Some people are simply best as followers, as supporters, minions, backbenchers or even as the opposition.

Leadership implies teams and followers, not just an office or title. No matter how lofty the title is, without followers a leader is just a lone person out for a walk.

leadership stylesAccording to the US Army Handbook (1973) there are three styles of leadership: Authoritarian or autocratic; Participative or democratic; Delegative or Free Reign (see the illustration on the right for a graphic description).

This may seem a mite simplistic. Other sites list more styles, often many more. For example, the site Mind Tools offers ten distinct styles:

  • Autocratic leadership.
  • Bureaucratic leadership.
  • Charismatic leadership.
  • Democratic leadership/participative leadership.
  • Laissez-faire leadership.
  • People-oriented leadership/relations-oriented leadership.
  • Servant leadership.
  • Task-oriented leadership.
  • Transactional leadership.
  • Transformational leadership.

Now while it is seldom a leader single-mindedly practices just one of these styles, and usually displays a mix of different styles that surface at different times, most leaders bend towards a particular style. Or a combination – an autocratic, bureaucratic leader, for example. There are clearly positive and negative management styles. Post-hoc and micromanagement are two examples of bad styles, for example.

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Goodbye, Information Age

Fake news“Say goodbye to the information age: it’s all about reputation now,” is the headline of an article by Italian philosopher and professor Gloria Origgi, published recently on Aeon Magazine’s website.

She writes:

…the vastly increased access to information and knowledge we have today does not empower us or make us more cognitively autonomous. Rather, it renders us more dependent on other people’s judgments and evaluations of the information with which we are faced.

I no longer need to open a computer, go online and type my questions into Google if I want to know something: I can simply ask it. “Hey Google, what’s the population of China?” or “Hey Google, who’s the mayor of Midland, Ontario?” or “Hey Google, how many lines are in Hamlet?” Google will answer with all the data. If I ask, “Hey Google, what are the headlines this morning?” it will play a recent CBC newscast.

Google Home can, however, only give me a summary, a snippet, a teaser. Should I want to delve deeper or into than one question, I still need to go online and search. And that leads me into the information swamp that is the internet. How do i sort it all out?

The way we access information has changed as radically as the amount available to us. Just look at the Cambridge Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2018: “Nomophobia” which means “a fear or worry at the idea of being without your mobile phone or unable to use it”.

Describing a typical day in his life, Dan Nixon writes of how we isolate ourselves with out phones, imagining they are instead connecting us:

…the deluge of stimuli competing to grab our attention almost certainly inclines us towards instant gratification. This crowds out space for the exploratory mode of attention. When I get to the bus stop now, I automatically reach for my phone, rather than stare into space; my fellow commuters (when I do raise my head) seem to be doing the same thing.

What could there be that is so engaging on the phone that the writer cannot use the time to, say, think? Read? Observe? Communicate with his fellow travellers? Eleven studies found that “…participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts.” The phone serves as a personal barrier to interaction instead of facilitating it. It’s a feedback loop: making it seem we are “doing something” by giving us a sensory response, while making it seem that simply thinking is “doing nothing.”

“Nothing, to my way of thinking, is better proof of a well-ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.”
Seneca, Letter II to Lucilius, trans. Robin Campbell, Penguin Classics: Letters from a Stoic, 2004.

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