Monday, October 15, 2012

The "Power of We" Blog

I usually climb on my soapbox in what I hope is a sort of sly, sidling movement that the readers of my blog are just learning to detect--and perhaps avoid.  Frankly, I try to soften you up with either beauty or craftsmanship--the pleasant cadence of a well-turned sentence or an evocative image--before I circle back round to the things that matter to me:  beauty, craftsmanship and its satisfactions, all art, all play, the importance of conversation, reflection on our goals--all leavened by my reading and thinking.  But I've found myself doing something rather surprising.  I've joined in "Blog Action Day" in which committed bloggers are writing posts on the theme "The Power of We."  Are all artists independent folks who just want the time and solitude in which to create?  But of course, for me that desire for solitude is mingled with a desire for the kinds of conversations I have with my students, for the kinds of learning both my students and I do during a term's exploration of Jane Austen or creative nonfiction.

Yet my Facebook page and the friends who check in there have certainly changed my behaviour--as has my own sense (seconded by the vision of thinkers and observers like Chris Hedges) that we are possibly facing a twenty-first-century dark age, a time when economies are in tatters, when we try to re-think whether we value wealth or art/conversation/friendship, a time when climate change is threatening the world in which we live and questioning what it is we value:  the profits from oil sent to China or the pristine environment of The Great Bear Rainforest.  Daily I find myself signing petitions or following links to organizations like Leadnow or Ecojustice or to Occupy Regina. 

Using the language of Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind, somehow the "hive switch" has been thrown for me.  At this particular historical moment, I do not think I can say, with W.B. Yeats "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity" ("The Second Coming").  I am more hopeful.

Right now, the worst that Yeats speaks of are the cynics, those who, in Oscar Wilde's words, "know the price of everything and the value of nothing."  They have the most power; they now dominate the non-conversation about what we value, wherein free, unregulated markets are the answer to every problem.  Do you have common land in Saskatchewan that the Federal Government has given back to you to do with what you please?  Biodiversity and protected habitats are much less important than simply selling this land off to the highest bidder.  Do we know that adequate housing not only saves misery, but saves governments money?  But who will profit?  Are we putting our intelligence into figuring how to get oil to China, which is happy to fuel its own economy?  Why aren't we exploring solar and wind power?  But how can we charge for sunlight and wind?

Most of what we value is what we share in common.  Educational institutions.  Green spaces.  Justice.  Clean air and water. 

In The Righteous Mind, Haidt acknowledges that chimps never cooperate, partly because they can't conceive of or communicate goals they might share, and that we resemble chimps in this respect more than we'd like.  But he also talks about how "the hive switch" can be turned on.  Interestingly, both Haidt and Netta Weinstein, Andrew K. Przybylski and Richard M. Ryan have done interesting work on the way immersion in the natural world leads us to be more generous. Haidt writes "Awe acts like a kind of reset button:  it makes people forget themselves and their petty concerns.  Awe opens people to new possibilities, values, and directions in life.  Awe is one of the emotions most closely linked to the hive switch, along with collective love and collective joy...precisely because nature can...shut down the self, making you feel that you are simply a part of a whole (Haidt 228; italics in original).

On Friday I was talking with one of the students of my Expository and Persuasive Writing class about mob mentalities.  Obviously Haidt's description of the elephant came into my attempt to explain why and how people
sometimes do things that are profoundly unethical--like kill Reena Virk.  Most of our decisions are made by an inner elephant that isn't terribly receptive to the directions of its more rational and ethical driver.  But Haidt talks compellingly of how we can get the powerful elephant (like powerful politicians who don't like evidence) under the control of the more moderate driver:  "Intuitions can be shaped by reasoning, especially when reasons are embedded in a friendly conversation or an emotionally compelling novel, movie, or news story" (Haidt 71).

The truth is, I don't know how the big changes, the siesmic shifts in the public opinion that show up in the ballot box actually happen.   So my model for "The Power of We" is that we keep talking, that we keep up a conversation about what is just, about what makes sense in the long run (my vote is for the Great Bear Rainforest) rather than the short run (Chinese citizens as foolishly dependent on oil as we are).  We all have a voice that can be heard beyond the ballot box, whether we use it to sing a song that inspires a listener's awe, or sign a petition, or march in a Gay Pride Parade, or write a letter that comforts someone who is grieving. Just keep the civil conversation going.

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