Saturday, June 25, 2011

An Accurate Measure of Society Continues ...

On June 15, I wrote a blog called: An Accurate Measure of Society. Two weeks later it has engendered some interesting commentary. I’ve reprinted the comments below and invite the discussion to continue.

June 15 entry: An Accurate Measure of Society.

It’s as accurate a measure as any of a society: what is the smallest act of kindness that is considered heroic?” Anne Michaels

Anne Michaels asks this in Fugitive Pieces, an incredibly poetic book of a young Jewish boy who, saved from certain death in WWII Poland, finds sanctuary in Greece and then Toronto. It’s a tale of loss, grief and self forgiveness. It is absolutely beautiful.

In writing about complicity and morality in the war years, Michaels writes:
"In those days, to be moral required no more than the slightest flicker of movement —a micrometer —of eyes looking away or blinking, while a running man crossed a field. And those who gave water or bread! They entered a realm higher than the angels’ simply by remaining in the human mire.”
So I ask, what small act of kindness is considered heroic in the community in which you live? Is it an accurate measure of our society?

June 25 “vog” answers the question with: At times, to me, a small act of kindness is simply to listen with compassion ... to not judge, just listen to one who so desperately needs to express herself ... to not react or respond unless asked to ... the simple support of thoughtful listening, and allowing a fellow human to express their anger, frustration, loss in a non-judgmental environment. Expression can be very healing, and a necessary need.

Jo-Ann responds: Hi vog. I appreciate your "small" act of kindness, it is truly a beautiful thing and not small at all. But, is it heroic? And if it is, what does that say about our society?

Vog responds: To answer your question, Jo-Ann ... Yes, I do think that this small act of kindness in active, thoughtful listening is heroic. To support my answer, let's look at the meaning of heroic = actions marked by courage or doing; supremely noble or self-sacrificing (from Merrian Webster dictionary). To not let one's ego react, and to instead hold it back and let our compassion blossom, to block our own fears and denials ... to support another, yes, to me that is difficult to do, takes courage, and is self-sacrificing. It is wonderful that in this society we have so much freedom and abundance, and yet I think that it also comes with a price ... too many narcissistic personalities who cannot see beyond themselves and their own ego.

Jo-Ann responds: Okay, that makes sense, listening with compassionate can be a heroic act. It takes courage to step beyond one’s reactive parts (aspects of who we are) and respond to another from the heart. But what does that say about our society if letting “our compassion blossom” is considered heroic? Anne Michaels wrote that turning a blind eye towards a Jewish man running across a field in Nazi Germany was heroic. That speaks volumes to the state of which wartime Germany was governed: certain lives were considered worthless and kindness was not so much measured in giving but in not seeing.

If thoughtful and active listening is labeled heroic what does that say about our society?

And, on a side note, is active listening really self-sacrificing or is it more about enhancing or building a stronger sense of Self? If we have a strong sense of who we are, do not our fears, defences and denials lessen their hold on us? With a strong sense of Self I feel our ability to listen deepens and we come more readily from the heart… quite self-enriching, in fact. But maybe, then, it is the definition of heroism that should be changed. Real heroic behaviour enriches all those involved, including the giver.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Political Complicity

I started this series on complicity after reading Nicole Shaw’s, (publisher of Synergy Magazine) article on bullying. Her organic farm is being (or the attempt is being made to) shut it down because of a by-law stating that their residentially zoned area cannot be used for agriculture purposes. The instigator, or original complainant, is a neighbor who, according to Shaw “has deliberately and systematically employed acts of intimidation and bullying.” Moreover, the local council has become complicit in the bullying by continuing to bias towards the neighbour’s viewpoint even though Shaw has received “hundreds of letters” of support with people coming to speak in their favour at community and council meetings. I encourage you to read her article for a more articulate account of what is happening.

During these past few weeks I’ve written about other forms of complicity: the Butterfly in the Jar story and my stint as a telephone solicitor. These are minor compared to what Nicole and her partner, Dirk, are experiencing but, located along the continuum of relatively benign to actively harmful, they are complicit just the same. The Canuck riot is at the other end of the spectrum where, I feel, the bystander’s complicity increased the acts of violence.

Today, I read of another act of complicity, that by the Canadian government. According to the Globe and Mail, “Canada,” acting alone on the UN stage, “has single-handedly blocked listing chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous chemical.”

The article goes on to say:

Listing asbestos on Annex III of the [Rotterdam] convention would force exporters such as Canada to warn recipient countries of any health hazards. Those countries could also then refuse asbestos imports if they didn't think they could handle the product safely.

Asbestos use is so tightly controlled in Canada that it is effectively banned. The federal government is spending tens of millions of dollars to remove asbestos from public buildings, including on Parliament Hill and from the prime minister's residence.
Canada’s asbestos industry is worth 90 million dollar and is mostly used in the production of cement. However, a G&M editorial stated: “most developed economies have forsaken it for other materials…. But it is a cheap enough alternative that growing Asian countries are a growing market for the product. An Asian medical journal recently reported that it expects a ‘surge of asbestos-related diseases in the immediate decades ahead’ as a result.”

Knowing the dangers of asbestos — to the extent that our government severely curtails its local use — makes the Canadian government complicit in damaging health legacies brought on by its use in the importing countries. And, the bottom line is that all the Rotterdam Convention is asking Canada to do is warn the potential buyer of its hazards. Isn’t that why we put such graphic images on tobacco products? Is not the federal government trying to limit its liability (reduce its complicity) while it benefits from tax monies from the sale of known carcinogenic products?

Moreover, exporting asbestos borders on a subtle form of economic bullying.

Bullying, according to Barbara Coloroso, is rooted in contempt. The person who is bullied “has been deemed by the bully and his or her accomplices to be worthless, inferior and undeserving of respect.” When we sell a hazardous product to another country with less stringent health regulations we are counting on their economic desperation to outweigh health considerations. It becomes an amoral transaction where money is prioritized over people’s health and welfare. Money is given more respect than human beings; industrial development over health concerns. We end up vicariously disrespecting the importing country’s citizens because their own government is doing so. We are both the bully and the complicit accomplice.

The ironic thing about bullying is when we hold another in contempt, we not only devalue them but ourselves.

Let us not be complicit in our government’s wrong doing. Write your local MP, Prime Minister Harper and the Industry Minister Christian Paradis.

Bullying, as well as the complicity of passively watching it happen, is the opposite to living an interdependent life of respect, mutuality and self leadership.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Spectator Sports

“Complicity is not sudden, though it occurs in an instant.” Barbara Coloroso

Now I must add my two-bits in on the Canuck riots. I am not the first to ask but I question the value of those who stood idly by while fires were set; stores were looted. No, my mistake, there was no idleness here: myriad of photos and videos were taken by those spectators during the evening hours of June 15. And yes, while those photos have proved invaluable in identifying the perpetrators, if the social media had not been there, would there have been as much violence? In other words, how much fuel did the picture taking milieu add to the mix? In standing by with cell phones held up high to capture the drama, were they not as complicit as those that verbally or physically encouraged the acts of violence?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

An Accurate Measure of Society

“It’s as accurate a measure as any of a society: what is the smallest act of kindness that is considered heroic?” Anne Michaels

Anne Michaels asks this in Fugitive Pieces, an incredibly poetic book of a young Jewish boy who, saved from certain death in WWII Poland, finds sanctuary in Greece and then Toronto. It’s a tale of loss, grief and self forgiveness. It is absolutely beautiful.

In writing about complicity and morality in the war years, Michaels writes:

"In those days, to be moral required no more than the slightest flicker of movement —a micrometer —of eyes looking away or blinking, while a running man crossed a field. And those who gave water or bread! They entered a realm higher than the angels’ simply by remaining in the human mire.”

So I ask, what small act of kindness is considered heroic in the community in which you live? Is it an accurate measure of our society?

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Complicity, Part Two

Inspired by Nicole Shaw’s recent article on bullying, I’ve been reading Barbara Coloroso’s book: The Bully, the bullied, and the bystander. What interests me most is the information on the latter. The bystander can be either an active witness, one who does something proactive against the bullying; or one who is complicit in the act (the passive bystander) by not doing anything to stop it. Although one could argue that they have never bullied or been bullied, I would state that all of us have, at least once in our lives, been a passive bystander as such. The reasons are varied and numerous from being fearful of our own safety; feeling the person getting bullied deserves the attack; or maybe deciding it just isn’t worth our time and energy. Maybe we were running for a bus when we saw it happen, or were late in picking up our child at school… regardless of why we do nothing, bystander complicity has, as Coloroso writes, its own consequences:

“Standing idly by or turning away have their own costs. Injustice overlooked or ignored becomes a contagion that infects even those who thought they could turn away. The self-confidence and self-respect of the bystanders are eroded as they wrestle with their fears about getting involved and with the knowledge that do to nothing is to abdicate their moral responsibility to their peer who is the target.”

To be complicit in bullying then can be as corrosive as being bullied. Notwithstanding the devastating consequences what I want to look at is the delicate line we daily draw for ourselves separating our status of active witness to passive bystander. When is minding one’s own business the correct path and when it is harmful to another (or to ourselves)? When is stepping in being a rescuer and when it is stopping an abusive (or potentially abusive) situation. How do we decide when something (or someone) is worthy of our notice and/or actions? Is our judgment based on ability or scope? Is a bullied country to big a scope and beyond our abilities to assist?

I asked a somewhat similar question at the end of my Butterfly in a Jar blog. There I was, disgusted at what I thought was a symbolic representation of garnering joy at another’s entrapment and yet I did not complain to the store management. Was I complicit in perpetuating the false myth of (hu)man’s dominion over all creatures? Of the grand denial that interconnectness is, indeed, a truism and that all beings (perhaps even representation of) deserve respect?

Here’s another example: I once worked reception for a hearing aid company. Little did I know when I got the job that part of my work would include telephone sales. In my desire to do a good job, I decided to give it a try. Management gave me a call list that I assumed, in utter naivety, were people who had voluntarily submitted their names. I assumed wrong. After calling several hundred people, extolling the virtues of hearing aids, I finally came across an irate “customer” who demanded to know why I was calling. He was the on “National no call list”, my company could be fined, it was an invasion of privacy, and much, much more. I immediately stopped calling people and approached my boss. Oh, don’t worry, he said, a $10,000 fine is a legitimate business expense. Keep calling.

And now I had a choice: keep calling and abusing people’s right to no sales calls or obey my own sense of ethics, cease calling and risk losing my job. Not knowing what to do, I called a few more people and feeling increasingly uncomfortable, decided for the higher road. Thankfully the boss was as concerned about that as he was with the fine. But it is not always this way. Question: If I had continued calling would have I been complicit in my boss’ disregard of people’s rights? Is there such thing as acceptable complicity?

The line of complicity is prone to variables such as job security, physical safety, and ostracism. How far along that line is making telephone sales (to people who are on a “no call” list) to working as a concentration camp guard because “I needed to survive” or “they told me to do it”. Please don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to devalue the horror of prison camps. There is no comparing the two. What I am saying is that the slope is slippery and we must strive to be conscious of it at all times in regards to our actions, our motives behind our actions and the consequences to our self and others.

Anne Michaels, author of Fugitive Pieces, states: “Complicity is not sudden, though it occurs in an instant.” How aware are we in the non-suddenness of it?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Interdependence

I am reading Barbara Coloroso’s The Bully, the Bully, and the Bystander and found this quote by Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

In one way or another, as a supporter, as a perpetrator, as a victim, or one who opposed the ghastly system, something happened to our humanity. All of us South Africans were less whole. … Those who were privileged lost out as they become more uncaring, less compassionate, less humane, and therefore less human. … Our humanity is caught up in that of all others. We are human because we belong. We are made for community, for togetherness, for family, to exits in a delicate network of interdependence. … We are sisters and brothers of one another whether we like it or not, and each one of us is a precious individual.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness

Monday, June 6, 2011

Butterfly in a Jar

I was at a garden store, standing at the cash and silently mourning the dearth of celebrity mags, when I spotted something that otherwise filled that need for minor titillation. Perhaps it was because my mind was distracted or perhaps I am just plain gullible, but I saw what I thought was a live butterfly caught in a sealed jar. The entrapped insect was on display in front of the cash with a sign that said: “tap the jar and watch it move”. A puerile yet horrifying desire bubbled within me to do what the sign demanded yet another part of me cried, “It’s a live butterfly; this is cruel … don’t do it”. I looked around, guilt making sure no one was watching and, ignoring my more noble side, tapped the glass. It moved. In fact, it fluttered madly about tearing at my heart. And even then, when I knew beyond doubt that the butterfly wasn’t real, my logical side refused to take charge. I felt complicit to some dastardly deed — a psychopath in the making, creating joy out of another’s pain.

The person in front of me paid her bill and I moved forward. I shamefully looked at the cashier. “What is this?” I asked, pointing at the display. She nodded sheepishly. “I don’t think I agree with this,” I said. Gazing anywhere but at me, she nodded again, vocal chords backed up against the scriptures of her job. I bought my soil and left.

Still in some doubt as to what I saw, I googled “Butterfly in a Jar” when I got home.

Butterfly in a jar - you can't fly so far.
When we were kids, we liked putting butterflies in jars so we could keep them forever and ever. But sometimes they always died. It was sad - extra sad because butterflies (in our opinion) are like rainbows and unicorns: unadulterated creations of magic and beauty.

But “sometimes” they died? And it was “extra sad” because butterflies are like “rainbows and unicorns”. What?? So, it would have been okay then to have a cockroach or an ant in the jar. Perhaps even a caterpillar, because you can’t really compare them to a rainbow. Is beauty the only thing that has value?

Now don’t get me wrong, I did my share of cruelty as a child. Without proper guidance I gave no thought that insects or other crawlers such as crabs had reason to be except for my pleasure. I am not proud of these deeds I did in the name of childish enjoyment but I also see them as a mark of an immature mind: one that we grow out of. And is loss, the death of another, okay in the pursuit of it?

I know this “butterfly” is fake. I also know now that it is attached to some miniscule wire that reacts electronically to vibration. What gives me the creeps is that it symbolizes enjoyment through entrapment; imprisonment and fear. We are supposed to teach our children not to hurt others, to see all of life as interconnected and yet here we provide them with a struggling, albeit fake, butterfly suggesting that man, indeed, has domain over all living things. Rubbish!

The advertisement goes on to say: There is absolutely no way you can look at a Electronic Butterfly in a Jar and not smile. It is like having a piece of magic nature on your desk that defies death. Pick your favorite butterfly flavor (or collect the whole team) and get ready to feel good when you marvel at your Electronic Butterfly in a Jar.

Well, it didn’t make me smile. There is nothing interdependent (or beautiful) about this “Butterfly in a Jar”: no respect, mutuality nor ethical leadership from the store owners or the original manufacturer. And then there is me… how complicit am I when not only do I not speak up to management but that I tap the jar? More on that in my next article.

Sunday, June 5, 2011


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Thursday, June 2, 2011

Half the Sky

Last winter I read a book called Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by husband and wife team Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Below is a review I wrote up for my Creative Codependence Blog. My apologies to those of you who read it there but I do feel it is an important enough book to repeat the entry.

I was reminded of this book with this blog’s previous entry on The Interdependence of Choice. In their book, Kristoff and WuDunn relate a story of how girls from rural African villages tend to miss school during menstruation due to lack of adequate protection. FemCare, a division of Proctor and Gamble (makers of Tampax and Always) heard of this and, in their desire to promote education for girls, started a distribution project involving free sanitary pads. The project immediately encountered some problems: “First, the girls needed a place to change their pads and clean up, but many schools lacked toilets. So FemCare began building toilets —with running water —at the schools, and that added hugely to the costs. Then the project encountered cultural taboos about blood, such as resistance to disposing of used pads in the garbage. FemCare had to make special provision for the disposal of pads, in some places even distributing incinerators. (p. 172)”

I tell this story not to conclude that rural African girls should not be given education due to the high costs of providing sanitary pads. Instead, I see it more as an allegory for the relativity and privilege of choice. In North America, the vast majority of menstruating women can choose between tampons and sanitary pads (organic or not), menstrual cups or taking contraceptives in such a way that the period is eliminated altogether. Often, and I include myself here, we choose the most convenient method rather than the environmentally sound one. In these small African villages, the girl’s choice is simple and rather bleak: go to school and risk embarrassing leakage or stay at home. My question to myself then is why, when I have so many opportunities to do the right thing, do I often choose to negate my responsibilities?

In lieu of answering that question, at least for now, I continue with the book review:

Kristoff and WuDunn travel the world investigating the lives of young girls and women in regions where being female is often a liability. They explore sex trafficking and forced prostitution, gender based violence and maternal mortality which, they say, “still needlessly claims one woman a minute.” They relate first hand stories from the young women they meet: community leaders and entrepreneurs who have risen from horrific abuse and neglect; and, sadly, second hand stories from those that didn’t survive. But, best of all, they offer possible solutions that may not be perfect but give a glimpse of what works, what doesn’t, and what we can do as individuals to reduce the oppression. And while I don’t agree with all their ideas, I believe they strive for interdependence, specifically regarding social awareness and responsibility.

For example, in looking at what does and doesn’t work in terms of charitable deeds, the biggest thing to note is that no matter how good one’s intentions are, one has to be in awareness of the local situation. Sending money is fine but where and who does it go? Building a school is great but are there better ways to provide or encourage education? Stating that genital mutilation is harmful may be true but do you have local support to help change the inherent beliefs behind the ritual?

As to who to send money to, Kristof and WuDunn suggest donating to microfinancing projects that target women. They write: “some of the most wretched suffering is caused not just by low incomes, but also by unwise spending —by men…Several studies suggest that when women gain control over spending, less family money is devoted to instant gratification [alcohol, prostitution and tobacco] and more for education and staring small businesses (p.192).” These microfinancing groups are peer monitored with local women supporting each other while also guaranteeing each other’s loans.

The authors have many supportive things to say about education but emphasize that solutions do not have to be grandiose. “One of the most cost-effective ways to increase school attendance,” they say, “is to deworm students which affects children’s physical and intellectual growth. ... Increasing school attendance by building schools ends up costing about $100 per year for every addition student enrolled. Boosting attendance by deworming children costs $4 per year per additional student enrolled (p. 171).” Health programs such as deworming, iodine supplements and free lunches help, of course, all children but they specifically give girls a needed boost because in many families girls are the last to receive medical attention. Some regions have even resorted to paying families small stipends to keep their children in school—even bonuses in the form of food if the child is a girl. This is great incentive as girls tend to be the first pulled from school whether due to finances or early marriage.

Regarding the imposition of beliefs onto others, Kristof and WuDonn tell a story about genital cutting that underlines this problem. Molly is an American woman who moved to Senegal, married a Senegalese man and works with local education projects. When their daughter approached puberty she told her mom, “I want to be cut, I promise I wont cry (p. 225).” Although born of parents who disproved the procedure, the child was succumbing to peer pressure —she didn’t want to be left out. Cutting was an important coming of age right affecting, among other things, marital chances. The daughter changed her mind when she was fully informed of the process but it was made clear to her mother that attitudes cannot be easily changed from without, change must come from within.

The authors continually espouse education as the way to improve children’s health, decrease family size and increase societal justice but they are huge proponents to being flexible in the search for solutions. For example, they cite a study finding “that after cable television arrived in a [rural Indian] village, women gained more autonomy —such as the ability to leave the house without permission and the right to participate in household decisions. There was a drop in the number of births… wife beating became less acceptable, and families were more likely to send daughters to schools (p. 245).” Some of the more popular shows, ironically, were not educational in the traditional sense, they were soap operas set in middle class Indian families where women held jobs and had more freedom. These shows modeled a different and more attractive lifestyle that ultimately helped changed societal mores.

Once again, I encourage you to read the book. It contains fascinating and inspirational stories from women from all over the world who are working locally to help themselves and their communities thrive. For more information on how to get involved go to