We have seen better days


Things seem to change so quickly nowadays, don’t they? Of course we often grow impatient if they don’t; we expect a channel to change as soon as we press the button, the Google result to appear immediately; waiting for the red light to turn green at an intersection seems to take far too long. We have things to do, places to go -we feel compelled to move as quickly as the time that will not wait for us… unprepared as we may feel, and concerned as we may be that we have not yet thought through all the consequences.

And yet it is sometimes slowly unfolding things that cause the most damage; it’s not always the whirligig of time that brings allocates its revenges. Perhaps, like aging skin, the change is appreciated only in retrospect, or it seems invisible because it unfolds so slowly we have come to accept it as it is and forget just how it was. Often, I suspect, we discount the effect because it has not fully  happened yet, and will not happen for years to come; we’ll have plenty of time to get used to it -to accommodate. But that does not diminish its effect, and ignoring it will not make it go away.

In fact, however, I suspect that many things are multimodal –there are immediate effects, that are obvious, but also longer term effects which are so slow in developing that they may be overlooked; effects which are so easily attributable to circumstances occurring at the time, they can obscure the importance of what happened before -perhaps long before.

Violence can be like that; it has obvious immediate injurious effects, but there may be longer term, less apparent consequences that may not even be recognizable as sequelae. Broken homes and childhood violence may result in maladaptive behaviours in later years. Pollution, on the other hand, can accumulate effects like mold in a neglected building: tolerable at first, perhaps, but dangerous as time goes on.

I wonder if there’s an advantage to looking at some things from the nether end of the Bell curve of years -observing how things have turned out over time; seeing the results through experienced eyes. Disappointed eyes, even…

Sometimes articles attract my attention because their topics seem to coalesce with ideas I’ve been considering, but more often, I suspect, because they’ve caught me off guard and forced me to think in different ways -ways that only seem obvious once they are pointed out. An essay by Richard Fisher, a journalist for BBC Future, perhaps tapped into both modalities for me: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20210127-the-invisible-impact-of-slow-violence

I don’t think I had ever heard the expression ‘slow violence’ before -a term apparently coined by the environmentalist and literary scholar Rob Nixon of Princeton University a few years ago. But, as Fisher points out, ‘The idea of slow violence can be traced back to the 1960s, though it wasn’t called that back then. In 1969, the Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung – known as the “father of peace studies” – argued that violence could be enacted by more than fists or weapons. Violence, he argued, could also be “structural”… this kind of violence happens when a society causes harm to its citizens and their property, often invisibly, through social or health inequalities, racism, sexism or another systemic means. The victims have foreshortened lives, and have suffered both bodily and psychologically. But while the impact is tangible, the blame is harder to pin down.’

Nixon ‘was the first to point out that it could also be experienced over many years, possibly even generations. It occurs “gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all,” he wrote… slow violence can be found embedded within the “slowly unfolding environmental catastrophes” of long-term pollution, climate change or nuclear fallout. But it can also describe many kinds of harm that affect individuals and communities at a pace too slow to assign blame.’

Sometimes -often, in fact- the violence is disproportionate in its societal effects –too incremental to make headlines or provoke outrage, too embedded within cultural structures to be unexpected. And too hidden in those ethnic or economic disparities to be noticed by the majority of us unfortunately. Its low visibility also means it’s all too easily tolerated, ignored.

It reminds me of scraps of a bedtime story my father made up for me when I was just a little child. It was from a book he’d found in a used book store somewhere and I don’t think it had any pictures in it. In retrospect, it sounded a lot like the Aesop’s fable of the Town and the Country mouse, but different though -a lot different…

It was a rather adult story I think, but I suspect that, like father like son, it caught his interest and he thought he’d convert it into a children’s tale to teach me something. It was a bit scary for a five year old, though.

As I recall, a country mouse shows up at his towney cousin’s nest, needing a place to stay for a day or so before he sets off to see the world.

“Why would you even want to stop off here?” his city cousin asks. “It’s so beautiful in the country. Why would you ever want to leave it?”

The country mouse shrugs and tries to explain. “Well, after dad died, our family began to break apart -most of them started leaving home. Mom got sick as well, and she was afraid the same thing would happen to those of us who had stayed around. And then mom…” He stopped mid-sentence, to keep himself from crying.

The city mouse’s eyes grew large. “Why did your parents…?” He searched for a kind word, but gave up with a shrug. “Were they that old…?”

The country mouse shook his head. “The farmer kept leaving poison around to get rid of the rats -they were a real nuisance, and we were afraid of them too. Dad recognized it as poison, of course, and warned the rest of us about it. But I could see the worry in his face that some day, one of us would nibble at it. We were all worried about the rats, of course, and Dad thought the farmer was probably justified, but…

“Anyway, Dad had lived with poison for years, and so had his father before him -everybody’d been taught not to go near it, although there were rumours that some of it got into the puddles we drank from. The older ones were the most vulnerable, though; my grandparents also died young, I think.

“At any rate, the farmer kept changing the poison to fool the rats, so it was a continual battle of wits for my parents to recognize it and still find safe and nourishing food for us all. Dad was sure it was affecting him, but he couldn’t keep up with all the farmer’s changes.

“It got so none of us could be sure what we were eating or drinking. You know how everything tastes funny when you’re worried…? Anyway, it’s why I decided to leave.” But he looked at the expression of the town mouse and could see his cousin had no idea what he was talking about.

“The food here is okay,” said the town mouse. “Maybe you’re just not careful enough in the country.” But he could see the concern on his cousin’s face and realized he should be more empathetic. He took a deep breath and made a decision. “You can stay here as long as you like, you know… I’m sure we can find another bed -like you, a lot of my brothers have moved away as well. But…”

“But what?” the country mouse asked.

“But don’t eat stuff around here without checking with us first, eh?”

The country mouse smiled and thanked him, but he knew he’d never fit in here either. Country mice were always considered Cassandras…

So was my father, I think…

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