keskiviikkona, syyskuuta 14, 2005

Disasters and disaster movies

There is an old saying which I think perfectly fits the recent events in New Orleans: disasters tend to bring out the best and the worst in people. That much is true, but few people ever stop to think about what is meant by the saying or why it should be so. This is too bad, because getting it means getting a whole lot about what it means to be human and how the society is organized.

I can think of at least three features common to genuine disasters. First, they cause a clear and present danger to the personal welfare of numerous people, which seriously limits their options and radically shortens their expected remaining lifespan. Suddenly your assets are mostly gone and there might not be a tomorrow to worry about, so it becomes rational to seriously discount the future. Second, disasters rapidly change people's physical environs so that established routines cease to be functional or adaptive. Suddenly there is a pressing need for information while the normal sources have dried up, and so people both have to be able to adapt wholesale on limited information and to effectively produce and disseminate more. And third, the established social infrastructure and safeguards are inadequate for dealing with the change, and as a result either collapse entirely or at least temporarily become overextended. Normal incentive and enforcement structures are no longer present, and the society has to rely on ad hoc reorganization and the autonomous morality of its constituent parts.

All in all, a disaster area first progresses from physical hit to societal friction, then breaks down to some mixture of the state of nature and organized anarchy, and finally with outside help recovers its normal structure with rescue, amortization, rebuilding and recovery.

When we mention the best and the worst in men, we're essentially judging them morally. In this sense, the middle part of the recovery is the most interesting, because it allows us a rare peek into individual psyche uncontrained by societal feedback. When the law isn't there to oversee interaction, the shadow of the future is lifted, and even habit or social equilibrium aren't there to constrain individuals, behavior is determined almost exclusively by character and ability. In effect, we see people as they are, naked. In this situation some people display amazing capability for cooperation and altruism, and regardless of whether they usually act that way, this is the first time such behavior credibly signals an innate character trait, instead of a mere ability to work moral reciprocity to one's personal advantage. In short, this is how heroes are made. Similarly, some people lapse into profound immorality and opportunism, even if they've appeared nice enough when kept in check by organized society. Moral autonomy is a test which many also fail. Surviving a disaster calls for ingenuity, social and communication skills, individual adaptivity, self-control and tenacity. The selected lot who make it pass the harsh, objective, evolutionary sieve people so rarely encounter nowadays.

A disaster is always bad by definition, but it is also a qualitative social change which can reveal the genuine character of men. Often that silver lining is both broader and more spotted than one might at first think.

Still, one should always remember that even the direst emergency always attaches to a social process. Even if a disaster in a sense reveals individual tendencies, it doesn't do so perfectly. What is left of the previous social order and what dynamics cause an order to be established anew are still present, and profoundly affect individual behavior. That is why the order emerging from the ruins is so interesting from the political and scientific perspective: it can teach us a lot about how social cohesion comes about, how group dynamics affect individuals and how societies are knit together in the first place. What happened in New Orleans reflects on its inhabitants and authorities, but also on culture in general. We can say that a disaster also reveals aspects of the society we didn't know about and in a sense resets the social process, becoming a new start. It can reveal the existence of social niches and equilibria we didn't notice before, establish new ones and throw people from one to another. That, for instance, is why surviving a wide spread disaster is one of the few experiences which can truthfully be called life-changing; it can enable one to start over and jump from a desctructive, anti-social state of existence to a more fruitful, harmonious one, quite without changing as a person. Or vice versa.

This is why it's sad to see the recent disaster being interpreted so naïvely. For example, it is quite clear where the origin of the myth of unusual lawlessness, immorality and thug mentality in New Orleans lies. Digging through the sources it becomes apparent that only usual lawlessness and immorality actually took place, and that even after being filtered by the mass media, this particular rumour mill still bears all the marks of Deep South racial prejudice. That the media have latched onto the story tells us more about the attitudes of the surrounding society than those of the Orleans. And similarly, very little is said about the appalling incompentence of the authorities following the hurricane strike, or the political precipicating factors of disasters in the delta in general. Proper analysis of why bad decisions were made, information wasn't properly gathered or why living in such a disaster prone manner is encouraged in the first place doesn't seem to be forthcoming.

I think this is the real, longer term tragedy of New Orleans. Evenwhile disaster movies are decidedly interesting, precisely because they provide ample room for social commentary and moral drama, making a real disaster into one isn't something we should do. Instead we should concentrate first on relief, and immediately after that continue with cold, rational assessment of the situation and how to prevent it from arising again. This calls for something quite beyond legends of heroes and chopper-shooters, so if we concentrate too much on the drama, the wider matter is trivialized. There will be plenty of laudable emotion, with few efforts to actually do something about the state of the world. Then history is bound to repeat itself. I truly hope this is not what happens in New Orleans.

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