Bill Hulet Editor


Here's the thing. A lot of important Guelph issues are really complex. And to understand them we need more than "sound bites" and knee-jerk ideology. The Guelph Back-Grounder is a place where people can read the background information that explains why things are the way they are, and, the complex issues that people have to negotiate if they want to make Guelph a better city. No anger, just the facts.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Looking in the Pot and Tasting the Food

I've been researching an article about Ontario "Training Schools" over the last couple weeks and sometimes it causes me to despair about the human race. One example sticks out in my mind where a survivor talks about as very young boy who being hauled in front of a court where it came out that his parents beat him unmercifully on a regular basis. Touched, the judge promised him that where he was going no one would abuse him ever again. A month later he was being repeatedly raped by a guard in a facility paid for by our taxes.

The problem isn't that an individual got his jollies abusing children. We've known for a very long time that a small but significant fraction of the population is like this. That's why we had similar things happening in churches, schools, families, the scouts, etc. The problem has always been one of power imbalances. When the child complained, no one would listen to them because the person that was abusing them had too much power.

Power can come from a lot of different sources. Priests had too much prestige in Roman Catholic communities for anyone to take complaints against them seriously. Prison guards work in an institution where authority figures are so indifferent to the well-being of their wards that they don't care about what happens to the people they abuse. (I suspect that the indifference comes from the fact that the training schools were so starved of resources that the only people who could survive as managers were people who were indifferent to the suffering of the people under their control.) Indifference doesn't create sadism---but it certainly won't make any effort to stop it from happening.

I suspect that most people haven't really thought about where moral behaviour comes from. They think that if you just don't lie, steal, etc, you are an ethical person. But that's not really the case. That's just what it takes to be a "conventionally good" person. Really good people---among other things---need to be curious. I suspect that the judge who sentenced the boy to the training school never bothered to follow up people he'd sentenced to places like that in order to find out how they were actually treated. Perhaps he'd gone through the motions but been satisfied to just accept whatever "pleasant words" that the higher administrators had given him. (Every large institution has someone who's job it is to put a "positive spin" on whatever happens there.)

I remember reading that years ago when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was Governor of New York State he asked his wife, Eleanor, to inspect conditions in the state prisons. (He couldn't do the job himself because of his mobility problems due to a bout of polio.)
He asked her about the food. “Did you inspect the kitchens? Were they clean? Were the prisoners getting enough to eat? Was the food nourishing? Was it reasonably tasty?” Eleanor was complimentary, and assured her husband that she toured all the kitchens. Then she produced the weekly menus that she had received from the wardens. 
“But did you look in the pot, Eleanor? Did you taste the food?” he asked.  She had not, and thereby learned valuable lessons: just because the menu says “beef stew” does not mean that it is properly prepared.  She needed to look in the pot and taste it to make sure it wasn’t just cornstarch gravy and a few stray potatoes and peas.    
That was the problem with the judge who sentenced this young boy to a long term sentence of being repeatedly raped. He didn't look in the pot, he didn't taste the food.

Eleanor Roosevelt. She learned to look in the pot and taste the food.
Public Domain Image c/o the Wikimedia Commons.

I'm not going to fixate on the individual judge, however. That's because part of being a moral human being involves being aware of the subtle forces that control all of our lives. People don't get promoted to positions of authority by being the sorts who "look in the pot and taste the food". That's because those are the sorts of people who "rock the boat" and "make waves". And people don't build careers by questioning what goes on in the institution they serve.

Here's a clip from a movie that shows the exact moment when someone "looks in the pot and tastes the food" and sees the "picky details" of the machine that is making him rich. It's from Schindler's List, which is the true story of Oscar Schindler---who is the only member of the German NAZI party who ended up recognized as a "righteous Gentile" by the nation of Israel.


Schindler was not a "conventionally good" person. He was a criminal who set out to become a war profiteer. He was a flagrant philanderer who had a serious drinking problem---one that eventually killed him. But his one HUGE saving grace was that he refused to turn his head away and ignore the crimes being done around him and decided that he would "do his bit" to try to save as many of the people slated to be killed by the NAZIS as he could.

Oskar Schindler, from a German historical plaque.
Another person who looked in the pot and tasted what was in there.
Image c/o Wikimedia Commons. 
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Part of what I am trying to do with this blog is to take people by the hand, lead them into the kitchen, take the lid off the pot, and, give them a taste of the things they haven't bothered to look into. It's not something that has endeared me to many people. Most folks don't want to "look into the pot" because if they do so they fear that they might feel forced to make a fuss. For someone in authority, doing so can be a "career limiting move". For people who become "activists", it can become a significant cost in their personal life in terms of time and treasure. Even if someone does nothing at all, they will begin to have niggling concerns that they are not really as good a people as they used to think that they were. But I think that it is still a very worthwhile thing to do. If you think so too, why not consider supporting me on Patreon or Pay Pal

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Furthermore I say unto you, the Climate Emergency must be dealt with!