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Note from the President of Science for Peace

One of the common threads that run across a range of injustices is the invisibility of victims. Victims are not always invisible: they can be the objects of derision, contempt, and the projective screen for all sorts of fantasies that serve to rationalize acts of aggression. Perhaps this invisibility is a feature of violence against civilians, the so-called “collateral damage”. I am thinking of the victims of climate change in the global south, of Israel’s massacres of Palestinian civilians or the disappeared Iraqis or North Koreans or Vietnamese in United States’ wars, the unacknowledged global victims of the current financial crisis (the World Bank estimates that at least 100 million people in the developing world will lose their jobs), the unreported death of six million people in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Canada’s failing grade in its treatment of children (UNICEF report) and of its aboriginal people, the ninety Ontario children/year who die despite being in care, the nameless victims of Canadian mining practices here and abroad. The constant visibility of the people who have been rendered invisible needs to inform our perception of the world and the way we work together for change.

This way of treating millions of people as disposable is called “warehousing” by Mike Davis in his profoundly important book Planet of Slums, and by Jeff Halper, a co-founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.

Invisibility takes many forms. In a recent article in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (February 2009), John McMurtry describes Obama’s chief of economic policy Larry Summers. For Summers, humans are simply measurable quantities. As chief economist of the World Bank, he recommended locating polluting industries in Least Developed Countries, as the resulting “morbidity and mortality” would cost less. He states that underpopulated countries in Africa are underpolluted and that “the demand for a clean environment for aesthetic and health reasons is likely to have very high income elasticity.”

Similarly, the latest World Watch Magazine (March/April 2009) implicitly disposes of 7.4 billion people. “The conservatively calculated Ecological Footprint indicator suggests that the Earth can sustain about 2.1 billion high-income individuals or 6.2 billion middle-income individuals or 13.6 billion low-income individuals (this assumes all of Earth’s biocapacity is used for humans). Few will be willing to return to a state of poverty, nor should they, so really we need to aim for either a high-income (‘consumer’) population one-third of today’s population (and no one else), or, more realistically, a larger but still much-reduced middle-income population – one that maintains a simple but satisfying way of life.”1

In individual people, simplistic thinking can occur side-by-side with considerable complex thinking in other areas. Psychologist Jean Piaget described features of regressive thinking as he identified characteristics of earliest cognition. In the sensorimotor phase of infancy, the sense that an object exists depends on sensory perception of the object. It is a great advance to learn that an object exists even if one does not see it.

I am reminded of a comment by Anna Maria Tremonti on CBC’s The Current. In discussing the comparative culpability of NATO and Serbia, she expressed great surprise that one could equate the aggression from aerial bombing with hand-to-hand ground combat where soldiers see and touch their victims.

In the subsequent preoperational cognitive stage, children between the ages of two and seven still restrict their perceptions to one aspect or dimension of an object at the expense of other aspects. At this stage, the child links together unrelated events and does not understand point-of-view. Thus, among aggressor nations, we often hear of casualty figures of their own soldiers, or even of self-directed disenchantment with what the war is doing to our own ideals or economy, but almost nothing about the suffering of the real victims. The orientation is basically egocentric. A corollary of invisibility is that the flawed perception is not scrutinized, analyzed, even noticed.

At the pre-operational stage there is over-generalization, limited logic, and an inability to reverse operations (e.g. adding 2+3 but not being able to subtract 5-3). Piaget tested the concept of conservation by pouring the same amount of liquid into two identical containers; but when he poured one cup into a third, wider container in front of the children, children still thought there was less water because the water level looked lower. The singling out of one factor, often with implicit mathematical assumptions of balance or equivalence, is another corollary of situations involving disposable people. The implicit assumption of balance by accusing Hamas and Israel of the same war crime (i.e. as if the cup is the same) neglects innumerable factors, including the purely numerical unbalanced ratio of civilian casualties (minimally 300:1 in the recent invasion). Similarly, the above quotation about reducing population singles out only the one factor of class size so there is a strange logic of offering the planet to the smallest feasible class that would presumably include the authors of the study. Among the many complicating factors not included, disposable people use far less carbon dioxide: Uganda 0.07 tonnes/year per capita, the DRC 0.04 tonnes/year versus Canada 20 tonnes/year (2004 figures from the US Department of Energy’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center and the UN Statistics Division).

By school age, children have the cognitive capacity for simple operations. They are also beginning to acquire a conscience so that there is an inner guide to behavior, not just external authority and rules. In the book All I Really need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: A guide for Global Leadership (1990), the author, Robert Fulghum, shows that the tasks are transferable to adulthood, tasks predicated on the giving up of egocentrism and omnipotence: “share everything, play fair, don’t hit people, put things back where you found them, clean up your own mess, don’t take things that aren’t yours, say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup — they all die. So do we; when you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.” In view of the massive damage already done globally, I would add a fourth item to the learning list: “R”, Reparations.

1 (If it were not for military profits gained from perpetual warfare, perhaps the most economical solution to dealing with disposable people might be Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal (1729) to remedy overpopulation and poverty by eating lower class children, and nowadays that would also save invaluable land for biofuels) ^

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