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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Friday 15 November 2013

Heather Mallick and the Social Butterfly Effect

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    feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune.
    "they had great sympathy for the flood victims"

Intentionally or no, Heather Mallick has cracked the lid on a much bigger problem than just Rob Ford.

We are constantly hearing how the Political Right decries the Political Left as bleeding hearts, suckers to the manipulations of lazy thugs or welfare recipients unwilling to act in their own self-interest.  This is the same Political Right that will ignore the blatantly detrimental and selfish behaviour of one of their own, so long as it doesn't impact them negatively.

Then there's the Political Left, calling the Right heartless and unsympathetic, demanding that policy makers take off their blinders and look at the social, cultural, economic and health (mental and otherwise) context that leads to bad behaviour among marginalized people.  These are the folk that have zero sympathy for the 1% who have access to whatever they want.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who sees the cognitive dissonance in both these positions.

If Rob Ford is a bad man, then there are bad men - every thug, murderer, drug-dealer or homeless person are victims of themselves alone and need to sort themselves out, or failing that be removed from society to protect the rest of us.

If, however, context matters - if Economic Opportunity, Social Development, Participation in Decision Making, Healthy Lives and Physical Surroundings play a role in shaping the end product that is the individual, then that fact would apply equally to a Rob Ford or a Sandro Lisi as it would to a Sammy Yatim or Ashley Smith.

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    the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

We in the west have a rather unusual, egocentric way of looking at the world; we start with ourselves and then spiral outwards to what impacts us.  We are islands, either completely self-contained and strong or buffeted by seas of troubles eroding the stability of our shores.

This is a delusional conceit to have, but also a dangerous one.

Every day, employers snap at under-performing employees, wondering why they can't just follow the unclear and constantly changing directions they are receiving.  Employees focus on doing what they think will keep the boss off their backs instead of looking for ways to add value to the brand.

Every day, traffic gets snagged up because someone felt compelled to race a light and didn't quite make it, or is crossing the street against the light, too buried in their smartphone to look around.

And every day, people are abused both verbally and physically by others who have insufficient impulse control or even a notion that they should be thinking before they speak.

"I don't understand how they can be so insensitive/weak/dumb/entitled", we'll say.  "Life would be so much easier if they would just go away."

Rob Ford isn't going away; as much as people are continuing to look for ways to cut out the cancer, they're also developing ways to live with it.  Rob Ford, a man suffering with addiction problems, emotional health issues and a wide range of other concerns has become a chronic illness Toronto must learn to manage.  He is repugnant, abusive, toxic - but he's our problem.

This is a step in the right direction - instead of abandoning the people with lead poisoning, we're looking to cure it.  This is still a band-aid solution, though; the next step is to take a hard look at where the poison is coming from and take the lead out of the water entirely. 

I'm not big on sympathy.  It's important to feel the emotional resonance of someone's circumstances, but doing so has to have a point.  This is why I prefer the term empathy, which is about understanding the context, content and consequence of someone's situation so that you can determine causal factors and consider potential solutions.

Behaviour is the result of internal (neurochemical) and external (environmental) factors.  As people watch videos of our Mayor's behaviour, trying to figure out what substance he's on at any given moment, they should also consider what those substances do to his cognitive function.  Anger, hopelessness, functional fixedness and even empathy are chemical reactions that can be understood and managed, if we put in the effort.  Part of that process involves adjusting environments to nurture the kind of cognitive functioning we desire - for instance, innovation and productivity in the workplace.

Rob Ford isn't the embodiment of Toronto's problem; instead, he's a symptom of a much bigger social concern.  It is no coincidence that some of the top issues being discussed in various circles right now are mental health, governance reform, human resources management, systems integration, equity and flow.  

If you break each issue down to its core components, you find that the process by which choices are made (or not made) is at the root of all of them.  That's why I put mental health first - because how we think is a product of how our mind works and what influences it.  If we fail to understand that, we will keep solving the wrong problems and wondering why we aren't getting the results we want.

There's a perfect alignment right now to catalyze the structural change everyone says they want - but it won't happen unless we find it in ourselves to break down the barriers of our own cognitive biases and start looking at each other as partners in the same social enterprise, rather than resource/status competitors.

For this, in part, we have to thank Rob Ford.

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