41 – Plugged in!

Time to reëvaluate! (yes, an umlaut is traditional on the second e in this word). Call me a linguistic traditionalist. So, I’ve posted over forty entries in this blog directly or indirectly on my experience with myeloma. That’s over forty-five thousand words. That’s a lot. Now, the novelty of my daily chemo grind is wearing off and even though I’m thoroughly exhausted most of the time, I’m getting restless. I may force myself to draw this afternoon. There’s some lovely forsythia outside the living room window that I admire every day. Right now it’s vivid yellow, like the daffodils coming up here and there in the yard. I’ll see if I can draw them, if I can steady my hand enough.

With the SARS-2-Cov Novel Corona virus nipping at our heels, it’s tempting to move on to discuss Corvid-19 and leave my myeloma stuff on the back burner. Well, that’s not going to happen. I’m not keen to add anything to the overwhelming internet chatter on the pandemic. You won’t find any tips or suggestions on how to deal with it here. So, I’m going to move on to some extent. I’ll still post entries on my myeloma experience if they’re relevant and new and I will post material on myeloma and Covid-19 if that’s relevant too. For instance, there was a Webinar yesterday organized by Myeloma Canada specifically about myeloma and the pandemic. It didn’t add much to what I already know. In a few minutes the local Myeloma Support group is having a round table by Zoom. We’ll see how that goes. I’ll report back. Reporting back: well, that was interesting. Zoom is unknown territory for most people so it took some time to get the teleconference off the ground. But once launched, we got to see people we had only previously communicated with by email or on the phone. Some interesting conversation around drugs and dosages along with tips on navigating the medical system. Some discussion around what people are doing to stay safe in the face of Covid-19. Physical distancing seems to be the main strategy. I went to the hospital this morning (Monday, March 30th) to get bloodwork done. Chemo patients were supposed to be segregated from the others in the waiting room but somebody didn’t get the memo because that didn’t happen. There was one woman in there who coughed the whole time. At least she was wearing a mask. So was I, for that matter.

This is a great time to be a sociology, not such a great time to have myeloma, but then what would be a great time to have myeloma?

I’ve been re-reading What is Sociology? over the past few days giving me a renewed appreciation of Norbert Elias’ work. His language is different from conventional sociology, particularly functionalist sociology, and it’s a bit of a challenge to work with concepts like ‘figuration’,’ interweaving’, and ‘interdependencies’, language I’m not that familiar with. I get a lot from his work. I have a challenge for you too based on it.

So many of us, following the dominant capitalist morality in our world have a strong commitment to individualism and individuality. We crave to be ‘different’ from everybody else and we downplay our dependencies on others while we extoll the virtues of self-sufficiency. We laugh at people in their late teens and early twenties who still live with mommy and daddy and who obviously haven’t achieved the level of independence expected of them. I used to challenge my students. So, I’d say, “you think you’re self-efficient and independent. Well, think about this: Think about unplugging your home. Think about no more water lines, no electricity coming through the wires you never think about until it’s time to pay the bill. No sewer connection. No internet. No phone. No mommy and daddy wallet. Nothing. Now do you still think you’re self-sufficient? Now, shut down the grocery store to anything not grown or produced locally. I don’t mean just the food, I mean the packaging, the jars, the plastic milk containers. All of these things are produced in factories all over the world. You are connected to every worker in the banana plantations of Ecuador, the battery factories in Mexico, the food processing plants all over the world. You depend on them every day. Do you think about that when you peel a banana or put batteries in your headphones? What if we shut down Home Depot, Canadian Tire, Home Hardware, etc. The tools you buy there: Where do you think they are they made? Mostly China these days, in factories contracted by American corporations looking for cheap labour, and escape from Labour and Safety laws, and taxes. These corporations have exported their pollution to China. Not that that was ever a consideration in their decision-making. I could write a book on globalization and how we tend to misunderstand it based on old ways of thinking about the nature of countries, their sovereignty and their relations with other countries. Now the shit has hit the fan, and the whole globalist agenda is under question. But I don’t want to get into that right now. Instead, I want to challenge you in another way.

So, we tend to see ourselves as ‘substantiates’ (an Elias term), which means we see ourselves as things separate from other things. We contrast ourselves with larger things like ‘the environment’ or ‘society’, both we think of as real. Well, what if you asked yourself: What is it about me that is essential for my survival as an organism? Then, what is ‘outside’ of me that is essential for my survival? To start, let’s think about our biology.

Our survival depends on organismic integrity. That means that our bodies have to hang together. Of course, we don’t often think in those terms. It seems self-evident that our bodies hold themselves together, so to speak, with connective tissue, skin, bone, and various fluids. That said, our bodies soon cease to ‘hang together’ if we don’t incorporate ‘things’ from the outside to ensure this process continues. So, what ‘things’ from the outside of us are critical for our survival? Or put another way, if we didn’t ‘have’ these things, how long would we survive? One ‘thing’ we often take for granted is air. Suffocation is probably the quickest way of killing someone outside of blunt force trauma or other form of violence. No air=death in minutes. Again, passively speaking, the lack of water is probably second on the list of things the absence of which produces death fairly quickly. Probably food after that, although shelter, that is critical protection against extremes in temperature and weather, is also critical.

So, in summary, it’s fair to say that the human organism generally hangs together fairly well in the absence of blunt force trauma, evisceration, and amputations of various sorts. It cannot survive for long, however, without the right environmental conditions, air, water, and food. Nor can it survive without the means of waste evacuation. It’s really quite absurd, then, to think about ‘ourselves’ as independent of the ‘things’ out there that we need for survival. We don’t exist without them. See if you can imagine yourself ‘plugged in’. Imagine tubes entering your mouth for water and food, into your nose for air, attached to your butt for evacuating solids, and a catheter for you know where. The fact is that ‘you’ and ‘I’ extend far beyond the boundaries of our bodies. The way we see ourselves as independent things opposed to other independent things flies in the face of reality. So, yeah, we live in an illusory world.

Of course, the picture is much more complicated than even that. When we are conceived, at that moment, we begin to transform the world around us, into us using the ‘food’ available coming through the placenta and umbilical cord. That process continues after birth at an accelerating rate for many years before it slows down in early adulthood in an arc towards death. That’s where I’m at, on the arc towards death. Entropy rules. It’s no fun, but it rules.

In my next post I address the way we are socially connected over generations, in time, and in space. If Covid-19 is doing anything it’s highlighting our interdependence and mutual interests. Will we finally take our connections seriously?

Me, my Body and I: Part 3

It’s time to wrap up this diatribe. Like I said at the end of my second post in this series, I’ve strayed a long way from the usual content of this blog. After this post I have to reconsider my work here. I’m getting into the long stretch of road in my chemotherapy treatments. I’m getting tired and you must be getting tired of reading this stuff. The end of this part of my road is at least six months away. Things are looking good according to my lab results, but who knows. Every day brings something new which may be fodder for this blog, maybe not. Whatever. I do have to tell you about a recent weird experience I’ve been having, but that will be for my next post.

In this post, the third in the series about what will happen to ‘me’ after “I” die, I want to suggest that our conception of our selves, especially our idea that we are beings composed of mind, body and soul, is socially-constructed. In a sense though, it matters not where these ideas come from if they have a real impact on my life.

By way of an example, if I have a stroke, for instance, I may attribute it to a curse put upon me by a disgruntled recently past relative for a purported wrong that I did him. However, it’s far more likely that my stroke was brought on by a busted artery in my brain. Nonetheless, the stroke and its consequences are what they are never mind their provenance. Durkheim stated that no religion is false. By that he meant that, in my example above, the stroke is real no matter where and how we think it originated. A more contemporary sociologist who wrote extensively on religion, Peter Berger, argues that much of what we call religious behaviour and even religious thinking and hypothesizing cannot be understood by deduction or reduction. He proposes that we use induction to figure out the ‘reality’ of religious experience, that we start with how we feel and experience in real terms, in our living beings, and acknowledge those feelings as real before we attempt any kind of explanation of them. This kind of fits with Unamuno’s views, although Berger is much more prosaic than Unamuno the poet-philosopher.

The provenance of the ‘soul’ is interesting and there is much speculation about it as originating in our dreams, for instance, or during hallucinogenic experiences, but once a belief in the ‘soul’ is socially established it, it has real world consequences.

Today, I intended to address the work of Emile Durkheim and Ernest Becker with maybe a little Max Weber, Karl Marx and Norbert Elias thrown in for good measure but I’ve decided not to do that in any formal sense. I have come to accept the futility of trying to summarize very complex arguments from a number of writers and how they interconnect at least in a relatively short blog post. I’m not here to convince you that I’m right anyways.

That said, all the above characters were sociologists except for Ernest Becker and he would definitely qualify as an honorary sociologist. They all conclude that religion and all ideas concerning souls, demons, angels, gods, and various other supernatural beings originate in society (i.e., in the family, school, church, law courts, governments, etcetera) defined very broadly. However, whatever their origin, religious, metaphysical ideas have real world consequences according to these guys. That’s clear.

Before getting any further into this post, I want to tell you a little story. You might be shocked to learn that I wasn’t always the model son. Sometimes I could be downright annoying and troublesome for my mom, and she didn’t deserve any bullshit from me. But she got some anyway. I remember one time (of several) when I was particularly obnoxious and teased my poor mom relentlessly.

I said to my mom: “Ma, if you had been abandoned on a desert island as a baby and were raised by monkeys, would you still be the same person you are now.”

“Yes,” she says, “of course.”

I retorted: “But what language would you talk? Would you talk monkey talk? What things would you believe? Would you believe in God?”

She replied something along these lines: “I would believe in God and I’d be the same person I am today. I don’t know any other languages besides French and English and why would I believe anything different than I do now?”

That was my mom. She wasn’t stupid by any measure, but she was ignorant in many ways mostly because she was busy raising a pack of kids and she was way too tired to be very curious and she couldn’t read metaphysics. By her answers to my questions she demonstrated a naïveté that ran deep but that allowed her to live her life in relative contentment. If my mom was ignorant in some ways, she was very knowledgeable in others. She raised tons of children, made bread like a pro and was a dedicated member of her church (although she didn’t know much about Catholic theology beyond what was in the Sunday missal). Later in her life she took up woodworking and was good at it, that is until my dad decided to sell the house and the shop from under her. After that, she fell into dementia and never recovered. I think she lost her appetite for life at that point. I loved my mom, I really did, and I regret teasing her. That’s one of my big regrets in life.

So, what was it about my mother’s responses that is significant for me here? I guess I was shocked by her very strange idea of her personhood and her unstated notion that ‘she’ was an unchanging, unchangeable being regardless of her surroundings and upbringing. It’s plain to me and I expect to most people that everything we know we’ve learned from others, either directly from other people in our homes, schools, churches, and from books or from any number of other sources. Of course, that includes any kind of ‘spiritual’ ideas we may have as well as our sense of immortality. Elias argues that we are not the individualists we think we are. He says humans are really interdependencies and interweavings. No human ever stands alone given the richness of the sources of our ‘selves’. The language(s) we speak, our gender, our cognitive skills, intelligences, values, religious/spiritual beliefs, etcetera are all learned, that is, socially derived.

It’s clear to me that my mother denied the influence of any possible ‘foreign’ source of her personhood. Obviously, there is no way my mother could know of her Catholic God if she was raised by monkeys on a desert island. The concept of God, like of language, and table manners is learned. How would my mom learn about the Catholic God? Many societies have concepts of God or gods or some such supernatural beings. There are hundreds (and there have been thousands) of religions on the planet, each with its own unique conception of immortality and supernatural beings (if they conceive of any). Babies born into those societies learn the rules and values of their specific communities. Why would my mother not realize that her position was untenable? I would suggest that her commitment to her beliefs outweighed any sense she might have had about the logical inconsistency of her position. She was like a Trump supporter in that sense. She may have been yanking my chain, but I doubt it.

Which god do you worship (if any)? Well, if you do still worship a god, probably the one your parents do (or did). These days, however, there is a movement towards more individualistic, personal forms of spirituality, a trend which fits in nicely with capitalist morality, individualism and consumerism while allowing people to retain a belief in the immortality of the ‘soul.’ It’s also true that significant numbers of people are now defaulting to atheism or agnosticism in greater numbers than ever before, a movement also compatible with capitalist morality. There is still a great deal of intergenerational retention going on today even if there are obvious exceptions. So the frontier mentality of rugged individualism and fending for yourself is still a thing in the Twenty-first Century. Of course, as individuals, we can be creative, and come up with new ideas and ways of doing things but we always do so using materials, processes and relationships that already exist. How else could it happen?

The truth is, we, none of us, can conceive of anything absolutely new under the sun. Everything we invent, think about, or imagine has roots in our interactions and interdependencies with other people via our social relations, past and present. The present is always built on the past. Inventions are generally new conceptions of how to use and combine already existing technologies or ideas. That means that new religious denominations or churches are invariably modifications on past ones. How many variations on Christianity are there? Lots…I haven’t counted them. Which one is the ‘true’ variant?

As I note above, one perspective all the writers and thinkers I mention above have in common is that they all agree that religion and our ideas of personhood originate in society as does the belief in immortality. Durkheim, for example, argues that the concept of God is actually a personification of society, a personification that can then be used to judge the behaviour of adherents still living. Elias in his book What is Sociology? builds a conception of individual/societal interaction by using a metaphor of a card game. In his metaphor, a card game is happening with four or five players. The game has rules, of course, to which all players must adhere. Then, one person decides to leave the game and another person joins in. That change of players does not affect the game, nor the rules. The new player must adhere to the rules like the drop-out did. The game is a metaphor for society. We are born into society, learn all the rules, then leave (die). Society goes on. The game goes on. Society, seen from this perspective, is supra-human. It exists above and independently of any individual yet has control over all individuals and circumscribes the parameters of possible ideas and decisions individuals can make. No wonder we come to think of it as divine.

Because society is supra-human and veritably invisible to most people, it’s not a stretch to understand why people ascribe to it a supernatural existence disconnected from their individual lives. Because it IS disconnected to their individual lives in a real sense. As Elias would say, the game goes on no matter what individuals do as players. To which Durkheim would add: the individual ‘soul’ is in the game but is actually a piece of the collective, social SOUL. Therein lies our idea of its immortality. Society exists before us and after us. It’s virtually immortal. Our souls are immortal because they are a piece of the greater social SOUL.

Durkheim defines religion as: “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden — beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” (from Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 1912) For Durkheim, sacred things are by definition social things and the sacredness of things can change with changing social conditions.

Ernest Becker goes much further than Durkheim when he argues that culture as a whole is sacred. For Becker there is no distinction between profane and sacred. It’s culture as a whole that promises people immortality. In fact, he argues that “Each society is a hero system that promises victory over evil and death.” (from Escape From Evil, 1975, page 124)* Of course, no society can promise such a thing. Becker writes:

But no mortal, nor even a group of as many as 700 million clean, revolutionary mortals, [in reference to China] can keep such a promise, no matter how loudly or how artfully he protests or they protest, it is not within man’s means to triumph over evil and death. For secular societies the thing is ridiculous: what can “victory” mean secularly? And for religious societies victory is part of a blind and trusting belief in another dimension of reality. Each historical society, then, is a hopeful mystification or a determined lie. (EFE, page 124)

Marx would have agreed with Becker here but he concluded that religion was the opium of the people, a salve to soothe the savage treatment that most people received under capitalism (as one might find depicted by Charles Dickens.) He found that religious beliefs were instrumental in mollifying the masses and having them accept class inequality under capitalism. Weber also recognized the class basis of religion although his definition of class was not the same as Marx’s. Weber, in his Sociology of Religion, addresses the early rise of religious behaviour in human interaction with drastic natural events like floods, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tornadoes, etcetera, the ‘soul’ in its various iterations and manifestations, and ritual. He argues that the forms of gods varies depending on natural and social conditions.

In conclusion, I just want to re-emphasize the notion that according to the sociologists I mention here as well as countless other sociologists and social scientists I don’t mention, ‘society’ is the source of our beliefs about the immortality of our person by way of our ‘souls.’ There is no ‘supernatural’ teacher that teaches us our values around immortality, and any ideas we have around these notions come from notions already just laying about out there waiting to be picked up and incorporated into our world view. In other words, our ideas around the immortality of the ‘soul’ do not result from perceived connection to an immortal God or gods, but from the immortality of society.

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*There is no substitute for reading Becker because his argument forms a cohesive whole. Pulling a quote out of his book, although provocative, is probably not helpful although I do it. I can’t help myself. If it spurs people to go read Escape From Evil so be it. Many of my early posts on this blog constitute a review of EFE. That would be a place for you to start in trying to understand his work. Just type Becker in the search box in my blog and you’ll find the relevant posts all numbered and everything or you can start here: https://rogerjgalbert.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post-new.php?post_type=post&jetpack-copy=874. You can then work your way through the archives on my blog site.

Durkheim (Elementary Forms of Religious Life) and Weber (The Sociology of Religion) both have sections of their books on the soul. Do a bit of research if you’re curious. Dr. Google is full of stuff on these guys and I’ve got all the books for local people to borrow if you’re interested. Elias is great. His book The Civilizing Process is well worth the read.

Family Ties That Bind

I haven’t written much here in the last while because of my other commitments. I chair a Museum board of directors and we’re very busy right now with governance reviews and all kinds of other activities. I’m also involved in an affordable housing nonprofit and other community organizations. It’s funny, but, on the one hand, when I don’t write for a while I feel restless and more anxious than usual. On the other hand, when I do write or draw or paint or sculpt, I often feel guilty for being so self absorbed. It’s not rational to feel this way, but that’s the way it is and I’m not about to get psychiatric help for it. At my age, I’ve learned to accept some of my more irrational feelings knowing that my frontal cortex is not completely in charge of my feelings and behaviour.

Besides, there are great alternatives to psychoanalysis or psychiatry, family time being one of them. I know that family time for many people means tension, pain and sorrow. That’s not true at all for me. My family is the glue that holds me together. We don’t always agree on everything as a family but on the important things we do agree. We absolutely all agree in the healing power of family connection. As a sociologist, especially one influenced by Norbert Elias, Thorstein Veblen, and Emile Durkheim among others, I understand the power of human connections. The absence of closeness, touching (physical and psychical), and interdependency can lead to early death in children and lifelong stress and anxiety in adults. We need other people, it’s as simple as that. Elias goes so far as to say that we as individuals don’t exist. We exist only on the social level. Everything beyond our most basic physical, tropismatic activities like peeing and pooping are social and even those activities are shrouded in social valuation. We don’t exist in society only in the present either. Our social connections go back a long way and often in ways obscure to us in our current mindscapes.

All that said, for two weekends in a row now, I’ve spent time with family. We don’t live close to our daughters and their families so if we want to get together we have to travel or they have to travel. It takes a substantial effort and it costs money. This past weekend my daughters came over from Vancouver with their families to where we live on Vancouver Island. We have three grandchildren under the age of ten and they make great house guests. One of our daughters and her husband also brought along one of his brothers and his wife. They all came to help us old wounded elders get a new porch built on the house and do a lot of gardening and related work. Without them our acre of gardens would soon revert to a natural state and we would be compelled to seriously consider downsizing. I’m just not yet ready for that.

The weekend before, Carolyn and I travelled to Vancouver to stay with one of my daughters and her family so that we might all attend a Mother’s Day Brunch event that one of my older sisters puts on every year for the family and friends. The whole family was not in attendance (I still have thirteen brothers and sisters as well as countless nieces, nephews, cousins and assorted other relatives) but it was well attended. My sister puts on a spread fit for kings and queens. Lots and lots of great food on offer. So much love goes into that event. My grandchildren had never experienced it before so this was a first for them.

I could go into more detail about each event, but the point is that on both weekends the spirit that reigned was one of helpfulness, caring and sharing. I’m not the most effusive guy out there, but I know that even if we’re not always on the same political wavelength, we know the value of family solidarity and togetherness. I’m also not given to maudlin outbursts. This is as close as it comes. However, I need to acknowledge my deep-seated need for human connection and love. That need, my family fulfills to my heart’s brim all the time, every day but especially on weekends when they come to help build a new porch! I pity people without family support no matter how one defines family.

Unfortunately, when our natural families do not or cannot provide us with the love and support we naturally crave as humans, we sometimes turn to other types of family in the form of gangs, politically or religiously extreme groups or we turn on ourselves and die inside like children in orphanages who literally died from emotional deprivation, neglect, or suffered hospitalism (See Rene Spitz’s study of Hospitalism). That’s the downside to our craving for connection.

My Life as Teacher, Writer, and Artist: Part 2: Teaching

If you read my last post you got some general idea of my life trajectory in broad terms. In this post I want to pay special attention to how and why I became a college instructor with a couple of side trips on scholarship and the philosophy of teaching. Many of my colleagues teaching at the college level get their first taste of teaching in high school. Not me. I never intended to teach in high school. Something about high school teaching appealed to me, but I wasn’t interested in going to university in the Education faculty for a year of professional development which would have allowed me to teach in BC high schools. So, what was my alternative? It was going straight from university into college teaching. University faculty don’t need professional development, or so they have insisted for decades. Theoretically, aspiring university teachers learn the teaching craft by watching and emulating their professors. I always though that was a bit strange because of the variability of skill exhibited by faculty. Still, working as a teaching assistant was a form of preparation for eventually taking over the big job. Frankly though, I got a job teaching on a sessional basis at Douglas College as I entered graduate school so I had no real previous experience teaching or managing a classroom. I learned by doing what my colleagues were doing but I also learned from books, lots of them. I questioned everything about teaching, including the setting, the materials, the psychological, sociological, political, and economic assumptions, the goals and the means.

As a student of the social sciences I was already prepped for a critical stance with regard to what I was doing. The time was the mid to late 1970s. I graduated with a B.A. in 1975 and went on to study for my Master’s degree in 1976 after I was recruited by the Sociology and Anthropology Department at SFU to be a teaching assistant. We needed the money, so it was a no-brainer. I was definitely cocky enough to believe that I could pull it off and I think I was pretty good at it. Academia suited me to a T. At the same time, most of the colleges in BC were either in their infancy or about to be built. Most of them were begging for teaching staff. One of my former teachers at Douglas College asked me if I would consider teaching there. I only had a B.A. but was in a grad program and that was enough for them. I started then on a 5 year stint as a sessional faculty member at SFU, Douglas College and eventually Kwantlen College before moving to the Comox Valley in 1983 to teach at North Island College (NIC), although at NIC we were called tutors and not instructors. The college started as a distance education organization which worked closely with Athabasca University to provide university-level courses to people in the northern half of Vancouver Island. Eventually it morphed into a regular college and by 1992 had pretty much made to transformation completely. I worked at NIC until 2012, the year I retired. Now, reading back on the words I have just written I can assure you that I’ve only provided you with some of the backbone events and circumstances that make up my story as a teacher. The reality is much more nuanced and complex. Teaching is all about human relations and love. Yes, love*.

Going to university as an undergraduate was a fairly new thing for someone of my class background. SFU, and the newly named University of Victoria, were a new kind of university set up to train a much needed workforce in a new world of work that demanded a higher education than ever before. The BC college system came into existence around the same time and for the same reasons.

Social roots and standard teen silliness

Coming from a basically working class family with hints of an agrarian past, I had no expectations of going to university. Initially I worked in lumber mills and at odd jobs here and there, jobs that were easy to come by at the time. I was not a particularly stellar kid and for a time hung around my brother-in-law’s used car lots. I tried selling used cars but I just didn’t have it in me. I was wracked with indecision, bounced around from job to job, smoked and drank way too much. I was like a lot of my peers. Because we’re raised to think of ourselves as quintessentially individual, I though the world revolved around my belly button and had no idea about what anyone else was doing, nor did I care. Eventually, as I got older and worked my way slowly, painfully, and hesitatingly out of my teens and into my twenties, my interests changed as did my attitude and behaviour. I got involved with a French-Canadian organization and found in that group a mentor, Roméo Paquette, who helped me understand my potential and encouraged me to get more involved. I had a lot to learn if I was going to go to university and much of my interest started with my French-Canadian connections. At that time I also struggled with by Catholic upbringing. It wasn’t easy. For some time I had ceased to believe in the teachings of the Church and I had an increasingly clearer and clearer appreciation of evolutionary theory. Church teachings just didn’t make sense to me any longer especially in the light of science. Still, I loved my parents and I knew that my newfound perspective on the world was something they could not understand or accept. It’s strange in a way. My parents were very proud of me and my academic career yet they were never able to relate to my life in the least. Their faith in the Church was what sustained them and they could not understand anyone abandoning that faith. They prayed for me. For me, a break from Catholicism was inevitable. I haven’t looked back since.

Back to 1971

I spent 18 months at Douglas College as a student, then transferred to SFU in 1973, the year we got married. By 1976 I had gotten a BA. Carolyn and I decided it would be fun to travel a bit and we did. We packed up our car and a travel trailer, stayed with my sister in 100 Mile House for a bit, found out Carolyn was pregnant, then moved on to Edmonton easily finding jobs. Our intention had been to make it to Ottawa so I might find work, but our plans changed with the pregnancy and we moved back home to BC. I happened to go to SFU upon my return and was offered a job as a teaching assistant. That clinched it for me. As I started work as a teaching assistant the faculty just assumed that I would enter grad school there so I did. I studied at SFU until 1980, got my MA and decided to apply to the grad program at the University of BC. I studied at UBC for a couple of years on a PhD, but couldn’t keep it up because I needed to work and help raise a family. Still, that was my introduction to teaching. I sort of fell into it. I readily took to teaching. I loved it. In 1983 I got a job at NIC as I already noted. That job lasted 29 years.

Scholarship

Of course, teaching was only a part of what I was up to at the time. I did graduate work and settled on a dissertation about Harold Adams Innis’ work. Innis was a well-known but entirely misunderstood scholar teaching at the University of Toronto until his untimely death in 1952. My dissertation was an attempt to set the record straight on Innis. I don’t think it had much of an impart on scholarship but it got me my M.A. Working in my dissertation I had to deal with my previous studies of Marx, Durkheim, Weber, etc., but a new scholar entered my life at that time. I discovered him through Innis. His name is Thorstein Veblen. He was born who knows when but he definitely died in 1929. His work blew me away and laid the groundwork for much of my later research. His influence on me was closely followed by Ernest Becker and a panoply of scholars associated with his work including Marx, Freud, Rank and many others. The archives of this blog are filled with references to their work.  Later, I read Norbert Elias and was immediately struck by the lucidity and strength of his analysis about the relationship of the individual to society. For Elias we are interdependencies and interweavings and it’s barely logical to speak of individuals unless the immediate qualification is that we are essentially social.  All of that time, I also read voraciously authors like the French social historian Fernand Braudel, the economists David Ricardo, Adam Smith, iconoclastic psychiatrists like R.D. Laing and Thomas Szasz. I’ve never stopped reading. I must say, though, that there has been a consistent thread running through my reading and that’s been the rise and fall of empires and the globalization of capital. My library at home is replete with books on the nation-state, revolution, European history, ideology, and capitalist expansion.

Of course, if you took a tour of my library you’d figure out quickly enough that the above hardly scratches the surface. The scholars I mention above are but the high points on my literary landscape. The meadows and valleys are filled with books on Canadian history, religion, philosophy, language (semiotics and pragmatics), sexuality, ethnography, evolution, biology, psychoanalysis, and art. Now, my attention has also turned to YouTube and other digital formats. Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University, a neuroscientist, has a series of lectures on YouTube that are brilliant to say the least. To a non-expert, they explain clearly the social class basis of stress not only in olive baboons on the African savannah, but also in Whitehall, the seat of British government bureaucracy.

The above is not a trip through my intellectual story, but it does provide a scaffolding for more interesting backstory commentary. Neither is this a place for a wander through my intellectual trajectory. I suppose I have to get down and write that sometime for me, if anything. The archives here contain a lot of insight into my worldview, but it’s not condensed and focussed. That condensation and focus really defines a retrospective for me. I can do that. What I hope you will get from this is some appreciation of the time and effort it takes to put together the worldview I have. It’s unique and idiosyncratic. You could never duplicate it. Parts of it are accessible to all, but not the whole thing. There are just too many elements to it, too many connecting strands that I alone have experienced. That makes it infernally difficult to share. I will try.

 

*Love is a word that begs definition. Maybe in a future blog post.

 

Did you know Seniha Çançar or her daughter Saide Sullivan?

Seniha Çançar was a woman who was born in Turkey in 1926 and who died in Victoria in 2015 at the age of 88. How do I know her? Well, I never knew her personally and we certainly wouldn’t have met socially although I think it would have been wonderful to meet her. She and I have a very tenuous connection. I own a book she previously owned:

The image on the left is of the book that Seniha Çançar owned at one point and that I acquired in 2010 at Russell Books in Victoria. Her obituary says that she left Turkey to settle in Calgary in 1966 but then moved to Victoria in 1973, the year that I married. I wonder if Calgary winters had anything to do with her move!

The reason I know that she owned the book is because of the writing on the left. This text appears in three places in the book. I guess she wanted to make sure people knew it was her book. One of the texts is ‘Se” Çançar. Se must have been a short version of her name. I’m sure her intimates called her that.

I got curious about this inscription. I ‘Google’ translated 21 Eylül, 1977 and it came up as September 21, 1977, probably the day she bought the book. Then I googled her name and her obituary from 2015 came up. The internet makes this kind of research so easy. I learned a little about her family and her life, the kinds of things one can learn from an obituary. I learned that her daughter, Saide, died of cancer at age 64 in a Victoria hospice. I read her obituary. She had married James E. Sullivan who died in 2017 at the age of 82. From his obituary in TheWesterlySun.com in Norwich, Connecticut:

 He was a professor and Head of Academic Programs in the School of Art and Design at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill., from 1969 to 1998. After his retirement Jim relocated to Victoria, B.C., and founded the Hope Through Achievement Foundation, eventually returning to his Rhode Island roots in 2014.

I can’t help but wonder if Jim Sullivan, of Rhode Island, had relocated to Victoria because of a previous connection with the highly artistically-inclined Çançar family. After his wife died in February, 2013, he probably felt ‘released’ to return to his roots. Who knows. This is speculation on my part, obviously. However, there are family connections to Connecticut. Saide had previously been married to Sherwood Fehm. Their daughter, Saba Fehm-Sullivan died at the young age of 13 in 1993.

There are many other details in the various obituaries of Çançar and related family members that I have no need to share with you here. I do not intend this blog post to be a voyeuristic intrusion into the Çançar family. Family members are out there and I have no desire to offend. Whatever I write about the family is pure speculation. What interests me here is the connection Seniha Çançar and I made through a book she once owned and which I now own. I felt almost compelled to find out as much as I could about her and her family. I’m not at all sure why.

The book in which we shared an interest is an ‘art’ book. The Art of Drawing: From the Dawn of History to the Era of the Impressionists is a history of drawing rather than a how-to book. I have a number of books like this one and some that teach one how to draw. I have no idea whether Seniha Çançar, later Seniha Çançar-Birch, was an artist. Her obituary says that she worked as a high level assistant in NATO in the 1960s and that she ran successful businesses. I wish to think that if I sat down to tea with her we could discuss her life, her work and her passions. We shared a book but we couldn’t share anything else. She was my mother’s age. I think of her whenever I pick up The Art of Drawing, and I think of how many ways we are connected to people we don’t even know, in ways we can only dream of. Norbert Elias was very perspicacious when he concluded that we humans are essentially interdependencies and interweaving, both in time and space. We are connected to each other in so many ways, even by the simple fact that we leafed through the same book. I bought the book in 2010 but Seniha Çançar died in 2015. I wonder if she brought the book to Russell Books herself or if it was a member of her family cleaning out her belongings. I’ll never know.

What’s So Scary About Women? Introduction

In my last few blog posts I promised I would tackle a most difficult topic and that’s the misogyny embedded in many of our institutions. Well, that’s what I will do over the next few blog posts.

I’ve always liked to try to figure out how things work. When I was a kid I used to dissect and disassemble things all the time. I was forever curious about how things were made, especially mechanical things. Taking them apart was not usually too much of a problem, but to my father’s dismay, putting them back together was sometimes not so easy. My favourite targets were toys and motors but clocks really topped the list. As I got older and went away to a Catholic boarding school in Edmonton for high school, I still had a live curiosity but the priests were not too keen on seeing things taken apart and strewn here and there on campus. They were especially protective of the lab equipment. Looking back on it, I remember also having a keen interest in why people did things the way they did them. I had a hard time making sense of what I came to know as institutions (crystallized habits of thought and life). And, of course, figuring out why I had a penis and my sisters didn’t was top of mind. That said, I would never have dared, after turning 4, to bring up such a subject at dinner time. The disapproval would have been swift and sometimes mildly violent. I felt very early on that certain subjects were absolutely taboo. Still, lots of sniggering went on because we children weren’t yet completely indoctrinated. Of course, we learned a few anatomical things by playing doctor but it wasn’t easy to figure out the moral issues involved. The questions definitely outnumbered the answers in my first two decades of life on earth.

In my early twenties, after a serious sawmill accident, I had back surgery and wondered what to do next. Well, I went a little crazy for a while, smashed up a few cars, got drunk and stoned frequently but I had a couple of mentors that made a huge difference in my life. They prompted me to go to university. I applied to Simon Fraser University (SFU), but was rejected because my grades in high school were lousy so I attended Douglas College in New Westminster for two years, got an A average, had some great teachers and decided at that time to study sociology. On I went to SFU. That time of my life was super exciting and difficult too because of money, to be certain, but also because of sex. I couldn’t seem to get enough of it and too much of my energy went into pursuing it or worrying about not getting any. The sex drive for me was very powerful. It’s hard to concentrate under these conditions. I was clumsy and ridiculous like most of my friends and acquaintances around the subject of sex, but this was the early seventies for god’s sake. We would have been into some promiscuity and there was definitely some loosening of mores but we were mostly unsatisfied. But when all else failed, we always had some beer and weed to make us feel better. Still, I couldn’t help thinking about sex and women. I should now say sorry to all the women I was a dickhead to in those days. It wasn’t me, it was my gonads. Now that I’m 71 that drive, thankfully, is largely attenuated. Frankly, I don’t know how most of us get through our teen years. Our bodies are yelling at us YES and our damned superegos are blocking our genital paths to glory. Oh well, such is life. Eventually, I met Carolyn and that was that. We fit together nicely.

It took me a while to get settled into the academic life. For a long time I called myself a Marxist but I stopped doing that for the same reason that Marx pointed to French syndicalists in the late 1870s saying that if these people are Marxists then I’m not. I still find Marx’s analysis of history very compelling, but I I strayed from looking only at economic matters to studying schizophrenia (R.D. Laing, Thomas Szasz, etc), mental illness, depression (with which I’ve been on intimate terms with), crime, deviance, social solidarity, morality, Norbert Elias and other things. In my last couple of years teaching I taught a sociology course on love and sex. Given what I wrote above, this fit right to my curiosity bag. I got interested in pornography. What is it about porn that makes it such a lucrative business? It’s one of the top internet money makers( yes, people sniggered.) And, of course, I had a long standing interest in Ernest Becker’s work. You just have to check the archives on this blog to ascertain that. Becker’s book Escape From Evil has a lot to say about sex and about misogyny. In fact, Becker’s work is the foundation of my views on this topic.

So, in the next few blog posts I will address Becker’s work to start with, especially his emphasis on evil, animality and our institutional denial of death. Then I want to look more specifically at woman as temptress, as devil. I will follow that up with a look at language and women before turning to marriage and some of the other cultural institutions of sexual relations. Things may evolve as I go along. The order I present issues may change. Your comments might modify my approach too.

I must say, in concluding this introduction, that I, by no means, intend to glorify women and vilify men. We are all ‘guided’ in our actions by our social relations, our language, our sex, our gender, our economic interests, our egos, and a myriad of other factors. Morality plays a huge role although we barely ever mention it. We swim in a moral world but we seldom recognize it. Like fish who don’t know they swim in water, we are the last to recognize that we swim in a moral world. In this series of posts I’ll try to open up that moral world a bit so that we can see more deeply into want makes us tick as humans.

Should I Tell You What I Really Think?: My Insignificance Is My Liberation.

[Disclaimer: What I write here is really too simple and consists of a lot of shorthand. Truthfully, I’m finding it difficult to translate 45 years of study and research into a few lines in a blog post. If you think it’s not working please let me know. Let me know too how I could better communicate and translate my decades of experience.

Analogy. This post consists of an analogy. It’s not perfect by any means, but it may help put our obsession with individuality into perspective. It seems to be clear that every human is a separate material entity. As Otto Rank puts it in The Trauma of Birth, we are objects to other people and in fact, the process of objectification starts when an infant realizes that it is separate from its mother. My view deviates from Rank’s and follows one proposed by Norbert Elias from his books, The Civilizing Process, What is Sociology? and others. [Elias is the subject of a future blog post] Elias’ view is that we are best considered as processes rather than as things. That said, I want to offer here my own strange take on human life using an analogy that should be fairly easy to understand.

So, for me, a human individual is akin to one cell in a human body. The human body, in this case, is analogous to the sum total of all humans on the planet. Like I said, the analogy, like all analogies, falls short of qualifying as a perfect equivalency yet at its core there is a simple truth to be had, I think.

We each have trillions of individual cells in our bodies. I read somewhere that every cell in our body is replaced every seven years or so. That’s not entirely true, but mot of our cells regularly die and some percentage are replaced on a regular basis. Eventually, of course, the cellular organization we call ourselves is no longer viable and we call that death. Death, however, is a slow process that begins the day we are conceived and goes on some time after the doctor declares us dead (and until cremation). How is this analogous to the species as a whole? Well, millions of people died in wars in the 20th Century but that didn’t prevent the species from carrying on. An individual human death is about as significant to the species as one cell dying in our bodies. That may seem harsh, but it’s real. People come and go. Millions of people die every year while millions are born. The species hardly notices. We do care as individual people. There is no doubt about that. When we have someone close to us die, that affects us, but the billions of other people on this planet take no notice at all.

Our cells work together to keep us alive and functioning, but the loss of any individual cell has little effect on the whole body. I can slap my wrist and kill a few hundred or thousand skin cells, but my body doesn’t really mind too much. It carries on like nothing happened. If I cut off my arm, I can still live. We can lose a lot of cells and still survive.

When I was teaching I used to torment my students with a standard lecture at the beginning of each term. This lecture emphasized the importance of society and the inherent interconnections we have to other people and to social organization. In a society that glorifies the individual, it can be humbling to consider just how dependent we are on others, most of whom we have never met.

In my lecture, I’d start off by saying that an individual human being doesn’t exist, cannot exist. We only exist in relation to others. We are the product of a most basic social act, the sex act. After that, we require the assistance of others to stay alive. We need to be fed, clothed, washed and looked after for many years. I argue in fact that the dependencies never stop. We are social animals in every sense of the term. We depend on others for everything. The language(s) we speak, the values we have, our ‘successes’ and ‘failures’ are a consequence of our social relations. One cannot be successful in a vacuum. Not only that, but in our world, with some exceptions of course, we depend on others to make our clothes, grow our food, provide us with electricity, build our homes, make sure our poop goes away when we flush the toilet and fresh water gets pumped to our faucets.  We also depend on people for companionship, for hugs, for approbation. The evidence is strong that if we don’t get hugs and the company of others as babies a quarter of us die before the age of four. Our interdependencies ARE us. We don’t exist as things, but as processes interwoven with many other processes we call organizations be they families, neighbourhoods, restaurants, churches, mosques, synagogues, provinces, countries and workplaces among many others. That’s why we volunteer to die for these organizations, we sacrifice our lives to them, we bow down to them, we feel undying affinity with them.

Of course, very few people think about these things. We are encouraged from a very early age to be independent, self-contained, and capable of making our own decisions. But, unfortunately, we’ve been sold a bill of goods. Individuality is an illusion, just as a single human cell does not and cannot live by itself; it only exists in relationship to other cells and to the whole body.

As humans we tend to consider ourselves special. In fact, some people believe that we are created in the image of a god or other. We aspire to live forever and create elaborate stories to convince ourselves of the veracity of our beliefs in immortality. Sadly, we are truly insignificant as individuals for the survival of the species, as insignificant as an individual cell in my body is to my life. That said, for me, there is a sense of release and comfort that goes along with that realization. My insignificance is my liberation.

More later.

 

Craziness in Paris – A long term view.

I left off my last post writing that I would consider what we could do about incidents like the one  that shook Paris to the core on November 13th,

Pundits and commentators all over television and the web are suggesting possibilities for putting an end to extremist violence from bombing Syria to hell, killing all Muslims, getting more spiritual and following the word of God, thinking positive thoughts, getting at the Saudis for funding the Islamic State, and that’s only for starters. These kinds of events bring out the most outrageous ideas in us. Most ideas about doing away with extremist violence are fear-based to be sure, and they invariably target ‘the other’ and hardly ever involve changing our own ideas or behaviours.

Frankly, I don’t think that there is currently any way of stopping extremist violence regardless of where it arises and who the perpetrators might be.

The violence that was unleashed in Paris last Friday was an expression of deep-seated contradictions and conditions in our very own social relations, relations that are now evident all over the world. In our rush to secure our continued prosperity we accept that our governments need to protect the institutions and organizations we’ve come to recognize as the underpinnings of  our prosperity, that is business and private accumulation of wealth. This has been true for centuries. There is no need to recite the litany of violence and carnage that litters our history. The underlying conditions that accounted for the slaughter of French Protestants and peasant riots in the 16th Century have not materially changed. Before the rise to dominance of capitalist productive relations in Europe the wane of the social relations around what we call the Middle Ages produced disruption and dislocations unprecedented previously, especially when combined with the terrible consequences of the Black Death in the middle of the 15th Century. Actually, the Jews were considered responsible for the plague in some quarters and ‘large groups of them were massacred.’* Eventually people were torn away from the land they had occupied for centuries and forced into labour in cities, a process that escalated tremendously after the mid-18th Century. No, mass murder and destruction in human society are not new. Ironically, as Ernest Becker points out in Escape from Evil, most murderous rampages in history were perpetrated by people with the intention of eliminating evil, that is whatever they considered might hinder the prosperity and health they determine is their birthright.

In the absence of rational and reasonable explanations for ‘natural’ disasters or man-made ones like the recent massacres in Paris, Ankara, Beirut and elsewhere, people generally resort to fantasy or fantastical explanation. The veracity of claims of blame is a victim of the fear and loathing of ‘the other’, those sub-human beasts who dare to threaten our prosperity although with our economic imperialism, colonialism and the need for capital accumulation, we have felt perfectly justified in threatening theirs. Can we really believe that the population of Africa welcomed European conquerers during the partitioning of  the African continent between 1873 and 1896 among European powers determined to make business safe for exploitation wherever it chooses to extract raw materials or exploit cheap labour? Can we not see the connection between our colonialist exploitation of peoples all over the world and their sometimes violent opposition to said exploitation? When and how do people think the countries of the Middie East were created and by whom?

I don’t know what motivated the gunmen and bombers who chose to terrorize Paris last Friday.  One explanation I cannot accept is that they were mad or insane although I wouldn’t deny that in some cases there may have been elements of madness in their actions. Madness, according to many theorists among them Thomas Szasz and R.D. Laing, is socially constructed and is a label attached to people in certain contexts and situations where they ‘fail’ to conform to social norms like dissidents in the Soviet Union for instance.

I’m afraid that our individualistic explanations just don’t cut it when it comes to violence. What we are faced with in acts like those that occurred in Paris is the institutionalized acceptance of violence embedded in every aspect of our culture and social relations. We should not be surprised when we are faced with this kind of terror. In fact, I am surprised that it doesn’t happen more often.

No, I see no end to the murderous rampages that we experienced in Paris this past Friday, at least not until we completely revolutionize our social relations, especially those that create poverty and diminish people because of who they are, what they look like or believe or what ‘resources’ they may be sitting on. People will not be convinced by rational argument, either. They will react irrationally to any threat they perceive to themselves, their families, countries and the value systems that encompass them all. They define evil as anyone and anything that is ‘other’.

The only hope I have is that we may eventually come to think of evil as corporate concentration, environmental degradation and the impoverishment of vast numbers of people on this planet. I’m not holding my breath.

_________________________________________________

*This quote is from Norbert Elias’ book What is Sociology? (New York: Columbia University), page 26

A Commie I’m not. A crusty old Marxist, maybe.

So, we had a big party at the homestead recently and I was lovingly described as a communist by my son-in-law. I appreciate the sentiment behind this remark.  For him, it’s a term of endearment.  There were many ‘left-leaners’ in the crowd who would have appreciated the comment because in some senses we share many moral precepts.  Oh, I’ve been described as a commie before.  It wasn’t the first time, nor will it be the last in all likelihood.  I really don’t mind all that much.  Whether or not people actually believe that I’m a communist is another matter and I hope to set the record straight here for anyone who cares.  If people read this blog posting,  and few will, they will know my position on the matter.  For my own sense of self, for myself, I want to set the record straight once and for all.

When I state that I’m not a commie, that doesn’t mean for one second that I’m a proponent of ‘capitalism.’  Many people see communism and ‘capitalism’ as opposites, as alternate ways of organizing ‘the economy’ and ‘society.’   I don’t, nor did Karl Marx when he got old enough to think straight.  As an aside, Harold Adams Innis, the brilliant Canadian political economist and historian said, in a moment of particular lucidity, that one cannot make a contribution to the social sciences before one reaches the age of 50 and he’s probably correct.  He was 58 when he died and his best work happened in the last 5 or 6 years of his life.  Marx was born in 1818 and died in 1883.  It wasn’t until the late 1860s that he really got his shit together, hunkered down in the British Museum and started writing Capital.  Yes, yes, he wrote the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts earlier, but he really got serious later.

The reason I say I’m not a communist is that I’m not a proponent of communism.  For me, or anyone else, to be labeled a communist or anything else for that matter implies a certain level of advocacy, of ‘proponency.’  It’s not necessary to be proponent of something that will eventually happen no matter what we think or wish.  It’s like being described as an old-agist.  I know that old age will happen to all of us, but that doesn’t mean I’m a proponent of old age.  I’M getting old, but that doesn’t mean that I advocate old age. That would be ridiculous.  A communist mode of production will inevitably replace the capitalist one because the internal contradictions within the capitalist mode of production dictate it in the same way the feudal relations of production replaced slave based ones and the capitalist mode of production replaced feudal ones.  The change will happen gradually, just as old age creeps up on us.  Before it’s clear what’s happening, the old bones get brittle, the arteries plug up and the organs just can’t cut it anymore.  The resiliency of youth is past, old solutions no longer get the same results they used to.  Life inevitably brings on death, they are different sides of the same coin.  What that means for me as an individual is clear, what it means for ‘society’ or for the ‘capitalist mode of production’ is also clear.  Nothing is forever, nothing.  Not the capitalist mode of production, not our beloved countries, not our cities, not our towns, not our fabulous wealth.  The question is not whether or not the capitalist mode of production will live on forever, but when it will die.  It’s not even a question of how.  That’s also been clear for a long time.  Still, classical economics is still in classical denial over the whole thing, a fact which is made clear on virtually every page of The Economist which is a proponent of capitalism.

For what I’ve written above I could be branded with the sin of determinism, one of scholarship’s seven deadliest.   If saying that one day I will die makes me a determinist, well that’s ok by me.  Call me whatever name you want.  Furthermore,  what I write above does not mean that life is completely meaningless to me.  We live life on many levels, a day at a time.  My life is full of activity and that means that every day I make many moral decisions most having nothing or little to do with my eventual death.  I don’t  live life as though my life is about to end (I didn’t do that even when I had cancer and the possibility of my quick exit from this life was very real).  I DO things, there is nothing else to do.  I read the papers, listen to the radio and watch TV.  I play with my grandkids.  I can’t help but get outraged by the blatant bullshit and crap that comes out of the government in Ottawa on a daily basis.  Yet I understand  the role that national governments play in the capitalist mode of production and their essential collaboration in making it possible for capital to flow with greater and greater ease globally  and for controlling labour by keeping tight reins on migrations and regulation.  I haven’t lost my moral compass.  I even get angry on one level…say, at incivility, at stupid driving, at poor highway engineering…while understanding that at other levels, the picture is much different and anger makes no sense.  As I write above, we live life on many levels, many planes.  They are all connected although not always in obvious ways.  Even otherwise highly educated people don’t see the connections.  The connections, interconnections and interweavings become visible only after a sustained gaze upon them.  To see them requires special training.  Somewhere, Norbert Elias got that training, as did many other thinkers who have had a sustained influence on me over the decades.

Apparently, staring is rude, even for an 8 month old baby.

I’m reading Norbert Elias’ The Civilizing Process, the edition I have being published in 1994, but which is really a compilation of  two earlier separate works entitled the History of Manners and State Formation and Civilization both from 1939.  It’s a long, involved and complicated book, a detailed historical sociology rivalling Max Weber’s work.  At the moment I’m reading his fascinating account of the evolution of the use of table implements like the knife, spoon and fork and their moral implications.  He writes that it took centuries from the first appearance of the two pronged fork on the European scene in the early Middle Ages as an implement usually made of gold or silver and strictly used by the upper nobility to its more general use only three centuries later.

Normally I wouldn’t write about a book while still in the process of reading it, but in this case I’m not reviewing his book and it turns out Elias’ analysis provides a great backdrop for something that happened to me today in an elevator.  Carolyn and I were rushing around looking for a cash machine in a mall at 555 West 12th Street in Vancouver, BC., not that the location has any particular significance.  The same event probably could have happened in a number of similar locations.  So what happened was this: We chase around the mall for a bit looking for a cash machine and eventually find one, get some cash and head back to the elevator to get back to the parkade, one floor below.  A woman also waited at the elevator.  She pushed a stroller into the elevator as the door opened and we all got in, but just before she did that she turned to me and said: “He hasn’t learned yet that it’s impolite to stare at people.”  Well, alright.  So I asked her, “How old is he?”  She replied: “eight months.” At which point, the sociologist in me kicked in and I told her that it was a little too early in his life to be learning manners as complicated as not staring or averting the eyes.  She probably thought I was just a nutty old man and left it at that, but she definitely had the old moral wall on her mind.  No way was she going to let her son break an inviolable rule of etiquette such as not staring and she just wished she could enforce it on him even at his tender age.  At least she didn’t hit him for it.

Granted, the use of forks has very little in common with not staring at someone when it comes to etiquette.  Still, they are both things that ‘are not done.’  That is if you want to be accepted as part of a civilized society.  Savages and pagans stare and eat with their fingers, but not civilized people.  The study of manners is the study of morality, who is part of my world and who isn’t.  We struggle constantly with whether or not we ‘fit in.’  In saying that I’m not breaking any social scientific sound barriers.  Sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists have long been interested in manners.  They open an impressive window into what we will accept as ‘civilized’ behaviour.  Their evolution is key to understanding a multitude of other social relations.

That said, I’m a little concerned for the little tike I met in the stroller on the elevator in the mall at 555 West 12th Avenue in Vancouver.  His mother seems to be hyper sensitive to etiquette rule violations.  If it’s true that children hear ‘no’ or ‘don’t’ 40,000 times before they enter kindergarten, this little guy might be in for maybe 60 or 70 thousand ‘nos and ‘don’ts.’  By  the time he gets to kindergarten, he may be so hemmed in by his mother’s imaginary moral wall that he will have difficulty turning around without scraping an elbow.