Last night, Pete and I went to a lecture at the Craigleith Ski Club. It was organized by the Georgian Triangle Lifelong Learning Institute. The GTLLI offers courses to members (mostly retirees) wanting to expand their horizons, but once a year, they put on a special event like this one. In 2011, when I was pregnant with C, we went to a lecture by former Canadian ambassador to the UN Paul Heinbecker (who was one of my professors in grad school) and we were, by far, the youngest people there. Still, it was a fantastic lecture and there were very delicious snacks afterwards.
We were excited to get tickets to this year’s event. This time, we were not the youngest people there (damn you, hip twenty-something couple!) but we felt like we might be the exhaustedest (not a real word). You might argue that octogenarians are likely more tired than even the most frazzled new parents, but we were the first people rushing out of the ski club so that we could be in bed by 9:15. So, I stand by my statement.
Last night’s lecture was by CBC journalist Brian Stewart, who was a foreign correspondent for decades and is perhaps best known for his coverage of the Ethiopian famine. His CBC crew introduced the world to Birhan Woldu, the little girl who would become the face of the famine.
Birhan Woldu in 1984; Brian Stewart; Birhan Woldu in 2004.
Photos via Make Poverty History
Stewart’s lecture, Hope Out of Ruins: Human Endurance in an Age of Crises, was an optimistic take on the state of the world. Stewart believes that despite what the media would have us believe, there has never been a period in human history with more stability, tolerance and peace than this one. Coming from a man who has covered some of the most devastating catastrophes of the last several decades, it was an uplifting message. Stewart was careful, however, to warn that our 24/7 news cycle and short attention spans are compromising our ability to understand our world.
For instance, we are more likely to think that crime rates are rising in this country, when they are, in fact, falling. When the news media cover violent crimes, they don’t point out that such crimes are rare. The fact that they are rare is the reason why they are being featured on the news in the first place. An event is considered “newsworthy” when it is extraordinary. I used to use this famous example when teaching my policing students about crime rates: if 1 airplane out of 10,000 leaving a particular airport crashes, the headline will not be “9,999 planes land safely.” This is by no means a critique of the news media, it simply illustrates that we see the noteworthy, extraordinary events on the news. The problem with this is that we become so accustomed to seeing these events nightly that we begin to think that they are a lot more commonplace than they are. By every measure currently in use, crime rates have been steadily falling in Canada for several years. Yet the high-profile shootings in Toronto and the horrific case of alleged murderer Luka Rocco Magnotta lead the public to believe we’re living in a more violent time.
Brian Stewart pointed out that we are facing a dilemma. We are living in a relatively stable, peaceful time, but we are more pessimistic and cynical because of our constant exposure to negative media coverage of current events.
Stewart mentioned dozens of encouraging developments, the fact that dictatorships have fallen across most of Europe and much of South America, that all but one African country hold elections, and that human rights are increasingly respected while our tolerance for war has markedly diminished. What to do about this cynicism was left for us to ponder.
It was a great evening; an intellectually stimulating date night. And we were in bed by 9:30.