Future Thinking

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The past is irrelevant.

Well, like most categorical statements, it’s not entirely true. The past can serve – if you approach it with a critical mind – as a guide to success. And failure. It can at least tell us how we got to the here and now.

Still, it is surprising how many people, on both the right and left, spend most of their time staring behind them, either with fond, if misguided, nostalgia or with bitter resentment. The past is a rich lode that can be mined to fuel present day prescriptions to restore a glorious era or overcome ancient wrongs.

But here’s the thing. While you may make tremendous efforts to re-write the past (so much easier than living in the present), you can’t actually change it. It’s over and done with. Despite aphorisms to the contrary, it’s dead, Dave.

More importantly, the past will always be that home to which you cannot return. As for those people who say ‘we should have done it differently…’ Well, you didn’t. In fact, for the most part, the speaker wasn’t even part of that mythical we; in some cases they weren’t even born.

So, while the past is not exactly irrelevant, it is largely unimportant to our current existence. You can’t change it and you can’t return to it. So grow up.

So what does that leave us? The eternal present and the envisioned future.

Which is plenty. By some metrics, there is now more ‘present’ than there has ever been. More people, more nations, more problems and more possibilities.

Everything we do occurs, by facile definition, in the present. But, at the same time everything we do extends into the future.

Ah, the future. Unlike the decaying body of the past, the future is pregnant with possibility and change. Indeed, every time we act in the present we create a different future. Science fiction fans will be familiar with the idea of ever-branching futures – each one shaped by the billions of actions taken by billions of humans every second. Most of those futures are indiscernible from each other, but no matter.

In truth, there is only one future – the one we all wind up living in. Almost nothing we do makes a bit of difference to that future. Even powerful people like Presidents and CEOs and public intellectuals and revolutionary leaders spend most of their days doing meaningless things. It is only in hindsight that we can ever say that this action or decision mattered.

Which might make life seem rather pointless and powerless. But it doesn’t.

We can have whatever future we collectively want. But that’s the thing – it is a collective decision. It’s not like some leader can take us to the future (any more than they can return us to the past) because they don’t know the way anymore than the rest of us. A book called Superforecasters recently pointed out that it is possible to make really good guesses about what the world will look like three months or even six months from now – but three years or six years. Not so much.

Maybe that seems pretty limited but still it does suggest a way forward. Conversation, dialogue, shared visioning – it’s not much but it may be the only way to get the future we want.

And that’s ten minutes.

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Freedom

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Everywhere man is born free and everywhere he is in chains. So thought Jean Jacques Rousseau back before the French Revolution. One wonders what he might think now. Plus ça change… and all that, I guess.

Freedom is relative, of course. Very much a case of the chains half on or half off. In the West, we often talk about how free we are and, yet, whenever someone chooses to exercise that freedom, say by refusing to stand up when an anthem was played, we get all sorts of responses – such as the pastor who stated at a football game (to wild cheers) that anyone who refused to stand, should be shot.

That struck home since, on occasion, I’ve refused to stand for such ceremonies. I got some dirty looks – or, this being Canada, some sidelong glances – but no one pulled a gun on me. Of course, talk is one thing – it’s a free country isn’t it? – but action is quite another. “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?

Religious freedom is one area where people become particularly confused. They feel that their freedom has been limited if they aren’t allowed to impose their views and values on other people, aren’t allowed to be paid by the government but refuse to serve citizens if they don’t like the cut of their jib. It’s public service folks! If you want a cult-run state, move to North Korea.

Or they believe in freedom religion but only for their own. Daesh (ISIS if you like) is all for freedom of religion – you’re free to convert anytime you like. And if you don’t… well, you have no one to blame for yourself.

But, of course, freedom can take many forms. In some places, people have proposed right-to-work legislation – even imposed it – but what they really want to do is take away your freedom of association, or put it more bluntly, they want to outlaw unions. And why not? Employment they say is a matter of a contract between two people – a boss and a worker. It’s a bit like saying that anyone can get in the ring with the heavyweight champion of the world and expect a fair fight.

Still, we have the right to vote, right? Well, we do as long as someone is watching. But look away for even a moment, and someone will start to find ways to exclude some voters. Voter registration and identification is just a modern form of the Jim Crow laws that were designed to keep black Americans from voting or the Indian Act in Canada that denied indigenous people the vote into the 1960s. Even when we talk of wasted votes or design systems where votes don’t really matter, we find ways to limit political freedom – at least for some of us. The very wealthy can always buy whatever freedom they want and often do.

Still, not all is lost. In the West at least, what used to be solved by force of arms – war and revolution – is now achieved through voter revolts and populist movements. Not always pretty but less likely to enslave us. And if it does we can turn to another old time thinker who said, echoing Rousseau: Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains.

And that’s ten minutes.

Triggers

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I have a friend who has a colony of feral cats living close to his house – well, practically right outside his house. He feeds them – a bit – but mostly they are on their own. He lives in the country, well away from his neighbours and his property is also home to hawks, coyotes and weasels. Not surprisingly, the number of cats goes up and down over the course of the year, reaching their peak at about this time of year.

Most of the cats are pretty skittish. Most will accept food but won’t be touched. A few, especially the younger ones are a bit friendlier and will purr and accept pats. One black and white kitten was particularly cuddly. Was.

Recently a relative was visiting with his dog. The dog had had previous run-ins with the cats and had not come out well. This time he chose his target well. He killed the friendly kitten.

When my buddy told me about it, I was upset and angry. I told him I would have kicked hell out of the dog. At the very least that dog should have been muzzled. I’ve thought of that little kitten several times since then and it still upsets me.

So why did I tell you that? Some of you are probably as upset as I was. Some of you might now be upset, angry, grief-stricken, remembering when one of your pets died. Some of you probably feel I should have warned you.

I should have started off by saying: Trigger Warning – dead cat. But I didn’t. On purpose.

Being upset by life is part of the process of living. It also part of the process of finding your moral centre. Confronting events or ideas that upset you help define who you are. To some extent the desire to avoid them is understandable. I certainly turn away from racist or misogynistic remarks and from those who make them. But turning away does not make them go away.

Not that some people haven’t been badly traumatized and need help to get over their pain. Sometimes that means protecting them or letting them protect themselves from painful reminders. But sometimes they need to confront their pain and figuring out what it is about the world that you need to try to change.

A couple of years ago (has it really been that long?) I witnessed the shooting of Nathan Cirillo at the War Memorial. It made it hard to go to work – to be anywhere near the memorial or even Parliament Hill. I was diagnosed with PTSD. I also had mild depression, compounded by anxiety. For the former, the treatment was straight forward enough. My doctor told me to go to the site of the shooting every day until I could define it as a safe place. I had to exercise agency to reclaim that place for myself. Avoiding it would have made my condition worse and made it last longer.

The depression and anxiety was another thing. Those I needed to work through rationally and slowly, identifying the things that made me feel that way and figuring out alternative narratives or possible actions that would resolve them. It was a real thing and it gave me insight into what people who have faced much worse go through. Sometimes alternative narratives are hard to find; actions hard to take.

Which is why we do need trigger warnings and safe places sometimes – but not to protect us from being upset or angry or sad. Being emotionally engaged – even painfully – is not the same thing as being traumatized. And treating them the same does nobody any good and may well do them harm. And using other people’s trauma to shut off discourse we don’t like is just plain wrong.

And useless. It will make no more difference to the world than wanting dogs to stop being dogs. And that’s a bit more than ten minutes.