Sunday, June 19, 2005

9.5 on the Ostrich Scale

A third slice of half baked philosophy pie

It’s another attempt to delve into the wonderful world of the human being. The standard naivety warning applies.

The first point is that the Ostrich Scale is pure self indulgent crap, and it’s only because I have a comfortable life that I can spend an evening writing a post about it. My life isn’t a physical struggle. I always have enough food, water, and shelter. I live in a country where the rule of law provides me with an extraordinary level of security. In fact, for all our worries about anti-social behaviour, the people of this island are as safe as they have ever been. The average life expectancy of a UK citizen is far higher than the world average. I’m comfortable. How many people in the whole of human history have been able to say those words? Those of us who have it tend to take it for granted (myself most certainly included) but it is a highly unusual state of human existence, both historically and geographically. I didn’t do anything to deserve this unusual level of privilege, I was just lucky to be born when and where I was. I’m comfortable.

It is only because I’m comfortable I can take the time to consider the Ostrich Scale at all. In essence, it’s a measure of how much we allow the discomfort of others to intrude into our own comfortable existence. At some level, everyone knows that there are people enduring indescribable suffering somewhere in the world at this very moment. It is an uncomfortable thought. It isn’t easy to write as I sit in front of the pc, having just enjoyed a warm pleasant day in which a farcical F1 race was my biggest concern. I don’t think anyone will deny the fact that it is true, it’s just that we prefer not to think about it too much. Some will say its best just to accept it’s always been this way and do their best not to think about all this unpleasantness any more. These people score highly on the Ostrich Scale.

On the other hand, everyone also knows that it’s not impossible to be comfortable. We’ve managed it here in the UK, so it’s clearly possible, and the UK wasn’t always this way. Go back 200 years and see how comfortable most of the citizens of the UK were. For example, I'm glad I wasn't around for this. There is no doubt that in the UK in the year 2005, we are in a privileged and unusual position. We are able to control the amount of unpleasantness we let into our thoughts. There are those who choose to face the discomfort and to fight for change with every waking moment. These people score 0 on the Ostrich Scale, are vary rare, and are to be applauded at every opportunity. It is people just like them who helped give us the comfortable lifestyle we now take for granted.

Most of us find it difficult to face many of these uncomfortable truths and spend a great deal of time ignoring them. So, when I read earlier this week that the US had admitted to using Napalm type weapons in Iraq, I was sickened but I didn’t dwell on the issue for too long. It’s horrible to think of someone burning to death in this particularly ghastly way. The fact that our ally has used these bombs is appalling, repellent even. I’ve seen photos of people who have burned to death in Iraq. They are very difficult to view. I’m not going to link to them but they are out there if you want to find out what war really looks like.

The mainstream media, including the BBC, will not show you what war really looks like either. They understand the Ostrich Scale and they won’t broadcast the truly ugly side of war. It’s worth remembering that every shocking image you see in the media has already been selected as suitably sanitary for our comfortable lives. The viewers and readers don’t want to be made uncomfortable with images of burned alive corpses. In fact, it makes perfect sense. If the TV News broadcasts actually reported openly about the effects of Napalm, or the result of every suicide bombing, many people would just stop watching. I would probably stop watching. It is just so very difficult to deal with such horrors. By the same token, I find it difficult to deal with the fact that there are huge numbers of people dying of preventable diseases in Africa. I know it is happening but I tend not to think about it very often. It is a choice, and not one open to an Iraqi under a bomb, or someone dying due to diarrhoea.

But, by avoiding these issues I become complicit in their continuation. Our government takes our silence as approval of their behaviour. The government takes a million people marching against the Iraq war as temporary turbulence, soon calmed. The fact that our government shows such reluctance to listen discourages many from speaking out. It should be having the opposite effect. If the government says it cannot hear, the important thing is to speak louder and more clearly. To make it incontrovertibly known that we are opposed to an alliance in which our ally is intentionally burning people to death. To make it absolutely clear that we oppose the current economic framework in which the rich get richer and the poor live (and die) off the scraps from our table. These things are happening but they can be stopped. It just needs enough of us to put down our hamburgers, unplug our TV’s, and pull our heads out of the sand.

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