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picI’m a Vancouver-based cartoonist, illustrator, writer, and public speaker. My political cartoons and illustrations have appeared in Maclean’s magazine and publications across Canada, as well as promos for The History Channel and the Bravo Network.

My writings on science, popular culture and politics have appeared in The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Adbusters, The Georgia Straight, Common Ground and This magazine. I’m a regular contributor to The Vancouver Courier, and have guested on CBC Radio, CBC NewsWorld, and Roundhouse Radio.

Main website: www.geoffolson.com
Email: mwiseguise “at” yahoo.com

GOODNESS KNOWS: ALTRUISM AND FORT McMURRAY

“Goodness goes viral as Canadians respond to Fort McMurray wildfire,” reads a May 4 Toronto Star headline.

“In times of crisis, Canada truly comes together – like one big small town,” reads a May 6 headline in The Globe and Mail.

“When disaster hit, the people of Fort McMurray showed their better natures, not the instincts of ‘survivalists,’ Macleans magazine offered.

Two CTV anchors remarked on their news team’s terrifying exodus out of Fort McMurray. “It astonishes us how all of you stopped and shared your stories with grace and courage,” one anchor pronounced, before thanking the residents for helping them get the story out.

In The Tyee, Crawford Kilian opined that the people of Fort McMurray “dropped their individualism and went communist.” (“Not Bolshevik communism — more like the Christian communism of Alberta’s Hutterites,” Kilian helpfully added.)

The subtext of these reports is that people caught in a natural or man-made disaster shouldn’t be expected to behave in an orderly and altruistic manner. You might even get the impression that workers from Fort McMurray upended the History Channel Disaster Week expectations of the Canuck commentariat.

In fact, when faced with natural or man-made disasters, human beings are more likely to behave not with mutually destructive behaviour, but with socially creative, even joyous, engagement. This is the thesis of Rebecca Solnit’s 2010 book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster.

The author examines a number of historical disasters, including the 1906 earthquake in San francisco, the 1917 harbour explosion in Halifax, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, 9/11 in Manhattan, and 2004’s Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

The testimony she uncovers from survivors runs counter to Hollywood narratives of screaming citizenry running madly off in all directions.

The American philosopher William James reported witnessing widespread cooperation and goodwill in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. It was his brother on the opposite coast, Henry James the novelist, who imagined the worst by mail – “mangled forms, hollow eyes, starving bodies, minds insane with fear.”

Nearly a century later, writer Stephan Doheny-Farina remarked on the counterintuitive responses to the 1998 ice storm that paralyzed much of Quebec. “…As as the power grid fails, in its place arose of vibrant grid of social ties – formal and informal, organized and serendipitous, public and private, official and ad hoc.”

This flow of social capital into destroyed spaces is not unusual, Solnit argues. Ironically, its the lockdown mindset of officialdom (predicated on the notion of impending social chaos) that often makes things worse.

The author resurrects an obscure sociologist, Charles E. Fritz, to explain the phenomenon. “Disasters provide a temporary liberation from the worries, inhibitions and anxieties associated with the past and future because they force people to concentrate their full attention on immediate moment-to-moment, day-to-day needs within the context of present realities.” Fritz observed.

“Disaster provides a form of societal shock which disrupts habitual, institutionalized patterns of behaviour and renders people amenable to social and personal change,” he added.

This doesn’t make disasters good. But if institutional mechanisms of social cohesion vapourize in catastrophic circumstances, the response is more likely to be freely chosen cooperation over Thomas Hobbes’ “war of all against all.”

In fact, the feelings of liberation reported by people in disaster situations highlights an unfortunate truth: modern market economies are engineered to shape people into isolated consumers rather than engaged citizens. When the atomizing lid is removed, people become tremendously excited by their own sense of agency and capacity to bond with their fellows.

So it’s a bit galling when our national press applauds Fort McMurrayites and the rest of us for uber-Canadian “goodness,” as if what happened earlier this month was a national outlier. In what must be the biggest snoozepaper non-sequitur so far this year, The Globe and Mail’s Marsha Lederman used the story as a pro-Canadian bludgeon against Americans who support Donald Trump. That’s not even apples and oranges – it’s twenty-storey truck tires and gold cuff links.

It’s something of a category error to applaud the people of Fort McMurray and beyond for being cooperative Canadians when they were just behaving like normal human beings. That’s the good news about all this: it’s bigger than us.

http://www.geoffolson.com

WARNING: THIS ARTICLE MAY CONTAIN TRIGGERS

A few months ago a friend returned from the Greek island Lesbos, where he had volunteered in the refugee rescue effort. The stories he told were both heart-rending and heartening – of parents adrift with their children in deflating dinghies, and the close friendships made between Sunnis and Shiites at the refugee camp.

It’s instructive to contrast such stories of offshore suffering with Anglophile “trigger warnings,” “safe spaces,” and the popularization of the clinical terms “psychopath” and “post traumatic stress syndrome.”

You may have heard of university “trigger warnings.” These are warnings attached to teaching materials that might trigger a previous trauma in a student.

Todd Pettigrew, Associate Professor of English at Cape Breton University, recognizes the absurdity involved in flagging course content.

“In my own teaching I present material that references or depicts agonizing murders, unspeakable torture, adultery, incest, psychological abuse of women, mental illness, and suicide. And that’s just my Shakespeare course. In fact, that’s just Hamlet,” Pettigrew wrote in a 2014 article for Macleans.

Material that might trouble any given student could range from a battlefield photograph to a line from Mark Twain to a fragment of slave song. It goes without saying that human history is a blood-soaked affair; even first-year textbooks in psychology have potentially triggering content. (Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments, anyone?)

A jaw-dropping 2015 article in The New York Times indicates how far down the rabbit hole some American ivory towers have collapsed. When Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island arranged for two female academics – a feminist and a libertarian – to debate campus sexual assault, campus volunteers began constructing a “safe space” for anyone who found the presented material too upsetting.

“Think of safe spaces as the live-action version of better-known trigger warnings,” writes New York Times contributor Judith Shulevitz. She describes the form it took at Brown University: “The room was equipped with cookies, colouring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.”

It sounds a Portlandia sketch running amok in the real world, but there’s nothing funny about it. There’s a significant risk of academic chill when students are shielded from the free exchange of ideas – the very foundation of academic study and advancement.

A related phenomenon is the overuse of “post-tramautic stress syndrome” in therapeutic circles and beyond to describe the aftereffects of any past grievance or hurt. Like any inflated currency, PTSD is losing its spending power through expansion of its supply. The same applies for other clinical terms, such as “psychopath.”

The recovery forum Psychopath Free has a telling comment from a poster advising newbies: “So when you feel those things after a relationship, does it really matter if your ex was a psychopath, a sociopath, a narcissist, or a garden-variety jerk? The label doesn’t make your feelings any more or less valid. Your feelings are absolutes.”

“Yes, it does matter,” insists the surname-free creator of The Culture of False Oppression blog. “Psychopathy is a personality disorder. Being a jerk is a behavioural problem….It matters even more in terms of discussing your story on forums based on psychopathy, where the constant use of the word psychopath is encouraged,” Maria writes.

The quote from Psychopath Free betrays the mindset behind trigger warnings, safe spaces, microaggressions, and other head-in-the-sand memes: feelings are literal absolutes. In contrast, clinical terminology, scientific methodology, due process, free speech, and other Enlightenment-era ideas are relative and provisional.

Yet in spite of the impact of trigger-mad trends from south of the border, Canadian academe has put up some resistance to the cult of victimization in higher learning.
In 2015 The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) released this statement: “Classrooms cannot be risk free zones – it is not only a right, but an essential component of academic freedom for instructors to teach…. When institutions require or suggest that academic staff use trigger warnings, they are interfering with academic freedom to choose and use course materials and teaching methods. Trigger warnings are inimical to the academic enterprise because they encourage censorship, and the inappropriate surveillance of the classroom.”

The Vancouver Courier, May 5