Monday, September 27, 2010

Looking for a Watch in the Rain

I realised this morning as I was packing my things for work that I didn't know where my watch was.  I was definitely wearing it at brunch so that I could keep an eye on the time; Drew needed to catch a train back to Kingston.  When we got back home and were about to leave for the subway, I realised I wasn't wearing it anymore, but thought it would turn up in my apartment.  This afternoon when I got home from work, I decided to go for a walk to retrace our steps of yesterday, examining the gutters and the grass.

As I walked my mind drifted to work, and I found myself thinking about things that I'd read in the news lately.  My job is all about researching issues of public health, and it turns out that much of my work involves skimming the news for top stories related to health so that we can stay on top of current events and concerns.  As a result, I end up reading all the headlines about the terrible things that are happening in the world.  Like the girl in B.C. who was murdered in a park, the other girl in B.C. who was gang-raped at a party while people snapped photos to post on Facebook, and a strange story of a 12 year old and a 16 year old having sex in the middle of the day surrounded by their friends in an open space, which a teacher and a neighbour interpreted (wrongly) as an attack.

I found myself wondering, to my 26 year old self, 'What's happened to the world?  Why has it gone wrong?'

This doesn't seem like the world that I lived in when I was younger.  Is that because I wasn't paying attention?  Most likely.  So is there anything about the world that has changed since I was 16?  Probably not.  In fact, the only thing that has changed is me, and my sensitivity to the things happening around me.

I have an antique crystal goblet in my heart, and it is full of faith in humanity.  Over the years it has suffered bumps, and it is laced with cracks and fractures dealt by the world.  Little drops of faith leak out of it, very slowly, through these cracks.  The story about the girl who was raped at a party splintered the base of the goblet.  Last week it was teetering, with faith in humanity sloshing over the sides at every lurch that came from a new headline about the horrific actions of the people who witnessed her rape.  People.  People who watched, and also took photos (and apparently videos), and also posted them on the internet.  People who did that, but did not stop the men and boys who raped her, one after the other, while she lay unconscious (drugged).

I was horrified by this story.  I felt sick to my stomach.  I think everyone who read it was horrified by it.  I needed to talk about it, but it's not something that you can really talk about over coffee.  The other women I work with also have to patrol the news, and so the three of us talked about it in disgust and horror, but I needed to talk about it more.  It is so hideous a crime that people stood and watched and took photos.  It's like bystander effect to the power of three: watching, photographing, posting.

When Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in New York in the '60's, and all the people in the surrounding apartment buildings who heard her did nothing (no one even called the police) because everyone assumed that someone else would do something, psychologists called this 'bystander effect'.  Essentially, the more people there are around, the more shared the responsibility to act becomes.  If there are enough people, the responsibility to act becomes so diluted that no one feels the moral pull to action.  Is this what happened in the girl from B.C.'s case?

I am repulsed by the idea of allowing this to be the explanation.  First, not only did people stand and do nothing, but certain people actually saw what was happening - a man or boy having non-consensual sex with a girl - and decided that they would do that when that man or boy was finished.  Other people saw the various men and boys raping the girl but did nothing to stop what was happening or to prevent the next person from committing the same crime.  WORSE STILL, people took photos with their phones and cameras.  MOST HORRIFYING OF ALL, they posted these photos to the internet, and the girl found out what had happened to her only when she began to see the photos of herself and to figure out that she had been unconscious and that men and boys had had sex with her without her consent or knowledge.

So what the hell is going on with the world?  Why is this something that people actually did, and did not only at the time (that is, not only when they were maybe drunk and high themselves, while it was happening) but the next day, when they were presumably sober?  What has happened to humanity?

I reached the levelling-out part of the sidewalk here, almost at Queen street.  I'd been walking downhill in the rain, scanning the ground, but lost in my head and my outrage.  It was going to be dark soon, and then I wouldn't be able to see the ground in any detail anyway, so I decided to turn around, and walk back up to my apartment.

That's when I started to think to myself that nothing has happened to humanity.  Humanity has always been like this.  I didn't know it when I was younger, but it was happening then, too.  The 70's and 80's were the times of Paul Bernardo and Roch Theriault.  We haven't had a sociopathic cult leader come mass murderer in a little while, actually.

And for that matter, rape in all it's hideousness, violence and hatred has always existed.  That's not a new phenomenon, and it's not even new when it's boys that are committing rapes with girls (rather than men and women).  Anyone who has read Thomas Hardy, Shakespeare, or Chaucer has probably come across rape a few times.  Sometimes it's not as easy to see; it depends on how explicit the author makes it, and language can mask the violence of it ('to ravish' is just a nice sounding synonym for 'to rape').  I suspect that tales of sexual violence are as prolific as tales of suicide, murder, war, and incest.  The depth of human depravity offers a well of inspiration for artists of all kinds.

It's almost hard to believe that at this point in human "advancement", when our technology, science, arts - psychology, philosophy, anthropology - and other studies have built upon so much knowledge from 3000 years in the past, that we haven't yet overcome the basest of impulses.  It makes me wonder if we're really just building a figurative Babylon, getting ever more sophisticated with our technology and closer to understanding the physics of the universe, the minute inner workings of our bodies, and the depths of the psyche, but yet ironically damning ourselves to decadence, greed, and pain at the exact same time as we reach new heights of accomplishment.  We are, to be sure, the very same Homo sapiens sapiens that we have been for the last 60 000 years.

We are animals, after all.  We're sophisticated animals, capable of greatness and good deeds, but we're also capable of great evil against each other.  I wondered, as I walked back through the dog park to the back yard of my apartment, if we'll ever manage to catch up with the development of our own technology.  Humans are social animals, and most of us manage to negotiate the social world with ease and skill.  There are those people who, because of their nature or an unfortunate experience in nurture, do not figure out how to operate in social groups.  Studies have been done on monkeys to see whether various psychological issues that impede social integration can happen to them.  It turns out that monkeys can suffer attachment disorders and become maladapted to group life just like us.  The sad little monkeys in our society end up doing bad things, or sometimes harmless but weird things, just like the sad little monkeys from the experiments.

When something like Facebook gets thrown into the social space, representing a new arena of interaction, subtlety, language use, interpretation, and trust, there is going to be a segment of the population who don't know how to work it.  Like physical group settings, where some individuals just don't know how to behave, how to operate within the dynamic, online social networking tools represent a new challenge for the maladapted.

Why am I off on this tangent?  Because I'm still trying to figure out why someone would post a photo of a rape, a school fistfight, a car crash, or an emotional breakdown on Facebook, and I'm starting to suspect that in this case, and maybe in a few others (Twitter, Textsfromlastnight, YouTube, etc.) technology has leaped ahead of our capacity as animals to handle the social environment.  Maybe that's especially true of some people and not others.  Maybe we need to do a better job, as friends, parents, or siblings to help younger people figure out where the lines of acceptable behaviour are.  Some think that the lines should be obvious, particularly when it comes to photos of assaults of any kind.  I think, however, that if anyone pays attention to what is going on on the internet in any detail, it's clear that there are no holds barred in that space.  Acceptable behaviour is not at all obvious, particularly if no one is telling kids what right and wrong on the internet means.   People have less responsibility than ever - which is what leads the police and government officials to worry about the lack of accountability - because whatever people are doing on the internet is being participated in by countless millions of others, be that child pornography, fetishism of various kinds (some harmless, others not), or baking.

As I kicked yellow leaves floating in water beside the curb with my green boots, I finally understood why people say there's so little accountability on the internet.  I always thought that it couldn't be totally true, since every post has a poster's name, every Facebook account has an identity trail, and every email comes from an IP address.  It turns out that the way in which the internet makes us most unaccountable, and most inhuman, is that a perpetrator of violence need never see their victim's face, or even be in the same place at the same time.  The people who took photos of the girl being raped were actually there, they actually saw, but I doubt any of them looked into the girl's face while they observed what was happening.  The people who got a hold of the photos on the internet, however, were from all over the world, and have never seen this person.  They are so removed from the girl whose photo they have that they probably can't feel responsibility for participating in her violation, even though every re-posting of the photos is a new abuse.

I wonder if this particular age is a bit of a dip on the upward climb of human progress.  Technology is speeding ahead, and moral guidance is not keeping pace.  With parents who are not technologically savvy, many kids are growing up with new social spaces that their parents can't understand and therefore can't teach their kids about.  Other adults are finding new ways to explore their quirks with groups of like-minded people they may never have found otherwise.  In some cases (baking) this is positively supportive, in other cases (child pornography) this is troublingly conspirational.

At the end of my walk I didn't have any answers about what's happening with our society.  Maybe nothing, maybe it's always been like this.  Maybe the internet makes it worse sometimes, even while it does great things too.  Maybe kids are more vulnerable now, or maybe they've always been vulnerable like this, with different risks than we have now.  Maybe I need to buttress my crystal goblet with some steel girders, and stop being so sensitive to the world, or try harder to refill the glass with faith in humanity by watching out for more of the good stuff instead of all the bad.

All I know for sure is that my watch is gone.

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