Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Kumbaya, without apologies

The song was originally a simple appeal to God to come and help those in need but, more recently, it is also cited or alluded to in satirical or cynical ways that suggest false moralizing, hypocrisy, or naively optimistic views of the world and human nature.
-Kumbaya article, Wikipedia

I've already talked about the 'thought-terminating cliché' in a recent post, so reintroducing it here so soon makes me feel like some college freshman who can't help but impose his or her newfound highfalutin lingo from Sociology 101 on the family at Thanksgiving dinner, as if their kin were provincial simpletons in sorry need of enlightenment. Perhaps the family finds it all amusing in an endearing sort of way, even if it is a little much. After all, by degrees the child's well-intentioned desire to change the world will give way to a stoic sense of fulfillment in simply minding the shop.

However, the pejorative use of the word 'Kumbaya', which has become the default usage, is something that has been under my skin for some time precisely because it is now word-as-weapon, to be used in shooting down discussions that dare to veer into progressive territory, thus eliminating a solution rooted in hope and good will from the conversation. "Oh, let's all just join hands and have a 'Kumbaya' moment," as they say. In our culture there is no real comeback to such a statement because it emanates from deep within the rigid firmament of North American thought, and thus any attempt at a retort would seem like decadent whimsy at best. If someone cuts you off in mid-sentence with "Don't get all Kumbaya on us," the tendency is to shut down, particularly if this occurs during a group conversation.

Thought-terminating cliché.

Conversational bullying.

Call it what you will.

My own sense of why the 'Kumbaya' paradigm exists in this part of the world is that the United States as well as Canada both forged their respective identities during a time of massive land expansion and economy-growing. We each had our nations to build and populate, and so any activity or worldview running counter to that imperative would have seemed suspect or even treasonous.

And so, although most of us no longer work in the very  labor-intensive industries that built North America, I think the lingering aroma of the frontier mentality still permeates our thinking, even if we're not consciously aware of it. The idea of constant growth for its own sake is orthodoxy to us, even though constant growth tends to be a toxic phenomenon in any natural system. To offer this suggestion in the U.S., for example, would be considered by many as evidence that you somehow "hate America", as if generating private profits is the only reason America exists, full stop. (There is more to America than profits, isn't there?)

In these parts politicians are expected to exhalt 'public-private partnerships' (P3s) for major projects, though in many cases even marginal private involvement can reduce or eradicate the level of accountability demanded of the participating government body. And even though the value of P3s is much more dubious than proponents would have you believe, it is important for our politicians to be seen as beckoning the business sector into the public house like a harlot in the doorway. We have an economy to build, so how could there possibly be any other way?

It's like there's an old, red-faced farmer in our collective head, animating us out a fear that he'll scream at us to quit goofing off and get back to work if we dare pause to contemplate a reality not based on relentless field-clearing and tree-felling. Moreover, a term like 'Kumbaya', in the now-conventional usage, serves as lead hand for this mythological farmer, as it goes a long way towards squelching expressions of unconventional thought.

I think there's everything to be gained if people learn to stand-up to 'Kumbaya' (and other thought-terminating clichés) and tell the person uttering it to perch and rotate. The old ideas are leading us down blind alleys, and so we need to hear more from those who have the wherewithal to transcend Joe Sixpack's taunts and sneers.