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September 26, 2005

The Anatomy of Bad News: toward a descriptive taxonomy

I am not proud of my first reaction to the news of the horrendous Boxing Day tsunami. To my mind, my response denotes a state of severe dysfunction, akin to running a temperature of 103F, or of flinching dramatically every single time a family member touches your shoulder.
As you will recall, the tsunami occurred not two months after the re-election of George Bush. I had spent the intervening weeks writing an article about what the four more years of Bush would be like. I had just sent that article off to the printer, and was working on another one about the newly invigorated nuclear power industry, eagerly awaiting a new round of incentives and perks under Bush. I'd spent the run-up to the election thinking and writing about the revelation the mass extinction now in progress may well be the worst in the earth's history, if you count the number of species wiped out.

It had been a rough few months. And that's not even taking into account the usual litany of major episodes of destruction, and my seeming inability to rouse any interest in fighting them from a populace glued to the latest revelations on the election. Entire estuaries wiped out up and down both Baja coasts so that rich gringo yachters can visit and complain about the food for a few days, and the USDA refusing to allow meat companies to do their own tests for Mad Cow while contaminated beef is sold in restaurants in Oakland, crucial fisheries collapsing and children starving and well, too bad. What's really interesting is whether the US Army had access to superscript typefaces in the early 1970s.

I opened my web browser and read that an undersea earthquake had sent massive walls of water crashing onto hundreds of thousands of people, most of them poor.

My first reaction was relief.

It was followed within seconds by a flood of empathy for the victims, a growing sense of the horror that the killer wave must have brought to bear on an entire basin. I began to leak tears, I dug in my wallet for the credit card to make a donation, I spent a few days reading everything I could on the aftereffects and the survivors.

And I thought about that first, gut reaction. It was very plain, as if spelled out in 72-point type in front of my face.

I was relieved because there was nothing anyone could have done. A disaster had happened that we could not possibly have stopped. The earth shifts all the time, and an oceanic landslide raises a wedge of water to batter a far-off coast. It had nothing to do with the Bush Administration, nothing to do with destruction of the environment, nothing to do with humans at all except as casualties. I could have written the best expose ever written, had a global movement crystallize around it like abolitionists around Uncle Tom's Cabin, and the tsunami would have happened anyway.

Just for a moment, I felt blameless.

I was wrong, of course. Tsunamis happen all the time, but many of the people who died did so because their shoreline homes were no longer protected by fringing mangrove forests and coral reefs. I publish stories on mangroves and reefs all the time. I should have known better. Oh, well.

There are a number of different types of bad news.

There is the bad news that is our birthright, the stuff inseparable from being human, the deaths of family members and ends of relationships, the loss of social prestige and conflict with other people. We feel this keenly, and it washes other considerations from our minds. We are all subject to it.

Then there is the remote bad news that comes in more abstract form, tsunamis, and famines, and extinctions of animals you were unlikely ever to see anyway. To be noticeable, given the distance from the observer, the scale of this sort of bad news must generally be large.

There is the tendency to treat this second kind of bad news as a series of disconnected disasters, evidence that life elsewhere really sucks, confirmation of the notion of American exceptionalism, or that life is cheap in the Third World. This notion does not stand up to much scrutiny, which is probably why few people scrutinize it.

When you do scrutinize the notion, you tend to find that poor people suffer far more than do the rich from disasters, famines, epidemics, and the like. You learn that people are poor because others are rich, and that in some cases and by some definitions of the word "rich," some of those rich people are sitting in your chair right now. If you are of a certain humanistic frame of mind, you decide to work to mitigate your privilege, as meager as it might seem compared to the richer people around you. You boycott companies that cause tragedy. You donate money, and perhaps even time, to ameliorate the suffering.

And when it seems clear that your efforts are insufficient, you may become an activist, a Jeremiah, warning people that something must be done to avert even greater tragedy.

Which brings us to the third type of bad news: the realization that your work has had no effect. Photos, and then videos, and then confessions of hideous torture are released, and half the American public is just fine with that. You warn that summers will get hotter, and they sneer. When the summers get hotter, you warn that storms will thus become more intense, and they sneer. When the storms become more intense, you warn that our coastal cities are in danger, and they sneer. Trot out a thousand scientists, and they will vote to ban evolution from the curriculum anyway. Tell them of ecosystems collapsing, and they will proudly tell you that they throw their aluminum cans into a separate garbage can. They'll load up their five kids into the SUV with the "Keep Tahoe Blue" sticker on it, and forget you exist by the time they run out of gas.

Half a nation voted for an obvious, admitted liar whose dissembling was part of an easily accessible public record. They didn't care. Many of the people I know were shocked. Forget for a moment the repudiation of progressive Twentieth-Century values: the 2004 election seemed a repudiation of the Enlightenment. People were shocked into silence.

I will admit there is an upside to deep experience with that third sort of bad news: I am used to people not listening to me. On November 3, 2004, I was ready to get back to work.

But if you weren't, if you were aghast that people would do soomething so destructive despite warnings obvious to any intelligent person, I want you to remember how you felt that day. Keep that memory in mind. It will become important.

Posted by Chris Clarke at September 26, 2005 06:18 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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A friend referred me to this page some months ago, and I liked your writing well enough to bookmark it and check in from time to time. I'm so glad I checked in today, as this has really spoken to me.

I tend to get overwhelmed by the bad news and feel a need to tune it out. The outcome of the 2004 election caused me to disengage after working my heart out to remove Bush from office. I tried to tell myself the government is an abstract thing that is not connected with my spirit and who I am. I tried to turn inward instead of focusing on things that I seem to be unable to control.

But I realize that the government is not abstract. The radical right wing agenda of corporate welfare is invading every aspect of my life and causing real suffering throughout our country and the world. As a human and a parent, I feel a responsibility to raise my voice.

Thank you for writing this and hopefully inspiring more of us out of our silence.

Posted by: Barbara at September 27, 2005 08:02 AM
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the hard part is finding a balance between rage and despair where one can still try to fight. they've won if we all give up

Posted by: Leslie at September 27, 2005 02:37 PM
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This isn't a battle that is easily won. It is not a battle or a war at all. It is an ongoing, continous campaign against ignorance and lack of compassion. We take a few steps forward, and then a lot of steps backward. Humanity is ever thus.

We are the ones who see the future. They see the present, or worse, the "glorious" past. We try to drag them, kicking and screaming, into the future, saying it will be really cool. They whine and complain and sit down and throw a tantrum, saying it's too hard or we're just Godless morons or whatever the flavor of the day excuse is.

Hey, we know the future is coming, is, in fact already here in a name known as today. The best we can do, when we get into that mood of hopelessness, is smile at ourselves and realize that another day will return us to the fight. Take that break when you need to, but keep going - we have a future to create, after all.

Posted by: donna at September 27, 2005 05:08 PM
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Donna - I so agree. We need things to strive for, not just things to struggle against.

Chris - it's that third category of bad news that's the most horrifying to me. The idea that so many people could just shrug their shoulders and go "meh" before returning to their daily rounds is something that I literally couldn't have imagined prior to the last four or five years. I find it profoundly depressing and angry-making that this is still the bloody case.

And then we are offered short-range bandaid solutions like "winning" elections, when what we need is a cultural sea change on multiple fronts. It makes me tired just thinking about it, but one does what little one can.

Posted by: Rana at September 27, 2005 05:44 PM
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My sister's home in Gentilly was destroyed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when the levees breached. She had evacuated herself and 24 animals (she's a veterinarian) to my parents' home in Grand Chenier. They evacuated for Hurricance Rita last Wednesday, Sept 21. Their home was destroyed utterly. There's plenty of help and talk about Katrina refugees, but what about the 10,000 residents of Cameron Parish? My sister hasn't been home for a month now, and Cameron Parish is locked down by the military until October 3 at least.

I did everything possible for the 2004 elections -- I donated, I volunteered, I voted. I feel that the results were fraudulent. I have no power, I have no voice. I live paycheck to paycheck, one medical emergency away from financial disaster. How can I effect change in what I perceive as the wrongest of worlds?

What's to be learned from this? Give me a hint, a clue, some hope. I'll be looking for it.

Posted by: Electronic Heartbreak at September 27, 2005 06:07 PM
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Stephanie, on the off chance that you're reading this comment, it's dedicated to you.

Chris just wrote a very persuasive, very honest piece about American society. I agree with the vast majority of what he wrote, and I commend him for doing it so well. (Not that any of us are surprised.) Yet his way of looking at the world is based on the idea that we live in a spiritual vacuum and that bad news is either pure chance or the result of uninfluenced human choice.

I disagree. My personal experiences have shown me that we don't live in a vacuum, and that bad news is rarely pure chance or human whimsy. And as a result, dogma - in this case, an unwillingness to examine arbitrary self-imposed parameters - precludes the potential for greater clarity.

Which is a shame.

Posted by: tost at September 27, 2005 10:21 PM
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Electronic Heartbreak - I don't mean to be disrespectful, but I disagree. You do have power. You have the power to touch the people around you with your passion and with your ideas. You have a voice. You have the ability to learn from the things you experience, and to grow in response to the challenges you face. I hope you keep voting, and volunteering, and donating, because people like you - people who see the problems out there and decide to tackle them head on when it would be so much easier to throw your hands in the air and say, "I'm only one person. I can't do anything at all." - are our best hope for our future.

Posted by: tost at September 27, 2005 10:43 PM
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tost: I am reading this thread, and I'll respond to your comment later (speaking of despair, right now I'm busy despairing over finishing an essay that's due tonight in class. Why, oh why, do I think that I can do this at the last possible minute?). But in the meantime, could you tell me why that comment is directed at me, particularly?

Posted by: Stephanie at September 28, 2005 12:46 PM
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I'm a little confused about that one myself.

I'm also confused, in the rather longer term, as to why tost persists in thinking he knows what my religious beliefs are. I've only ever written about what they aren't.

I have made it a very deliberate point never to write - or speak - about the religious beliefs I do hold.

That's partly because to describe is to kill, and partly because those beliefs are no one's business but my own.

I will suggest that tost's assumption that he knows exactly what my beliefs are - and that it's appropriate for him to proselytize his own beliefs at me in blog comments and email - indicate that there's more than one person around here with an "unwillingness to examine arbitary self-imposed parameters."

I am unwilling to talk to you about the matter. that's very different. and it's nothing personal, unless you persist in making it that way.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at September 28, 2005 01:17 PM
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Chris, it seems to me there's an interesting question underneath your comment. Can someone deduce a set of spiritual assumptions from your other writings and positions on subjects to come up with something that is possibly accurate? I argue against making those sorts of presumptions as a matter of course and for my living, but still the question sits there in front of me, could tost possibly deduce something close to the truth based on the values you set forth here? It doesn't seem to me that you are anything other than real in your expression here, and that reality is based on something isn't it?

Posted by: susurra at September 28, 2005 03:22 PM
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susurra - hell of a question.

Posted by: tost at September 28, 2005 11:37 PM
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My memory is shot at the moment - packing for a move this weekend while trying to care for the baby, etc., etc. - but it seems like at some point not too long ago, you suggested I tweak Chris about religion. I also believe I declined at the time, but mentioned I'd do so at some point down the line. Last night seemed a good time to follow through, for a variety of reasons that I don't want to go into right now.

Chris - You're absolutely right. Your religious beliefs are no one's business but your own, and you have every right to discuss them, or not, as you see fit. And please believe me when I tell you that I don't take it personally.

If I've erred in my assumptions (which, by the way, are that you don't believe in "God", whatever "God" may be, or in a spiritual existence outside of what we consider to be the physical world) then I owe you an apology. But barring any evidence to the contrary - and I’d suggest that all negatives and no positives probably does indicate a pattern - I’m pretty comfortable with what I wrote.

So let me throw out some simple statements, you can decide whether or not to respond, and then we can all move on to something else.

1) I believe in God, and in a spiritual existence outside of this physical world. Further, I believe that what happens here is influenced, sometimes profoundly, by what happens in the spiritual realms.

2) Those are pretty specific assertions I just made, and I think someone could make a reasonable case that my beliefs are either A) correct or B) incorrect. (If, in fact, reality exists regardless of our perceptions.)

3) I also believe that there are some basic methods (some of which are verifiable and reproducible) for figuring out whether I’m right or whether I’m wrong.

4) I may be misinterpreting you here, but it seems like you’ve indicated a desire to better understand the world we live in.

5) Given everything I’ve just said, and given the fact that you’re a bright, talented man who cares deeply about the planet around him, I have a hard time understanding why you don’t approach this particular subject - religion, spirituality, whatever you want to call it - with the exact same scientific discipline and analysis that you’d use to assess any other aspect of human existence, whether that aspect concerned the environment or politics or gardening or whatever. I’d think that you’d want to engage spirituality on a more substantive level, if only to look at your beliefs - whatever they may be - from different perspectives.

6) But you’re right - you don’t have to discuss any of this if you’re not interested, or comfortable, in doing so.

One question, though. When you write about religion, or the “woo-woo” stuff - and you do, on a pretty regular basis - shouldn’t your readers be able to hold you to the same high intellectual standards you exhibit on any other subject? Or am I wrong about that?

Posted by: tost at September 28, 2005 11:41 PM
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You try to offer a clue to some people.

I have a hard time understanding why you don’t approach this particular subject - religion, spirituality, whatever you want to call it - with the exact same scientific discipline and analysis

That is your assumption. It is a false one, at that. You have no idea what my path has been.

One question, though. When you write about religion, or the “woo-woo” stuff - and you do, on a pretty regular basis - shouldn’t your readers be able to hold you to the same high intellectual standards you exhibit on any other subject? Or am I wrong about that?

And again with the one-upmanship.

You have been proselytizing at me rather relentlessly, tost, in comments and e-mail both. I am sick to fucking death of it. I didn't ask you to do it. You are not my teacher. I am tired of people who insist on doing me favors even after I make it clear I'm not interested.

Do you get what I'm saying now?

Go ahead and discuss your own beliefs all you want. I don't mind. You're welcome to do it here. But you have consistently found every possible chance to tell me that my own beliefs - or at least what you perceive them to be - are wrong. That is one thing if I criticize others' beliefs, as I often do. That's par for the course and you're welcome to rebut me in those situations.

But you've been doing so even when religion is not the subject at hand, as is the case in this thread, or in attempting to start email conversations on the subject. I find that highly boorish. I got tired of it a long time ago.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at September 29, 2005 12:04 AM
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To sum up: if you don't feel you can keep from proselytizing, don't keep coming here.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at September 29, 2005 12:05 AM
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This was a most excellent post, which I just now got around to reading. I'm sorry the message string turned sour, and perhaps i should let well enough alone, but as a fairly religious person myself I would just like to say that in my opinion Tost's "simple statements" have very little to do with true religious faith. Intellectual assent to propositions is virtually irrelevant to the true work of religion - serving others (including non-humans). Chris's anatomy of his reaction to bad news, however, shows him to be a man of unusually strong religious dedication. It's not as if the content of knowledge and experience - let's call it wisdom - is unimportant, of course. But I think most authentic religious teachings would have us begin with humility and awe, not with assertions about questions which language is ill-suited to express. Again, I think Chris shows himself to be the more religious one here, with his recognition that "to describe is to kill." If I were to fault him here, it would be simply for having lost his famous sense of humor.

Posted by: Dave at September 29, 2005 05:21 PM
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Nah, Dave, I wouldn't fault him for losing a sense of humor, because his frustration is perfectly true for him and we don't have a right to judge that any more than to judge his choice to talk about or be religious. I'm sorry Chris if I continued the thread in a direction unwelcome.

Posted by: susurra at September 29, 2005 06:35 PM
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If I were to fault him here, it would be simply for having lost his famous sense of humor.

It's not lost. I just left it in my other pants.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at September 29, 2005 06:57 PM
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Chris - There's probably no point in saying this, but I'll do it anyway. I believe you've misinterpreted a fair amount of what I've written. If you think there's some sort of competition between us, you're mistaken. If you think I want to be your teacher, you're mistaken. If you think I'd like to tell you what to believe, you're mistaken. My hope, and it's obviously not going to come to pass, was that you'd begin to look at religion and/ or spirituality with an open mind. Nothing more, nothing less.

Anyway, I think it's time I took a break from CRN. This conversation has obviously gotten personal, at least on your end, and I don't see anything to be gained by continuing it. But despite our differences of opinion, you're a good man, and I wish you all the best.

Posted by: tost at September 29, 2005 10:18 PM
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