Scratching the Itch

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

By Robert C. Koehler

The whole point of so much of what we do seems to be to weed people out. We do it for fun, and without awareness.

The following miniature news item, accompanied by a voyeuristic surveillance camera photo, ran as filler in Redeye, the Chicago Tribune adjunct publication for the too-busy-to-read crowd:

“Police in Kansas City, Mo., are looking for a woman who went on a rampage at a McDonald’s because she didn’t like her hamburger, The Associated Press reports. Police say the woman caused thousands of dollars in damage Dec. 27 when she became upset that the restaurant wouldn’t refund her money.

“Employees had offered to replace her hamburger, but the woman refused and demanded her money back.

“Police released a video showing the woman throwing a sign and a bucket of water over the counter and pushing off a glass display case and three open cash registers. She then cursed and fled.”

The point of this story, headlined “She’s Got a Serious Beef,” was entertainment. Very slight entertainment, to be sure — half a snicker’s worth, maybe. “Police are looking for her.” Hah!

The reason I pause at this sad little shred of news, this slice of unhappy trouble on a poppy-seed bun, is because something here feels enormous: This is the flotsam of a life coming undone, but the context in which it is displayed as “news” is solely for the sport of watching someone screw up, and it makes me want to administer a Zen slap or something across the face of my profession. Stop it! Stop purveying disconnection as news.

To put it another way, responsible journalism involves more than scratching the itch.

“The principle of wholeness thus requires looking for, and responding to, complex interconnections, not single acts of separate individuals. Anything short of that is seen as a naive response destined to ultimate failure.”

Since newspapers are so desperate to reinvent themselves, what if they tried being part of the solution instead of part of the problem? Our disconnected culture is running out of options. Forget our berserk, privatized foreign policy (robot planes, a mercenary army, a war without end); we’re unraveling on the home front. We have the world’s largest prison population, by an enormous margin. We’re down to our constitutional right to live in fear, and to fire back. As a culture, we’re as lost as the woman in Kansas City who didn’t like her hamburger. To laugh at her is to laugh bitterly at our own spiritual void.

Perhaps, if we are to save ourselves — and in the process, avoid destroying the world — we need to start listening to the voices we have historically tried to silence and to start taking seriously the cultural worldviews we almost destroyed.

This is the conclusion that has been growing on me, at any rate, since I read the book quoted above, “Returning to the Teachings,” by Canadian Crown Attorney Rupert Ross. This 1996 book, by a legal professional whose job included prosecuting crimes in tiny Aboriginal communities across northern Canada (a woman going crazy at a fast-food restaurant could easily have been such a crime), explores the growing movement in these devastated communities to disentangle themselves from the Western “justice” system that has been imposed on them and to reclaim, and heal, their lives.

The absolutely shocking thing about Ross’ book is how it spills beyond Aboriginal culture into our own. It’s more than just a happy account of tribal cultures rediscovering ancient traditions. As the book examines the failure of adversarial, punishment-focused justice in tiny Northern Canada communities, readers cannot help but think about its failure everywhere.

The more I read, the more convinced I became that our approach to life — in essence, to dominate it rather than understand it holistically — is the “primitive” one, and the time has come to stop acting like clueless captains of our own fate and to start seeking wisdom: to start exploring the ways in which all of life is connected.

As Ross points out, one of the key differences between Aboriginal and Western justice is in the focus. While we obsess over single criminal actions, the facts of which are examined in detail at costly, adversarial trials, at the end of which judgment is pronounced — and nothing changes in regard to root causes — the Aboriginal community focuses instead on the relationships damaged in the wrongdoing and sees the healing of those relationships as the top priority.

I know I’m not alone in believing that the place to start our renewal is to focus on healing. Once we commit to this and begin seeing ourselves, just as Aboriginal children learn to do, as “participants in webs of complex interdependencies,” everything will change — including what we tolerate as news.