COLUMN: A mind in movement across time and space -- Part II

Charles Jeanes
By Charles Jeanes
July 22nd, 2018

A Traveller’s Chaos, A Writer’s Coherence

This month’s column is about travel, time, and identity. I have just returned from a four-week trip by car across the nation to Ontario and back. It is not the first such trip of my life; I have logged tens of thousands of miles since my first cross-continent drive in 1973,  many of them by hitchhiking, some driving myself.

The subjects I touch upon in the column are many and not always clearly connected, for this writing brings together the ideas and thinking of four weeks of travel. I have deemed it a good idea to divide the column, which I wrote over the Canada Day long weekend, so that it falls into three instalments.

I will attach this introduction to each section.

Part Two

The intentions and the visits

The most personally-revealing remarks, on subjects closest to my heart, are in this section. I went to Ontario because my sister has a terminal cancer diagnosis and the doctors project a short life ahead.

Before I left home for the trip I was advised by good friends to be sensitive, to display humility about what I think I know. I ought not to go to Ontario, to my family and friends, with an “attitude.” Was I bringing my Nelson-centric self-therapizing culture to backward Ontario WASPs bound by an old code of English stiff-upper-lip stoicism?  My inner voice told me that yes indeed, I was tending to this kind of thinking. I was coming to them as one with better ways for dealing with imminent death in our family. Fortunately, I did come to an appreciation of the truth that people have a right to grieve, feel fear, prepare themselves for death, in their own way, not according to any other person’s idea.

My sister is not yet demonstrating any symptoms of the malady that will kill her. When the symptoms manifest, I expect, from what I have read, they will progress rapidly and be unpleasant. She knows this also. I told her I did not want to come back again to watch over her in her pain and deterioration, and she completely understood, but I am not sure my brother thinks well of my stance.

As for visits with my friends, I chose to see only a few, not all those I might have gone to see. A very dear friend, who gave me a place in her house to call my home away from home, was in the midst of challenging and stressful circumstances in her health, business, and family, that made it impossible to have truly quality time with her. I regret this a lot, and would not have made my visit at this juncture had I been free to choose my timing. I did not have that liberty. I learned the limitations of personal freedom in this experience, in the face of family obligation and expectation.

Personality in fetters

My visits with people I have not seen for more than a half-decade drove home the point for me that my personality is not “mine” but in effect belongs to all people who know me, who have known me, and who have, by their friendships and their histories with me, a claim upon me to behave as the Charles they know and love.

My identity is not something I can alter swiftly and easily, if I so desire, and is not free to express itself differently each and every time I am with the people I call friends and relatives. Is this a fact I would challenge if I could?  I have to say, yes and no.

Yes, I would like to be not chained to my past, not to be expected to have a consistent personality and have to come up to the standards of behaviour I have observed for myself in the past, not to have to be always the person I have presented myself to be to other people. It would be less of an exertion of my consciousness were I to let go of this personhood (my “known character”) and act spontaneously whatever I feel at any moment, without considering if I am “being myself” as others know me. I could be entirely mercurial.

I might not want others to follow this example, since I prefer people to be reliable in character, but I might enjoy the licence of complete freedom to act any way at any time. It’s purely a hypothetical scenario: I cannot act in this manner because humans are constituted in a way that prohibits it; memory maintains a personality.

Neuroscience still is not able to say where memory is stored; the brain is presumed to be the locus of memory. Rupert Sheldrake writes about the weakness of the orthodox argument that memory resides in grey matter in the brain, for it has become clear from research that there is memory in human organs, as revealed in the dream experiences of people who have received organ transplants.

To my original question, whether I would wish to be able to change my character at will, I must also say No. I would not want to be that kind of bizarre personality whose character traits change with every encounter and cannot be relied upon for reliable behaviour and consistent standards. Such an extremely volatile personality would without much doubt result in my mental health being subject to rational examination by others. I want to be a person others find trustworthy, and trust demands a constant pattern of behaving.

Accounting for one’s past

I am sure about this: I do not wish all of my past, the words I have spoken and which others heard and remember, the acts others know are “my” actions and which make my reputation and make me accountable, to be permanently held up to public scrutiny in the present. I feel it is justified to say some personal behaviour and speech I have indeed shown and uttered are no longer who I am and that person in the past is not me now, since I have undergone profound changes. It seems to me fair to disown parts of my past.

“I am not that person any longer” is a justifiable comment I might make to a friend; I claim the right not to be judged meaningfully for things I would no longer do. I accept there needs to be a length of time in which my changes can be observed to have effect, and that I cannot make this claim for recent deeds.

The Past and Men of Power

These reflections are not totally self-focused, since, as everyone must be aware, the present cultural/social/ political phenomenon known as “the #MeToo Movement” is a phenomenon with profound significance for the meaning of reputation and accountability.

There is of course a standard of accountability for men who are still in public life, exercising substantial authority and power in the public sphere, that is necessarily higher than the standard one should expect for men of small public significance. That seems to me an acceptable double standard; the man who has power must himself exercise ethics of behaviour that justify his capacity to affect the lives of others.

That kind of man must have been aware of his own past before he rose into a status where his power would bring close attention to his record of behaviour in private and public life. I have no sympathy for a politician who has egregiously violated ethical norms, and claims that his past bad behaviour is irrelevant when his abuses are exposed. But the abuses must be proven, not just spoken, not merely accepted as true from the moment of utterance. Accusers are not to be believed at once, uncritically.

Did Justin Trudeau, 28 years old in 2000 when he attended an event in Creston, BC, to raise public awareness for the Avalanche Foundation, behave in a “forward” (his word) manner with a female journalist? She said at the time that he “groped” her and she wrote an anonymous newspaper piece about it, saying he had apologized.

He denies now anything “negative” occurred that day, and the journalist has asked that her name not be published and that no more media attention ought to be focused on the alleged event.

Trudeau knew even then, I am quite sure, that he might have a career in public life, and his behaviour would be subject to close scrutiny no matter how long ago the allegation reached into the past. He must do more than he has so far to confront this accusation, for he is in the highest political office in our land. The standard for him must be more rigorous than for men of small public significance. Trudeau is so proud of his feminist credentials that he deserves to have his self-assurance punctured by this story. I hope he will make a public admission of youthful bad judgement — but not suffer more than the public humiliation of this admission as the worst consequence. It will be good for his character.

The incident is not, in my opinion, an offence that demands an end to his career. I doubt very much he will do as I suggest and publicly humiliate himself by an admission of being wrong in this matter; humility is not a quality I associate with the Trudeau brand.

A way forward in a new ethical landscape

I have yet to read or hear a thoroughly-articulated statement by an adherent of the “movement” to expose bad behaviour of men toward women that is lucid about the rules for accountability of the men. I do not believe anyone is seriously saying that an accusation ought to be greeted with the same force of support and outrage as a proven and substantiated claim of abuse, crime, or violence.

I know that there are good precedents in other jurisdictions for treating sexual assault charges with a different set of procedure and protocols than other sorts of crime, but not inconsistent with the principle of innocent until proven guilty. I accept this is good practice. But I do not accept that our entire justice system must make an exception to the assumption-of-innocence rule in such cases. New methods and norms must be evolved, yes, but a simple-minded belief that women who accuse men require immediate and unquestioning endorsement, and their motives cannot be examined, is not the way forward. Victim status does not guarantee purity in moral action. Surely we recognize this?

We are at a very difficult pass in the development of a legal, social, and political solution to abuses once tolerated under patriarchy and no longer to be hushed-up. I will not give up the quest for some sort of justice for both parties to a dispute that includes scepticism of accusations and the motivations of accusers.

As for men of small power without authority in the public sphere, of which I am one, I assert the right I asserted in the section above, to claim some degree of tolerance for mistakes I made in a past event when standards or norms were less enlightened, that I can say I would never make again. When I can say “I am not that person and I have not been him for quite awhile” – and I can support that with substantial evidence — then I think it justified and reasonable not to be held up for public shaming and loss of reputation for a word or deed (not criminal, but grossly insensitive to another person and inappropriate in the present climate of ethics and norms).

 This is the second in a three-part column begun in a previous Rossland Telegraph. The column will conclude with the next instalment.

Categories: GeneralOp/Ed

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