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This lecture, which I attended at the University of Alberta, and later read the book was one of the cornerstones of the awakening of my intellectual curiosity about the world and how human societies work.

Each time history repeats itself, so it’s said, the price goes up. The 20th century was a time of runaway growth in human population, consumption, and technology, placing a colossal load on all natural systems, especially earth, air, and water — the very elements of life.

The most urgent questions of the 21st century are: where will this growth lead? Can it be consolidated or sustained? And what kind of world is our present bequeathing to our future?

In A Short History of Progress Ronald Wright argues that our modern predicament is as old as civilization, a 10,000-year experiment we have participated in but seldom controlled. Only by understanding the patterns of triumph and disaster that humanity has repeated around the world since the Stone Age, can we recognize the experiment’s inherent dangers, and, with luck and wisdom, shape its outcome.

Ronald Wright was born in England, educated at Cambridge, and now lives in British Columbia. A novelist, historian, and essayist, he has won prizes in all three genres, and is published in ten languages. His nonfiction includes the number one bestseller Stolen Continents, winner of the Gordon Montador Award and chosen as a book of the year by the Independent and the Sunday Times.

His first novel, A Scientific Romance, won the 1997 David Higham Prize for Fiction and was chosen a book of the year by the Globe and Mail, the Sunday Times, and the New York Times. His latest book is the novel Henderson’s Spear. Ronald Wright is also a frequent contributor to the Times Literary Supplement, and has written and presented documentaries for radio and television on both sides of the Atlantic.

 

Found the whole lecture on youtube and will link to the CBC archive as well.

 

Going against the dominant expectations as a teacher, as Chomsky says, is a dangerously fine line. Those who do, please keep up the great work.

A conversation on the one of the more malignant aspects of the current social zeitgeist.

A spark of light folks, yet another prominent individual believes in biological reality. Go go JK Rowling!

Cancel culture is the mirco level of what is happening in many parts of our online culture.  The macro: group dynamics, power dynamics, and class are what drive the process.  As critical thinkers and active citizens we need to be aware of both levels and how they interact and form the popular social currents in our society.

The most often suggested tonic to cancel culture is free speech.  I tend to agree with that proviso, but I would add that free speech is not enough to guarantee a social dynamic that is immune from the ravages of cancel culture.  Free speech must be coupled with a citizenry that has the wherewithal to think deeply about issues and be capable of frank analysis of the positions and arguments that they make, otherwise the utility of free speech becomes decidedly limited.

People have to be able to agree to listen to each other for free speech to work as we imagine it should.  Yelling at each other from ideological fortresses accomplishes nothing.

I would suggest that the ability to compromise is one of the key ingredients that is required to make a society that values liberty and freedom work.   There is a great deal of work to do in this regard as the barriers in place, as described by the JSTOR article, enumerates.  Overcoming cancel culture will involve not only improving our own critical faculties, but also helping others make that very same transition.

 

 

“Perhaps more than anything else, cancel culture will be seen as an intrinsic part of life lived publicly in this decade, with the downfall of powerful Hollywood producers, racist and sexist comedians, white supremacists, and clueless corporations left in its wake. Cancel culture, not unlike cyberbullying, has also had its more “innocent” victims, ordinary citizens who said the unacceptable thing in a public forum. Is the destructive power of cancel culture too much?

Many perceive this phenomenon of cancelling as a very new and scary thing that young people do, so much so that they’re ready to cancel the whole thing. Even Barack Obama weighed in on it recently, cautioning young people not to be overly critical and judgmental, as though the very idea of “cancelling” must always wrong and unreasonable, regardless of what is being criticized or how problematic it may be. Obama’s negative reactions to this kind of power being wielded by a groups that are relatively powerless, as an establishment figure (no matter how benevolently he presents himself), are perhaps not unusual.

The social psychologist John Drury shows that the discourse around crowds, collectives, and people power have historically been problematic and negative, revealing the class biases and political ideologies of those commentators who describe them. Communities and crowds out of step with societal norms are often presented as something to be feared, and this is something many of us internalize. Crowds are scary. Even as we speak, there’s civil unrest, protests, demonstrations, and strikes happening all around the world, for a myriad of different reasons, in a decade that began with the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street protests. These movements have not often been described in flattering terms.

The kind of language that’s used to talk about groups of people assembled together—or their collective actions seeking to change the status quo—often maligns communities as irrational, “mobs” or “rioters” with uncontrolled, invalid emotions, a kind of faceless contagion that presents a threat to civilized, law-abiding society and the ruling establishment. As Drury points out, this language systematically delegitimizes the aims of these collectives as being trivial, if not dangerous:

If the crowd is pathologized and criminalized, then its behaviour is not meaningful. There can therefore be no rational dialogue with it. Since the crowd is not part of the democratic process, it is legitimate and even necessary to suppress it with the full force of the state.

No one could argue that it’s pleasant to be at the bottom of a pile on, virtual or not. It’s true that people can band together for the wrong reasons, but, funnily enough, they can also band together for very good reasons. Cancelling someone, in terms of public shaming, or shunning, or just being criticized, is, again, nothing new, though it is arguably different in how quickly and severely it can happen online. The English professor Jodie Nicotra points out that such a thing has always been a part of community life and, in fact, a part of building and maintaining a community’s values. Whenever people have deviated from the norm, there have been public acts of shaming, from the scarlet letters or village stocks of Puritan life to the ritual public head shavings of thousands of French women who were suspected of fraternizing with German soldiers in World War II.

Cancel culture is, on the one hand, less severe than these acts of public shaming, because it is mostly linguistic and communicative. On the other hand, it can seem more extreme, because unlike these historical events of past shaming, it’s unconstrained by geographical space and can involve large numbers of people in what can become an unrelenting personal attack. And that certainly can have unintended repercussions. Because social media, especially Twitter, is loosely joined together by a network of weak ties, it actually makes it easier for new, especially negative information, such as rumors or criticisms or even fake news, to spread quickly. It’s not constrained by closely linked social circles where information eventually stops spreading after repeatedly being shared by multiple people.”

   I think it is uncontroversial to say that we are hardwired to be social animals.  Yet, why do we design our cities and spaces to make interaction and social contact less affable and easy to access?

 

“Urban loneliness is a virtual pandemic. Even though there have never been as many cities across the world as there are right now with such high populations, urban loneliness carries with it huge social, medical and financial consequences. Why are cities the new capitals of isolation? 

“Ideas contributor Tom Jokinen believes the design of urban centres may actually be the cause of urban isolation. Yet they may also contain the ingredients for a more integrated social landscape. 

It’s hard to believe that anyone could be lonely in the city, surrounded by millions of people. But urban loneliness is real, and it’s at the centre of a health epidemic.

According to Dr. Vivek Murthy, former United States Surgeon General under President Obama, loneliness can lead to increased risks for heart disease, anxiety, depression and dementia: in stark terms it is the same as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.”

 

“Yet the idea of solitude and isolation is central to the culture of the city. Think of the paintings of Edward Hopper depicting nighthawks at the diner. His realist paintings are actually about something more abstract: what it’s like to be alone in a city of millions. Eye contact is never made in a Hopper painting — and the people in his paintings look like the last survivors of some urban catastrophe — one that’s been a long time coming.

In 1920, only 5 per cent of Americans lived alone. By 2016, that number was 27 per cent, and most of the growth of solo living has been in the cities.

A study by the Engaged City Task Force in Vancouver asked people to report the biggest problem facing that city. The result was surprising: they might have said homelessness, or the opioid epidemic. But the number one problem in Vancouver according to residents was urban loneliness.”

 

Who I see suffering the most from loneliness is the elderly.  As we grow older our world shrinks.  Mobility goes down and correspondingly contact with the outside world also declines.  Friends begin to die off as disease and accidents of life take their toll.  The golden years are rarely golden for many senior citizens.  What contact is available from the outside world comes through the television (and sometimes the radio).  The lonely context the elderly inhabit is a recipe for poor physical and mental health outcomes.

“What is it about cities that makes us so lonely? Just look up. The urban environment, with its tall glass towers of one-bedroom and studio condos is built for loneliness, it’s designed to cut people off from each other.

But things may be changing: new ideas like co-housing, where families live together, mean the city itself could become less forbidding. But is it enough to face down an epidemic?”

Not changing fast enough. These solutions need to have been started decades ago.  Our society is now paying the price for not designing our cities around the idea that we need social contact for our mental and physical health.  The quotes are from the preface to an radio broadcast on CBC called Ideas.  The show on loneliness is quite interesting, I recommend going to page and giving it a listen.

 

This is an interesting way to think about household dynamics and how we approach the problems, conflicts, and solutions we encounter in everyday living.

 

 

“Imagine the household model as a system of pulleys and ropes. Those ropes are tightened (creating tension) or loosened (creating slack) based on material inputs, changes in life direction or needs, and other factors. If you get hung up on the specificity of pulleys, then just think of the household as an abstract system of interrelated slacks and tensions. The goal isn’t to accumulate slack and avoid tension; it’s to find a balance between surplus and utilisation for the whole system. We’ve learned that a household that can hold itself in balance and is prepared to sustain periods of imbalance is a healthy household. What you want to do is hold this balance and make the flows of resources something you can control.

One element of household design is managing the flows. Everyone possesses a hierarchy of slacks and tensions, and we bring those into our households. We can venture this maxim: Households run best when they are organised around the hierarchy of slacks and tensions of people in the household. No household looks the same as any other because each values things differently, but every household runs better when everyone in it shares the same sense of what’s important. In our case, we currently need a lot of slack in order to care for children, which requires more time and emotional energy, and we agree about working a bit less than full-time to get it.

When our older son turned 18 months and finally started sleeping through the night, Misty asked Michael when he would be ready to think about a second child. We can’t, he said. It would take all the remaining slack out of our system, and then some. No functioning system can operate without slack (in other words, at full tension) for very long. That’s one way to describe actual poverty: grinding stresses and the absence of any surpluses. That’s why it damages people, marriages, dreams. But the tension created by having a child is partly a function of how old they are. A needy infant makes you sleepless and fretty for weeks, stretched to the breaking point – until your baby smiles at you. As they grow up, the system gets more slack: the end of diapers and car seats, self-feeding, full-time school, independent playdates and sleepovers. One day you wake up and find that the rope has been let out in small enough increments that you didn’t notice along the way, but now there’s discernible looseness.

This piece from Aeon Magazine written by Misty-Mclaughlin and Michael Erard has a definite middle class sensibility and expectations around it, but I think it may be a useful heuristic model to think about.

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