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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.

Saturday 2 June 2012

There’s Good In This World – And It’s Worth Planning For

Warren Kinsella

Also Warren Kinsella

I don’t see the “need to be shocked” as particularly reflective of modern life.  I’ve been around the world and have witnessed a wide variety of human-on-human atrocity that didn’t make anyone other than me, the foreigner, bat an eyelash.  Even in local politics, people who have shouted to the heavens “move forward together” have said, in private, that to get ahead in this world, it’s every man for himself.

Disagree with me if you want, but there’s a rationale for this that goes beyond a blank declaration that the world is evil.  What we traditionally do is exactly the same as what our counterparts in the rest of the natural world do – we conserve energy for when we might need it most.  Our first layer of self is a selfish one; ignoring a homeless person on the street, leaving empty coffee cups on store shelves, not holding the door open for the person behind us or not worrying about what happens to the soil if we extract every ounce of natural resource from it.  Whatever is a gain for us, individual, is a loss (of resource, of time, of safety, etc) for someone else.

This is nothing new; today’s generation isn’t more ambivalent than every one that’s come before it.  While there is still a large swath of population that doesn’t care what happens to anyone other than themselves, their family and perhaps their social group – a work cast, an ethnic or religious group, etc – this is a trend that is on the decline.  We are becoming more aware of our present as part of a spectrum that includes the future as well as the past and are taking into consideration long-term consequence as well as immediate benefit.  As we are hyper-socialized through urban living, media and now, social media, our nets of influence (and therefore, of compassion) are ultimately reaching out further. 

Again, there are parallels for this in the natural world; altruism isn’t a uniquely human, God-given ability that sets us apart from other species; it’s simply another evolutionary advantage.   It’s one that makes a lot of sense, too – you gain more influence and control over external factors like storms, predators, illnesses and food access when you work together.  But this also means risking loss through providing to others without a definitive guarantee of return.  Collaboration eats away at independence, but furthers opportunity.

This, then, is the real human dichotomy; not the political left vs. the political right, but individual independence vs. social strength and mutual benefit.  It’s also the origin of strategy, which at its simplest is planning for victory tomorrow, even at the expense of a win today. 

While political war room strategists might speak metaphorically about stepping on necks, that’s all it is – metaphor.  When was the last time we had a political assassination in North America?  When in Canada, specifically?  While we might accept throwing each other’s youth “under the bus” as fair play, we remain aghast at the idea of actually killing children. 

When we expand the net from political strategy to actual military strategy, hearts-and-minds campaigns, fostering local supports and where possible, facilitating structural collapse from the inside rather than expending resources and political capital ourselves is more the norm than ever.  We don’t want to kill off opponents – we want to harness them as markets, partners, sources of usefulness.  It’s that inherent biogical altruism playing itself out at the international scale.

Unfortunately, there will always be selection-of-the-fittest examples at the grand scale.  After every diplomatic, strategic and manipulative tactic has been tried, force becomes the only option remaining (inaction causes the problem to spread, eventually calling for action – it’s like trying to avoid going to the doctor for a toothache).  Force results in proud leaders being stripped of their power, honour and dignity.  They become fodder for social media, today’s equivalent to heads on pikes as warnings.

The majority of people who will or would wield power register these examples and add them into their strategic considerations, forcing them to lean a bit more in the pro-social, manipulative direction.  And the cycle continues.

What follows manipulation in terms of fostering success?  Empowerment.

So, to the dichotomy of good and evil folk out there worried about a closing spiral on civilization, I would say this: there is good in this world – and it’s worth planning for.

Friday 1 June 2012

Creative Leadership, Ego and the Conscious Society

Yup!  There is a distinct difference between confidence and competence.

The irony is, we’re more likely to buy in to confidence than we are to competence – it’s a genetic thing.

Despite this, inflated egos come at the expense of innovation, the essence of creativity.  Therefore, the extremes of confidence foster “creative destruction” – leaving room for new, less aggressive and more strategic personalities to rise in their wake.

Boom and bust; ebb and flow.  It’s like a big, repetitive circle.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

Children Always Come First

People shouldn't be surprised that children are always first targets.  In a survival-of-the-fittest game, it's never about competing and building strength, it's always about eliminating competition.

This is as true in politics or business hierarchies as it is in natural selection.

People look at the murderers of history and say "animal."  Of course they're animals - all human beings are animals; we're great apes, not much different than chimpanzees.  We're mammals, just as are lions

But we're also more than that - we are the most social and the only recognized sentient species on earth.  Every social organization shows us that diversity, specialization, collaboration and mutual support make us stronger.  The whole is more than the sum of our parts, when we're conscious of this.

Which is why progressive societies educate their young, provide healthcare for their young, ensure their children have all the tools they need to succeed as strong, independent individuals in a strong, collaborative social environment. 

If you want to go fast, go alone - see how long you last.

If you want go far - move together.

Justice of the Peace Reform Could Actually Promote Justice

Justices of the Peace (JPs) are political appointments.  Full disclosure – as a former political staffer, I’ve been in on the process of picking JPs.  My MPP would get a list of candidates and be asked for his thoughts on the background, experience and judgment of each one.  Obviously there’s more to the procedure than that, but that’s the bit I know.  I never gave much thought to the specifics of what JPs actually face until I was in a position of going before one myself.

At the end of March of this year, I was ploughed into by a Chevy Trailblazer.  I was crossing a street at a crosswalk and on a green light; the inattentive driver was in a rush to get home and took the corner without paying attention to the pedestrian traffic.  Although he hit me at around 30/40 kph, the driver, a well-heeled lawyer, never got out of the car.  I had to coax him for his name ( which he falsified) and phone number.  I took the license plate down myself and then he drove off.

It was then up to me to get to a phone and call 911.  As I was in severe pain and was understandably concerned about what had been done to me physically, I got to an Emergency Room as fast as possible.  I ended up having significant soft tissue damage that I’m still getting physiotherapy to remedy, but not on the dollar of the man who caused it. 

After hitting a fellow human being and showing no remorse, after obstructing, belittling and lying to a police officer, the victimizer in this got away with not so much as a slap on the wrist.  The attending officer actually discouraged me from  pursuing justice;  he comes across cases like this where it was clear who the bad guy was all the time, but when he brought the case to a Justice of the Peace, he would get laughed away.  There was no crime scene, no witnesses, no way of actually proving that my injuries were caused by that driver and that vehicle.  He actually told me the best thing to do should I find myself in a repeat situation is to lie on the road, even if it means exaggerating my wounds, and wait for someone to call 911.  He had no answer when I asked "what if he'd have driven off anyway?"

The JPs weren’t versed in the law – it was their status and supposed judgment that got them their position.  Given this, should it really come as a surprise that for many, the first inclination is to side with the person of property who’s life could be altered by their decisions?  It’s better to air on the side of caution, which the law is designed to do, anyway – keep those with property from being scammed by those without. 

What this unintentionally encourages is behaviour that abuses the rules on both sides.  This isn't serving justice, it's promoting selfish divisiveness.  If that's the approach we want to take, we should just implement a Stand Your Ground law.  That's not about justice, though - it's about retribution. 

When you get slammed into by a car, you lose your liberty, too – liberty of movement, liberty from a sense of safety, possibly liberty from life.  Apart from the physical damage, which limited me from doing things like lifting up my son for a month or cutting the grass, carrying groceries, etc, there was the psychological impact – not just mine, but my entire famiy’s.

Again – the guy who hit me had zero consequence at all.  If you don’t learn from mistakes, what incentive do you have not to repeat them?  Even more disturbing - front-line officers are being discouraged by decisions like this from pursuing justice.  They are being hampered to perform the very duty they are paid to do, by the people they have sworn to protect, but can't.  The greatest victim when justice fails is society as a whole.   

Given the real impact JPs have on the lives of those who come before them, given their impact on justice (both as it’s served and people’s faith in justice – I can tell you, mine has certainly been shaken), the more training they have the better.

David’s got my full backing on this.  I hope he has yours, too.

Thursday 31 May 2012

The Business of Governing

  - Mitt Romney


  - From the Toronto Star

Reward the elimination of others?  You can only think this way if you've never had to worry about money yourself.

This, folks, is where "government as business" becomes problematic.  See, when you own a business, you are focused on the bottom line - generating revenue, managing expenses, seeking out opportunity for growth.  Period. 

While I agree it's important to keep our governing institutions on sound financial footing, there's more to government than that.  Employees are also citizens and more to the point, citizens aren't employees.  If anything, they're the employers.  If I hire a company to, say, take out my garbage and find that it's happening less and less regularly because that company culled staff to save costs and "save me money" I would not be impressed.  I'm paying money to get my garbage taken; if that doesn't happen, why should I be paying, period?

Then there's the fact that Holyday thinks senior bureaucrats deserve to get higher salaries for cutting the income of other Torontonians.  At a time when unemployment is on the rise and EI is being gutted.  What message does this send?  What model is being encouraged?  Would a young Torontonian think twice about taking a job with the City if they figured they would be pilloried for being civil servants, have their value questioned by the Mayor and possibly end up being let go, anyway?  Are people going to move here for that and a reduction in services, to say nothing of the transit mess?

There's more to success and sustainability than just dollars.

Richard Majkot takes this a step further:

He's not referring to the best here, but the most cutthroat; the ones who don't mind breaking other people's eggs to make omelettes.  The best aren't in it for the money.  The types of people who deliver creative solutions to problems want skin in the game, legacy.  If they feel that's going to be tainted by association with people who are going to give quotes like that to the media, that's yet another reason to think twice.

Instead of getting the best, this hyper-competitive, carrot-and-stick mentality attracts the types of personalities that have brought Goldman Sachs, ORNGE and SNC Lavalin recent notoriety.  Which brings you back to the headlines, tarnishes your brand and undermines confidence in your leadership.

Creative destruction, indeed.


We Can Do Better - and We Will

- Attributed to Edmund Burke

- Elie Wiesel

- Adalbert Lallier

Look at this picture.  Don't shy away from it.  Look at those three young faces that will never become old faces, nor ever have the chance to look back.

It's pretty horrifying, isn't it? 

What do those vacant eyes that should be full of promise make you want to do?  Scream, run, cry, hurt someone?

Embrace that feeling.  Let it wash over you.  Now - harness it.  That raw emotion will give you resolve - your challenge is not to lose the thread, nor to let that feeling churn helplessly in rage.

Too often we see problems as insurmountable.  Saying the world is just evil is a cop out - it removes power and responsibility from your hands. 

Too often we justify inaction based on an unwillingness to face our own limitations.  Allowing problems to fester only makes them worse; denying responsibility doesn't remove guilt.

Too often we lash out, becoming part of the problem instead of seeking solutions.  Lobbing our missiles their way, we only produce more corpses that look exactly the same.

There's only one way forward, and that's to own up to our responsibility to society, both here and abroad.  If that means sacrificing a little comfort, so be it.  If that means challenging your own views, then do it.  If it means engaging your enemy over debate rather than the sword, do that too.

Get informed.

Get engaged.

Patience, persistence.

Maintain resolve; maintain morale.

Make the difference.

If we don't, we are simply condemning our children to repeat our mistakes.

 - Balian, The Kingdom of Heaven

UPDATE September 4, 2015

We will do better... but clearly, not yet.

Murder, Mind and the Social Matrix

First, a thanks to Warren Kinsella for posting this story (not gonna lie, I mine a lot of interesting stuff from his site).

This story speaks to a theme I have raised here time and again; people are not instinctively in control of their actions and more often than they realize, confabulate explanations for things they have done.

Is it logical to kick a police car when a camera is filming you?  Is it logical to deny saying something that has previously been recorded?  Is it logical to think you can hide behind an online pseudonym in this day and age where you can peel back layers to find pretty much anything you want?  Does it make sense to blab about breaking the law in an age of information sharing?

None of these things are logical, yet each one has been done and exposed on the grand stage.  And they’re still being done.  Some of the brightest strategic minds in the country are still painting themselves into corners, confabulating to themselves that it doesn’t matter, memories are short and they can spin themselves out of anything.


Why would police officers, charged with keeping the peace and serving the interests of justice, automatically assume a horrific story was just that and not pursue the matter further?  Why would our immigration minister suggest violence against minorities in Europe can’t be as bad as all that, despite the evidence and history that say otherwise?  Why would micromanagers continue to stifle employees despite the evidence that doing so negatively impacts the bottom line and encourages turnover?  Why would an organization committed to ending discrimination hyper-target a specific group and marginalize them?  From the other end of the spectrum – what causes people to confabulate delusions of conspiracy theories?

You might feel that none of these scenarios are connected; they are.  In each and every case, you have individuals making choices.  Each individual makes decisions using variations on the same hardware – their brains – that are impacted by genetic, biological and environmental factors.

Our brains are complex machines, wired into other complex machines (our bodies) which in turn are gears in an even grander machine – society.  Internal and external factors have significant impact on how our brains function cognitively; a lack of sleep or food impacts thought, external stress or joy can impact emotional content in thought, substances like caffeine or alcohol, or anti-depressants or stimulants, can equally impact what goes on in our noggins. 

Think of your car – what happens if you don’t wash it?  Rust.  What happens if you get your suspension out of alignment and don’t get it fixed?  What if the battery dies out, or you run out of gas?  What happens if a car that hasn’t been kept in good shape loses control on a busy highway?  The function of the machine and of the system of which it is a part is thrown out of equilibrium.  Better yet, think of the body; if you hurt one leg and are limping, that can impact your other leg, your spine and as such, your whole physical well-being  Our brains are part of that body.  Who we self-identify as; unique individuals, personalities, souls – are all products of this machine. 

If you think I’m stretching here, you’re in the same place as the police officers that didn’t take Renville seriously.  They were tired, they get lots of crank calls – they had established mental models that triggered a Pavolovian response when they registered an unfathomable possibility.  It doesn’t make sense to me, they said, so it can’t have happened.  Despite the ongoing reality of murder and the established reality of narcissists recording themselves performing criminal acts, the one officer decided to follow the cognitive path of least resistance – we can fake death, ergo this must be a faked death.

But it wasn’t fake, was it?   

I could go on and on with examples of limbic, reactive, defiant or protective behaviour that goes contrary to the facts.  I don’t need to, though, because you see them in the headlines every day.

Society is facing multiple challenges – the economy, jobs, healthcare costs, growing public resentment, an erosion of democracy and the rise of militant ethnocentrism.  Each one of these problems can be traced back to individuals who are unconsciously responding to stimuli and then confabulating justifications for their behaviour.  Which brings us back that fringe issue people talk about wanting to solve but really have no idea how to approach – the very reason that they aren’t treating it seriously, just like the officer who took Renville’s call.

That issue is cognitive function, reactive vs proactive thinkingmental health.  When we truly get what mental health, cognitive function and innovation are about, we can nurture the balance between thoughtfulness and action – but we can only get there if we’re doing it consciously.

Wednesday 30 May 2012

Communication: The Most Human of Challenges

Cara Santa Maria - a brilliant scientist, a brave person facing personal depression, a public figure and a pretty lady.  Which mantle do you think most people dwell on when they look at her, or even speak with her?  How often, I wonder, has she had to scale down her prose, push down the swell of her depression to help people get past the way she looks to see the multi-faceted gem, inclusions and all, that lies within?

Stephen Hawking - a brilliant scientist (who made quantum physics a best seller), a limp body trapping a hyperactive network of cognitive activity, a man with the drives of a man but no way to satiate them.  How often have people, even those cognizant of his genius, treated him like an object rather than a person?

I won't lie; my eyes welled up a bit while I read this piece.  I've faced many a communication challenge in my life.  I have some idea of what it's like to have so much you want to share but for whatever reason, be restrained from doing so.  I know the frustration and stigma a chasm of the personal can cause, for both sides.  Cara Santa Maria beautifully captures the tragic poignancy, the almost-meeting of spirits, if not as much minds, through the relatively short time frame of her encounter with Hawking.

Her writing reminds me of a favourite line from Jack Kerouac's On the Road - "We tiptoed around each other like heartbreaking new friends."

If two minds as beautiful as these can't bridge that simple, human gap, can any of us?

So long as we make the effort, there will always, always be something that's shared - even if it's just a new way of seeing ourselves.

ANOTHER EXAMPLE: Hey Glenn, the kid's a person and he's in the damned room!

Respect, Consequence and Success

   - Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty

As the GSA saga has unfolded, it’s come as no surprise that the “respect adult authority” meme has been bandied about.  Thomas Cardinal Collins has suggested Premier McGuinty isn’t respecting the moral authority of the Catholic Board Trustees.  Not mentioned is that the Board doesn’t seem to be respecting the moral authority of their own teachers, who are in favour of empowering youth to choose a name for their association that suits their objectives, even if it uses the word “gay.

More than a couple commentators have thrown out “spare the rod, spoil the child” – suggesting that allowing our youth to define themselves and engage in conversations about how to understand and get along with their own individual peers is somehow watering down their moral fibre.

On public transit I hear teenage boys talking about respect and how they aren’t getting it or what they could/should do to get it.  Lots of song lyrics carry the same message.  Despite the negative impact on mental health, productivity and the bottom line of this approach being applied in workplaces, employer/employee respect is still perceived as a rock that rolls uphill rather than a reciprocative interaction.  Jason Kenney made a compelling argument that the Liberal Party of Canada was not respecting the New Canadian community and taking their votes for granted to devastating effect (for the LPC).

Here’s the thing: these folk who want “their” youth, “their” employees or “their” constituents to do as they’re told; the people who talk derisively to politicians or planners who disagree with them or refer to their staff as “dead wood” don’t really give a rat’s ass about respect; what they care about is dominance.  Respect, they see, is something received, not given.  These adults will yell, stomp their feet or ask aggressively to get their way – in essence, throwing tantrums, or bullying to quash challenges to their perceived authority.  Sometimes this leads to one partner tucking it’s tail between its legs and backing away.  More often than not, it results in escalation, serving nobody’s best interests.  Where do our kids learn such behaviour?  By watching us, is how.  That’s the example we set.

When you tell a child that they have to do as they are told, period, you are attempting to undermine their position, which will almost always be legitimate for them and might actually add value to a conversation.  I have a 4 year-old who challenges me all the time; he will seek clarification on a position, offer alternatives and will make some pretty decent arguments on his own behalf. 

My wife and I actively encourage this behaviour; it helps him develop critical thinking, to get into the head space of the person with whom he is speaking and teaches him resiliency.  This also makes him more proactive and collaborative – my knows how to stack the deck in his favour.  It’s both cool and a little bit disconcerting to watch a 4 year-old lay out multi-move strategies, but I always proud of him for it.  By showing my son respect, by giving him skin in the game and a stake in the end result, we’re preparing him for a life of success and contribution in the real world.

Employers may feel they have no responsibility other than wages to their employees – they are tools to be leveraged for labour, nothing more.  When you don’t respect your workers, though, you not only atrophy their capacity to make you money, you actively push them away.  Same thing with any team, any constituency – the whole is only as strong as the weakest.  In a social environment, you don’t get very far by culling “weak links” – instead, success comes from empowering each of your team to reach their full potential.

People like Thomas Cardinal Collins might be uncomfortable with the word “gay” – a latent  homophobia for a word that, when time was, meant happy.  They might feel that allowing students to use the term in Catholic schools (the Church’s schools, apparently, not the students) makes them uncomfortable and is therefore disrespectful  to their moral authority.  What they’re really doing is passing the message on that the Catholic Church doesn’t respect the views of youth, which is not a wise image to portray.

Poor Catholic Church Board has backed themselves into a corner.  They need a way out of their untenable position.  Here’s some advice they can turn to from within their own cannon that will make it easier for them to do the right thing:

People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it."
Mark 10: 13 – 16

He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 18: 2 – 6

 Such is the nature of belief systems.  I would be happy to sit down with them, hear their arguments out and together, we could come us with a comprise that suits both our interests and allows us to move forward.

Because that's what true, mutual respect allows.