Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Plastic Pink Flamingos, Peace, and the Misuse of Connections

I’ve seen over the years a great many people who stress that “It’s all connected!” as if this were a useful understanding of the world, or a call to peace, when it is neither. Yes, connections, relationships, can be drawn amidst pretty much everything in this wide world but…. Not all connections which can be drawn amidst things are actually useful connections, and often evaluating the usefulness of those connections depends on the context surrounding those connections, or the context in which those connections are discussed, as well as the knowledge and wisdom of the one making that evaluation. Now, I realize that was a pretty complicated sentence, but stick with me here.

Plastic pink flamingos and dinosaurs are connected. They are connected, actually, in a couple of different ways. Connection #1: The plastic that a pink flamingo is made of plastic and plastic is made of petroleum, and many people think that petroleum is decomposed dinosaurs (actually, petroleum is probably made more of decomposed ancient plankton, not dinosaurs, but people imagine that petroleum is made of dinosaurs and thought is a type of connection of some sort even if that thought is erroneous—an imaginary thing is still an imaginary thing. A placebo is still something; it is a placebo. Fake fur is still fake fur. A figment of the imagination is nothing more, and nothing less than exactly a figment of the imagination. I think you get the point.) This is a kind of connection even if it is utterly threadbare and based on imagination, speculation, and misinformation. Connection #2: Plastic pink flamingos are made to resemble birds, and birds are evolutionarily linked to a type of dinosaur. This connection is less threadbare than the previous one, but it still has very limited use.

At some point, we have to realize that sometimes making these connections has about as much usefulness as dropping quarters in an arcade claw game in order to play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. That is to say it may be interesting on a hypothetical level, but it’s not helpful in getting quarters, in playing a claw game, in watching movies, or in playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Some connections are barely more than arbitrarily drawn lines leading us down primrose paths to red herrings, and leading us to think that there is more usefulness by association of two things than there actually is, depending on context. The problem is compounded when we lack knowledge in an area, when we don’t realize how much knowledge we lack in an area, when we’re not willing to listen to experts in that area, when we rely too much on speculations which have little-to-no foundation, when we apply these connections out-of-context, when we when we overvalue those connections, when we start valuing the connections over the actual items in those relationships to the point where we forget there were ever separate items to come together in the first place, and when we forget that those items are separate things which can function in other different relationships.

There are connections which can be drawn between plastic pink flamingos and dinosaurs. But, those connections tend to be of limited use. Just because connections can be drawn, it doesn’t mean that I can pour gasoline into my car’s tank and think that plastic pink flamingos are in any way involved or pertinent to that process or to making my car function well. Just because I watch birds, it doesn’t mean that I’m actually having an experience similar to the Jurassic Park movie. Looking at the dull painted eyes of a plastic pink flamingo in no way prepares me for the majesty of experience as I look up into the gaping ocular cavities of Sue the T-Rex at The Field Museum. Figuring out how a plastic pink flamingo fits on the lawn will not provide any useful insight to the science of paleontology or provide useful information on how to curate dinosaur bones. Knowing that some folks think oil is made of dinosaurs, and that a plastic pink flamingo is made of plastic which comes from oil doesn’t help me understand combustion engines and how gasoline makes them work, nor does it help me understand the impact of an over-reliance on fossil fuels or how to clean up the habitats of real, living, non-plastic flamingos from oil spills. Over-stressing connections like these can lead someone to behavior equivalent to sticking a plastic pink flamingo in a gas tank and assuming that this is in some way useful, or in believing that because these things are connected, a real flamingo should have no problem at all when its habitat is tainted with oil…because plastic flamingos are made of plastic which comes from oil and real flamingos look like plastic flamingos, therefore the real flamingos should be just fine if they are stuck in oil…so they’re not in any real danger. Right? Right? Wrong.

Even though things can be connected in various relationships of varied meanings, varied contexts, varied usefulness, and of varied importance, it doesn’t mean that the two things aren’t also separate items capable of being in different relationships with different things. Sometimes people get so caught up in making connections and in focusing on those connections to the point where they cannot see the distinctions between things. As I have said many times: just because things are connected, just because boundaries can overlap, it doesn’t mean that the boundaries aren’t there. It doesn’t mean that these different things in relationships to each other are therefore the “same” thing just because they can be connected to one another.

Also, there’s a certain point where a person can overextend  the connections, or overextend the importance of those connections. When this over-extension and overemphasis happens, the connection can appear more meaningful, useful, or important than it actually is, and this overestimation of importance can be misleading. It’s as if you’ve overestimated something far above market value. No one wants to purchase a lemon of a car for $9000, but if you know the car’s a lemon and you pay $100 to cannibalize it for parts—that’s ok. When a person doesn’t know cars, and when that person doesn’t know the market, the person could end up making an unreasonable, unwise purchase. When people don’t know the topic and don’t know the context or the actual value of certain connections within that context, or they assume they know more than they actually do…they end up purchasing a lemon for far too much money. People will proceed on the basis of thinking the connections have more strength, more usefulness, or a closer relationship than they actually do in some contexts.

Case in point: wolves are related to dogs, but treating a wild wolf like a friendly domesticated neighborhood canine might land you in the hospital; in this context, proceeding on the idea that “wolves and dogs are related… therefore I can act the same with a wolf as I do with a dog” is misleading. However, knowing that dogs and wolves are related can prove useful in other contexts such as classification systems, or in knowing how to provide veterinarian care to either wolf or dog (“wolves and dogs are related, therefore understanding this can help provide insight into their biological systems”), or as a pointer towards understanding canines in pack behavior (“wolves and dogs are related…therefore observing pack behavior with wolves and observing pack behavior with dogs may shed some light on understanding pack behavior”). Connections, relationships, must be evaluated carefully for usefulness within the contexts you’d like to employ them—contexts like wolf and dog behavior regarding interactions, or comparisons of wolf and dog regarding biology, or comparisons of wolf and dog regarding pack behavior. If you don’t do this, you could end up having your arm mauled by a wild wolf, or you could end up comparing fungal biology to wolf biology, or you could try to apply an understanding of dart groupings to wolf pack behaviors.

“It’s all connected!” Well…sure…one can theoretically draw connections between anything even as random as plastic pink flamingos and dinosaurs, but the usefulness of those relationships must be evaluated in the context that they are being used in. These connections must be considered, with critical thought and reasoning skills. You  can play connect the dots to make a picture of something, or to make a scribble—either way the dots are connected, but one way might be more useful than another, depending on the situation and the context. A person must realize that not all connections which can be drawn amidst things are actually useful connections, and often evaluating the usefulness of those connections depends on the context surrounding those connections or the context in which those connections are discussed or used, or the knowledge and wisdom by which someone has at his disposal to evaluate those connections. ($9000 for a lemon you can’t drive is not good unless you’re the seller and you feel like swindling some poor fool, but $100 for the same car bought for used for parts is good. Same car, different context.)

I realize that there is often a strong motivation in stressing the connections of all things to all other things. I understand it. I really do. I used to live in that landscape-of-undifferentiation, and I lived there out of a misguided search for peace. I lived there because at heart, I just want people to get along. But “getting along” can only happen when differences are appreciated and worked through, instead of overlooked and undervalued or stamped out entirely. People want to stress these connections because they feel it fosters a sense of peace and a lack of conflict. Sometimes working through differences is uncomfortable—there’s tension and conflict both in that relationship and within oneself as you start to reexamine your own positions and identity issues. It gets messy. It gets stressful. And sometimes it gets contentious to the point of conflict, any kind of conflict from mild to severe. Many of us avoid conflict because we automatically think it is bad. Not all conflict is “bad” and conflict can provide an opportunity to work towards peace while supporting and working through those differences at the same time.

If things are “all connected” to the point where “we are all One” and “we are all the same” there can be no conflict because there aren’t different items, there aren’t any relationships nor are there different items to have relationships with one another, thus there can be no conflict because there isn’t anything separate to have a conflict with. There is a point where people prize connections at the expense of diversity and for the sake of avoiding the discomforts of conflict. So what do we often find ourselves doing? We lump everything together through a mishmash of overvalued connections so we can pretend that potentially-conflicting differences are all illusion…and then we misguidedly mistake this as a path to peace.

This kind of homogenization does not respect or preserve diversity, nor does it preserve peace…it actually destroys both diversity and peace.

Think of it this way: you have a stew recipe which involves carrots, onions, potatoes, and corn in a tomato broth. When you cook this recipe as stew, you have separate pieces of carrot, onion, and potato in a tomato broth. However, you could shove the whole thing in a blender and set the blender on a crazy-high setting, and you’ll end up with a thick soup with no identifiable pieces of carrot, onion, potato, all in a tomato broth. This is what homogenization does. It’s not always a bad thing, if this is the kind of soup you want or need, and it depends on the context. It might be a very tasty, hearty soup. Granted, if you have a friend who has a potato allergy, she can't then go picking out the potatoes and you'll have to find something else for her to eat.

However, if one were to apply this homogenization above a specific context, onto an upper-level category (like the universe) rather than a smaller, discrete, more specific category or situation (like dinner); or if it is applied to items that would not have, could not have, should not have, or don’t want to have that kind or relationship; or if it is applied without consideration for the things which it is forcibly applied onto—these are scenarios where we end up in trouble. It may be ok for something in the context of a bowl of soup at a specific time for a specific purpose (small scale, specific context), but if someone were able to shove the whole universe in such a blender (large scale, much broader context), we’d all be in trouble. All we’d be left with is an unidentifiable useless homogenized goo which can do nothing, think nothing, be nothing, and have no relationships…because there’s nothing else to have a relationship with. No differentiation means no separate items, no relationships, no peace, no conflict, no day, no night, no stars, no planet Earth, no dinosaurs, no plastic pink flamingos, no meaning, no something, and no nothing. It means we’ve wrecked the universe beyond both creation and destruction.

In that homogenized universe-in-a-blender scenario, there’s no conflict because there’s nothing left to have a conflict with; there’s nothing left to make peace with either. Differentiation and diversity, the very mechanisms existence and non-existence, creation and destruction, and of infinitely many other things, just got cancelled out. There is no more peace because peace can only survive when there are separate elements to work out that conflict and therefore create peace together, or war, or doughnuts, or whatever. You cannot have peaceful relationships in an environment where no relationships exist because there are no separate things to have relationships. If you really want to live in peace, you have to be willing to have relationships, have space for potential conflict, and to work with those relationships especially by supporting, honoring, working through, and working with the very differences and distinctions which make us all separate (and interrelating) individuals. If you really want peace, you must support and respect diversity, which means appreciating differences, not plowing over them in a misguided attempt at over-stressing connections to the point of losing differentiation and distinctions.

You cannot achieve peaceful coexistence by overvaluing connections outside of useful context and by overvaluing connections at the expense of differentiation, just because you want to avoid conflict. It doesn’t work that way. You can’t get to peace by using connections between things in order to ignore differences, and you can’t get to peace through ignoring difference in order to avoid conflict. Peace is not conflict avoidance. Peace is not the ignoring of differences. Also, peace is made of separate parties in relationships to one another—not the absence of separate parties.

Instead of “It’s all connected!” or “We are all One” which are both misguided call for peace, let’s shift instead to something more useful which actually would help peace. Something like “Cherish diversity!” After all, oil spills are damaging to flamingos even if the plastic ones don't seem to mind.

Image Credits:
Photograph of a close-up on a plastic pink flamingo by J. Vaughn. Used through CC-GNU license.