Collective Obsessions and Seeking to Understand

Despite what I said in my previous post, or perhaps because of it, I have been trying to articulate and therefore understand my feelings of unease about some of the matters currently affecting us all, for example COVID-19, the protests following the death of George Floyd, the public arguments about transgenderism and so on. Perhaps you can help me?

I am not talking about having a particular stance, nor am I asking for your opinions on these matters as such. We all have our own views, and this is probably not the best place to debate those I have mentioned. My question has more to do with the dynamics of debate, the way we go from one subject to another and how we are to understand our collective obsessions and the way they affect us.

A little while ago everyone was talking about COVID-19 and giving the world the benefit of their opinion on the nature of the virus and its origins, the effectiveness of lockdown measures and, in the UK at least, the competence or otherwise of the Government’s response to the crisis. As someone said, overnight we all became epidemological experts, and if we had celebrity status, we expected our adoring public to hang on our suitably woke words and whacky medical recommendations.

Next came the brutal death of George Floyd, which ignited a series of riots and protests that is still going on. The way he was treated was wrong, unambiguously wrong, no matter that some want to argue that he had a criminal record as though that somehow ‘justified’ what was done to him. Some of what has followed, however, — further deaths, looting, statue toppling and so on — strikes me as being troubling, though not all equally serious. Death and injury will always be more serious than daubing a wall with graffiti or tumbling a bad statue into a river. Politicians and others have rushed to issue suitably contrite statements and take actions which, to an outsider, look to be panic-driven rather than a considered response to a complex and many-faceted situation.

At the same time, some comments of J.K. Rowling have added further fuel to a fire that has been raging for some time over transgenderism. I hope my transgender friends will allow me to say that casting accusations of transphobia at people doesn’t really meet the case. One can believe that biological sex cannot be changed without disliking or having a prejudice against those who have had gender reassignment or identify as being a different sex from the one they were assumed to be at birth. It is always going to be difficult to talk about deeply held beliefs without causing hurt, but should the fact that it is difficult mean we simply dismiss views we ourselves don’t hold by condemning the person who holds them? If I may use an analogy. My being a Catholic is central to my existence, but that has never stopped my being friends with those who don’t share my beliefs or are even hostile to them.

My problem with what I have called collective obsessions is this. First, we tend to deal with them sequentially. One minute we are flooded with comment on COVID-19; the next it is racism; then transgenderism. But when the shouting dies down, what have we done to effect any change? My second is more personal: how do these matters affect us at a deeper level of consciousness and our Weltanschauung?

We may have clapped and cheered the NHS for ten weeks, but what have we done to limit the spread of COVID-19 or help those whose lives have been most affected by it? There is an emotional response to the work being done by healthcare professionals, but can we go beyond that? We may have denounced racism and slavery, but how aware are we of the slavery that exists in Britain today or that brutalises the lives of people living in other countries? Only this morning I read on the BBC news web site of a little girl of 7 who had been working as a maid in Pakistan and was tortured to death by her ’employers’ (see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-53008093). If I say that worries me more than any statue, am I to be immediately condemned for not being alert to the discrimination and injustice suffered as a result of present-day racism in this country or the role of historical remembrance in perpetuating racist attitudes? Are they mutually exclusive? And with regard to transgenderism, what effort have we personally made to understand? If one does not condemn a particular view, is one complicit with it? Or is one simply saying, I don’t know enough, haven’t thought enough, to express an opinion — and do I need to have an opinion on everything, anyway?

I suspect my questions don’t really have answers, and I must be prepared for comment from those who don’t want to engage with the questions but merely want a platform to express their views. So be it. I must go on asking, however, because otherwise I know that I shall not be trying to listen to the Holy Spirit who speaks to us in many and various ways, not least through events and the perplexity we experience in the face of them. Our collective obsessions may be fleeting, but they can have a huge effect on our lives and the lives of other people. Ultimately, they matter. We must take them seriously.

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14 thoughts on “Collective Obsessions and Seeking to Understand”

  1. Sadly, it seems nowadays that being impartial or ‘sitting on the fence’ is not acceptable yet if you are actually sitting on the fence you are more able to what is happening on both sides.

  2. Just a couple of observations:
    I wish people wouldn’t use mental health terms, such as phobia, as insults (transphobia, xenophobia, homophobia etc.). I think it is hurtful to people who have real phobias and other mental health problems. And those behaviours are nothing like real phobias anyway.

    The older I get the more I tend to the Dirty Harry (as played by Clint Eastwood) view about opinions. I won’t repeat it here as it’s a little rude.

    Perhaps a politer version of that is the commonly expressed view by spiritual teachers who follow a non-dual approach such as the Advaita Vedantic tradition and some Buddhist approaches, that all thoughts, beliefs, opinions etc. are simply illusions that interfere with seeing things as they really are and one should devote oneself to practices that take us beyond such illusions and limitations such as meditation (contemplative prayer in your terms perhaps?). (Sorry about the long sentence…) I also have some sympathy with this view, but (irony alert) here are a couple more thoughts anyway.

    Although controversial, I do think that the psychological concepts of the Dunning-Kruger effect and the illusory superiority bias have some truth in them. To (over?) simplify, they hold that some people are so foolish or lacking in skill and self-insight that they don’t realise how foolish they are and express their foolish views very loudly and confidently! I see these as problems made worse by today’s social media amplifiers. It is now easier than ever to express one’s views and find others who share them.

    I also think there is evidence to support that there has been a change in parenting style over the past 30 years or so, away from authoritative / authoritarian styles and towards permissive styles, in which children have very few boundaries set on their behaviour. I see this as connected to the self-esteem movement in which children are told how wonderful they are and all must receive prizes, no matter what they do. The end result is people who always expect to have their own way and are quite happy to behave very badly in order to get it.

    Just a few thoughts off the top of my head…

  3. I think that part of the problem is that people have come to value “feeling” over rational thought; they enjoy their feelings, and the more public the forum for expressing them, the better. Things become important to the extent that they produce “feeling”, ie. I am moved/thrilled/overjoyed by this happening/situation, so it must be important. If there is a ritual to be performed – clapping, two-minutes’ silence etc – all the better. “Feeling” is not a bad thing in itself, of course, but, as I’ve often felt lately, woe betide anyone who tries to inject logic/rationality into the conversation. Thinking and feeling are both important, but there needs to be a balance.

  4. The key thing is to do the work, to try to understand and not let these important things be passing obsessions. But it is exhausting because they are all important and boil down to treating each human being as loved by God and important to Him.

  5. Good questions – and as someone who does have a view on a fair few matters, they give pause for thought.
    I think, and I know it’s a cliche, that 24 hour news and the need to fill broadcast media with sound has led to a sad polarisation of opinion with vox pops standing in for considered, nuanced responses. And the repetition of sound bites such as ‘all lives matter’ or ‘I’ve got a right to free speech’ don’t help. There’s also the sheer frustration of getting involved in a campaign and discovering that the forces of inertia, bureaucracy, and the hidden webs of influence woven by the powerful, make it very hard indeed to be effective. At one point I gave up on political involvement because it seemed the only way to be heard was to pursue the very methods which I disliked. But in politics compromise is essential, and maddening.

    Your point about modern slavery is so pertinent. My friend, Sr Imelda IBVM does amazing work for trafficked women – strange isn’t it how this doesn’t hit the headlines but noisy groups do. Meanwhile statues are dumped, angry people shout and women and girls are smuggled into nail bars and domestic work and forced to become the sexual slaves of the men who trafficked them, and very few notice.

  6. I too have wrestled with these issues, but sometimes they are interlinked in our reactions to them often coming from a mixture of how we grew up, were educated, what occupations we had, our faith and beliefs (or lack of them) and, almost inevitably, our political viewpoint.

    I was very disturbed by the killing in Minneapolis, but a lot of this could be blamed on history north versus south and on attitudes towards people who were different. It is interesting that here in the UK white American GI’s were incensed when black GI’s were welcomed just as they were before D-Day. Things changed when immigration from the West Indies occurred in the 1950’s remembering signs like No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs on rooms to let. I try to treat people as I find them, and now I sometimes ask non-white people, just out of genuine interest, where their families originated as I know that most of them were born here. I have explained that although I was born here my ancestors were Saxons from Northern Germany. I saw my father relating well to an Indian / Pakistani man he played cricket with in the late 1950’s but he loved ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’ as it reminded him of the Indians he had served with in India and Burma.
    We haven’t been good at treating all people fairly, but there has always been unfairness meted out to those who are ‘different’ – I experienced it first hand as a ‘southern sounding’, Catholic, day boy attending a northern, largely protestant boarding school. It was not a pleasant experience. Some things are not examined and put right like the under-achievement of poor white boys in schools, for example.

    On the damage to, and removal of statues I am very uncomfortable. I lived in Bristol from the age of 4 months until 4 and later as an adult. Yes, John Colston had been a slave trader, (but many nations including Arabs and Africans sold people they had captured. There is still a lot of inter-religious and inter-tribal violence in Africa as you know) but he was also a major benefactor including the magnificent Colston Hall where I attended many concerts in the late 1960’s and early ’70’s. Should that now be demolished or renamed? Is it right to destroy any history we are uncomfortable with or should we ensure that people learn about it and learn lessons about how to avoid it? If statues are put in museums then they are effectively hidden away and not seen. Many buildings in Sheffield are named after their benefactors, but I found, with some relief, that they had largely been industrialists from the Cutlery and Steel industries. Some of the protestors do not appreciate the good that many of the people remembered in statues did. Robert Baden-Powell was a hero of mine from the day I became a Wolf Cub (yes, that dates me!), but he was always keen on the development of young people and his detractors ignore the fact that some early Guide Leaders were lesbians – so straight laced in public, but in reality, less so. Both Churchill and Gladstone were eminent politicians who served this country well.
    On Trans issues I’m really unsure. Is peer pressure having an effect? But on one thing I am clear if a male is transitioning but still has his male organs he should not use women’s facilities but only unisex ones.
    Sorry for the length of my reply, but I wanted to try to cover your points.

  7. I do so agree with you. Particularly in asking if we really need to have opinions about everything. I thought I had quite liberal views when I was young, now I’m old I realise I know remarkably little worth talking about!

  8. One of the things that makes me most frustrated (and I suspect many others too) with the single, socially acceptable narrative or slogans that get splashed all over social media is that it drowns out any nuanced discussion, and hence any opportunity to learn. There are a whole range of topics where I have quite complex, and in some cases, rather open opinions, views and perspectives – ones I don’t really mind having challenged. However, challenge is not the same as having those views entirely trampled or whitewashed by one version of what is acceptable to say. As a result, I find these topics can only be discussed 1:1 or in very small groups, ideally with someone affected directly by the issues at hand available to explain what it means to them.

    I hope my friends, family and colleagues don’t see my absence of comment on such topics on social media as an absence of interest or apathy. It’s simply that I don’t think token gestures do such subjects justice, I don’t want to be a hypocrite, I don’t want to attract negative unproductive dialogue and I feel guilty for not doing more. I’d almost go so far as to say that a quick post on social media acts as a sop to the conscience that allows us to not examine our behaviours and thoughts too closely – but that is a bit more judgemental towards those that do show their support to these issues in this way, than I really mean to be.

  9. You ask, rightly, what have we done to engage with the news we are so moved by.
    In times last, when news was exceedingly local, the protagonists were known to all, the engagement was at a personal level.
    Now, through 24-hour news, we are painfully aware of every troublespot, and the overload is so great that perhaps our only way of dealing with the emotion is to signal ‘like’ or to march, or clap.
    One of the things I have most missed during lockdown, is a Retreat in surroundings where prayer has infused everything, where a fresh perspective becomes inevitable, and gloriously welcome.

  10. Sister, thank you for continually bringing a God centered focus to all of us. As a Benedictine Oblate, the media focus here in the U.S. is too often divisive. In searching for positive dialogue. I Look forward to your humor and Benedictine walk.

  11. Thank you very much for your comments, which I have read carefully and spent time thinking about. I don’t want to add anything to them. I’ve always said it is the readers who make this blog what it is (which you can take any way you like!).

  12. I’m a bit behind on your posts Sister Catherine. Thank you for your thoughts on a few of these issues. We certainly live in confusing times. Though, I’m not sure I guess, things are much more different than in prior generations. I live not far from the area where George Floyd died. Watching the destruction from that event has been difficult.

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