Monday, December 08, 2014

Hear No Evil

I started writing this post months ago. I am revisiting it now as part of an effort to revive my personal writing.

I've been on an extended hiatus from blogging, apart from sharing the entertaining comments of my children. I keep a list of things to write about, and I've noticed that the list keeps getting longer, while months without writing keep piling up.

There are lots of excuses for this. Work contracts, travel, house guests, puppy and kids and school and home. But mostly I blame Facebook. I am on Facebook a lot. And I love it. I love the pictures of people's pets and kids and vacations and meals, the presentation of their favourite songs and sayings and things that struck them as funny or touching, the proud proclamations on how far they ran or how much they crushed that workout, the confessions of staying in pjs and bed all day, or feeding the kids cereal for dinner because they Just Can't Anymore today. I love listening in, so to speak, on others' philosophical and political debates about gun control and birth control and bicycle helmets and immigration and prostitution and natural resource exploitation. I love that Facebook serves to bring important issues to my attention that, because of my remoteness, I might not otherwise discover. Facebook gives me the chance to, from across the world, chat with friends and browse through their photo albums, share family news, listen to music together, introduce friends to each other, and just generally keep in touch better than I could do without it.

And I like the minutiae. It bolsters my sense of security and my faith in humanity to witness this person's baby's smile or mess, that person's funny observation on the commute home, your frustration with or triumph over your home repairs, your delight or dismay at your new haircut. I took a bit of flak some time ago from an acquaintance over my posting of personal trivia, like the fact that I was thinking of changing my hair colour, or the staggering fragility of the drinking glasses the homeowner provided to us. I understood my friend's annoyance, I truly did, but I was also not apologetic in the slightest. To me, and to thousands of others, this is what Facebook is all about.

It is an exercise in frequent and intense personal description with minimal reflection, in the pursuit of mutual reassurance that we are all still here, we are all still doing the best we can, we are all mostly okay and if we're not, we can reach out to one another. And, of course, the fact that Facebook posting doesn't require much reflection or analytic thought means that I can keep it up at a fantastic rate even while I let my personal correspondence and my personal writing slide. But every now and then, something comes along that requires more consideration.

I struggle with the barrage of awful news items I see on Facebook, particularly the ones of dubious provenance. I lose patience when my feed is flooded with countless iterations of the same dreadful story, and I am thoroughly riled up by demands that I click "like" or share images of wounded soldiers, premature babies, kids with cancer, or would-be daring statements of faith or conviction. So, given my distaste for these things, I am conflicted about the moments when I go on a political or activist posting binge - my posts earlier this year about the kidnapped Nigerian girls, or about the links between underage prostitution and the World Cup in Brazil. My recent posts about the seemingly unending violence against women in our society. I have been struggling to say something about the race violence in the United States, but I fear deeply that I know so very little about and am so far removed from it that I would contribute nothing, or worse: that I would be racesplaining. But if I could say something that I thought would be of use, I would.

And therein lies the fundamental difference between my need to spread certain things and my determination to block the spread of others. If it cannot be of use, if it cannot help anyone, if all I'm doing is showing sorrow, or suffering, or wickedness to others without there being anything we can do about it, then to me I'm spreading sorrow or suffering or wickedness and nothing more. This is something I've been thinking about for a long time, online and off. I remember a day a few years ago when our babysitter arrived at work and told me a truly awful story of abuse that she had read online. The image of that abuse haunted me all day, a clinging miasma of sadness and shock. But it didn't help anything or anyone for the woman to have told me the story. I think as humans we have a natural impulse to pass on shocking or upsetting information, even if no change can be effected through that sharing of knowledge, because at some level we hope to alleviate our own pain by passing a bit of it on. I don't think that works. I think by doing this we increase the pain. We perhaps do not double it, but we stop it from fading when we perpetuate it in this way.

When I was younger I could not understand the three monkeys: Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, See No Evil. I thought I understood the "speak no evil" part, but I was baffled at the idea that we should refuse to hear or see evil. To me this seemed like nothing more than pretending something was not there in the vain hope that it would cease to exist. But when I heard the babysitter's story of abuse, and more recently when a particularly tragic story was being shared on Facebook, I felt a physical need to turn away from the news, a need to refuse to see or hear it, let alone speak it. The phrase "hear no evil" came into my mind, and I suddenly wanted to know more about its origins.

The tenet comes from Japanese Buddhism, apparently, and is thought by some to have its origins before that in Confucianism. If Wikipedia is correct, in Buddhist tradition it means not to dwell on negative thoughts, while in the Western world some consider it a reference to the moral irresponsibility of people who ignore wickedness.

But I wonder, can we conceive of it as a warning not to acknowledge evil for evil's own sake? To recognize that every time we tell someone else about a senseless death, or act of cruelty, or tragic accident, without a reason that is motivated by goodness (action that we can take to minimize suffering, to correct injustice), we spread sadness and pain without benefit. To wit: learning that Jian Ghomeshi, a widely respected and trusted public figure, was very likely an abusive misogynist was sad and shocking and painful. But it also opened up a discussion among Canadians about sexual assault and harassment in a way that few other events have. It was indicative of an evil that we can change, and knowing about that evil is essential to eradicating it. In contrast, knowing the details of a horrific accident or a random and senseless act of cruelty, where that knowledge cannot help us change anything, cannot help us undo an evil, merely perpetuates pain.

There are a lot of small evils in the world. Countless ones. Most of them we never hear about, and we never hear about them because the people who see them - nurses, doctors, emergency responders, police officers, judges, lawyers - go home at night and go out with their friends and talk about good things instead. When I clerked I had glimpses of these evils in some of the cases I worked on. I saw them in cases we studied at law school. Those were just glimpses, though. For people who work in health care and family services and criminal law, and in many other fields, they see evil every day. I remember when my eldest was born, talking birth plans with our doctor. She was patient and supportive, as was the gentle, good-natured, beanie-wearing doctor who actually delivered the baby. It only occurred to me later, having learned more, that these doctors had dealt with more death and tragedy, more evil, than I could easily fathom. And yet they focused on the good. They kept knowledge of that evil from us, letting us know only about real risks and potential problems that we could actually work to avoid. It is better for these professionals, and for the people in their lives, and for society more broadly, that they do not spread this knowledge.

I think there is something to the idea that in turning away from evil and refusing to speak of it, unless we are doing so in order to end that evil, we spread goodness instead. This is my hope.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just read this through out loud to your mom. It reads well and has the feel of a well-edited and polished piece, and it expressed some ideas that I have been grappling with in a way that clarified my thinking. Well done. I am very much looking forward to getting you started on the initial read-through of my book.