Regular readers will know that my interest in standards is not limited to those that help make information and communications technology work. Over the years I've written about standards created to address concerns more directly relevant to the human condition, such as human rights standards, social responsibility standards, and much more. The world being what it is, I think that it's time I did so on a regular basis, and that's what this blog entry is all about.
At the heart of many of my past non-technical writings lies a concern over whether the standards of conduct (personal, institutional, international) that we encounter in the modern world are adequate to protect ourselves, our children and our future. All too clearly, the reality too often is that they are not. Our environment continues to degrade, our governments often act in ways that we do not support, and we feel that we are powerless to make a difference.
My own political consciousness was formed by the Viet Nam war and the civil rights movement, and the social protests that erupted in connection with those events. It was in many ways a messy time, but one that was inspiring as well. Thousands, and eventually millions, of citizens made their opinions known through protests and other public actions, sometimes at the expense of a night in jail, and sometimes at the cost of something worse. Their efforts changed the future of our country in ways both immediate and long lasting.
Unfortunately, one thing that did not prove to be long lasting was this new tradition of public activism. Whether due to complacency, a greater sense of disengagement, or simply increasing social discomfort over rocking the boat, the voices of protest have continued to diminish in number, even in the face of events that in times past would have brought multitudes into the streets.
One result, in my view, is that our government is less responsive to public opinion, even when polls show that the electorate no longer supports a failed policy. Another seems to be a greater and greater schism between the liberal and conservative media. When Americans could receive only three channels of television, those channels could not afford to alienate either the right or the left. But with the recent explosion of media channels – cable, talk radio and on line – has come the opportunity to serve niche markets of all kinds. Even many of the editorial columnists of the New York Times have abandoned any pretense of neutral presentation in favor of stridency. The Wall Street Journal reciprocates in kind.
In consequence, more and more people seek, and can easily find, news that tells them what they want to hear, rather than serious, neutral analysis intended to truly get to the bottom of things.
The result seems to be that to the extent that people care at all, they care about being fed what they want to hear. Worse, people in everyday life increasingly shy away from talking about politics and current events at all, because the risk of giving offense has increased, and the chance of having a productive give and take has plummeted.
For me, this has been a cause of increasing frustration in the face of the ongoing horror of the Iraq war, ineffectual efforts to address global warming, and general avoidance of the issues of the day.
What can anyone do, in such a situation? Yes, there are organizations to which you can send checks, tiny demonstrations to join in that go unnoticed, elections in which to cast votes, and very, very occasionally, someone to vote for that might have some measure of real courage and integrity. Little enough, it would seem.
Little or not, I strongly believe that those of us that live in effective democracies must take responsibility for what our governments do in our names, and use whatever reasonable tools we have at our disposal to make a difference. Even if all we can do is to bear public witness to what we believe is right.
In my case, this blog is the tool that I control that can project my voice the farthest. And unlike so many media channels today, its audience is not self-selected to be conservative or liberal politically. What this tells me is that I have the opportunity, and perhaps the responsibility, to use this platform when appropriate not to tell people what to think, but to raise questions that need to be thought about, and encourage others to do the same.
Accordingly, this is the first in a series of pieces that you can expect to appear on Mondays on an irregular basis, each introduced with the name “The Monday Witness.” The topics will vary, but the common theme will be to highlight instances of action and inaction in the world today that violate widely held standards of human decency. Sadly, I won’t be lacking for topics, and hopefully you’ll react the way one reader did to a piece I posted a few weeks ago called Words, Standards and Torture:
As a regular reader of your blog, I come to your site for news and informed opinion on standards.
Never the less, far from being put off by your post on torture, I thank you for that post. As one of the more shameful (and certainly more under-reported!) stories of this year it is good to see those with an audience writing about it.
If you choose to read what I write in this series, spend a moment thinking what you, too, might do in some small way to make it harder for all of us to shirk responsibility for what is done in our names. And by all means, share your comments on whatever I write.
If you’re game, I’ll see you next Monday.
For further installments of The Monday Witness click here.
I know I don’t agree with you on the solutions to some of your core concerns, but thank you, thank you, thank you for making your voice heard.
craig (not signed in because I can never remember my user ids and passwords to anything)
Thanks for the encouragement, Craig. I appreciate it.
To be honest, I’m still wading my way through your September bulletin that accompanied Words, Standards and Torture. As someone whose world view is still forming, it’s useful to be made to think about ideas far outside my normal range.
Modern society seems to be marked by remarkable technical progress with few regressions, and ambling social progress with many regressions. In the past 100 years, we’ve gone from thinking manned flight was impossible to thinking that spaceflight is boring, but we’re still working on the idea that skin pigments are a poor guide to a person’s value. This says to me that there are different human desires with different properties at work:
While these are all things that impact on what we feel we ought to do, the evidence suggests to me that appealing to success/failure is more effective at motivating action than appealing to good/evil. Put another way, people feel they should give money to charity, but would rather give it to their favourite football team.
If success/failture really is a better motivator, the solution is simple: convert your good/evil problems into success/failure ones. Carbon trading is an excellent example of this – before, all you had was the worry that you were somehow doing wrong by your grandchildren, whereas now you can worry about failing to meet your carbon quota, or succeeding in the creation of a carbon surplus.
For better or worse, I think that you’re right. The first time I heard about selling "the right to be bad" for profit, instead of banking the maximum good result, I was greatly offended. I believe that first time was in the 1970s, when I learned that developers could sell their air rights in New York City. In short, people building low-rise buildings could sell their rights to contribute to creating airless, sunless canyons to others. With time, though, I’ve come to share the opinion that it’s better to utilize human nature to get a good result than to stand on principle and watch the world go down the tubes.
So now I’m a creative realist, and all for having the gravity of human nature work for, rather than against, good results. You can get very weary trying to fight any form of gravity, and in the end, gravity always wins.
As a Kiwi I have to say I have contempt for the, as I see it, corrupt US administration with it’s double standards. George Bush has done nothing for US relations with the rest of the world, and actions such as torture means it can no longer claim the moral high ground. It’s overt support for for big business, and in particular, abusive monopolies such as Microsoft, and disregard for the environment, unless there is money in it. Well I am just glad they I am not an American, because I would feel the need to apologize for what their actions. I will be watching the election campaign in the hope that you can get something better.
I will be watching your new column with interest Andy
As a matter of fact, "double standards" is what I’m planning on doing my next Monday column on, unless something else comes along between now and then that’s more urgent.
US political scientist seem to think the problems are caused by the unrelented competition between the two parties.
See A Republic Divided from the Annenberg democracy project
This competition for power has politicized every aspect of "public" life in the US. I see the Katrina disaster as a symptom of this politicized paralysis (eg, for political reasons, the organizations that should have prevented it were ineffective).
However, I think we should never forget that even the most corrupt and criminal politicians are in office because someone supports them. Such bad politicians are a symptom of disfunctional sections of society.
Therefore, in my view, the question is not why, eg, politicians gerymander, the question is why the voters (have to) put up with being disenfranchized?
Go see kernel.org