Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Sunday, June 23, 2019

Killing at a safe distance

It had to happen, I suppose. Around two million fans of the Toronto Raptors basketball team packed the city’s downtown streets for a victory celebration.

            Then someone took a gun into the crowd. And started shooting. 

            Four people sustained wounds. Three people were arrested; two firearms seized. 

            As I write this column, three suspects have been identified; a fourth is being hunted. So far, no one has offered a motive for the shooting. 

            You’re expecting another rant about guns and gun control. Not this time – because I think there’s a bigger issue involved.

            In case there’s any doubt, I do oppose guns. I did have a BB gun as a teenager. I haven’t owned a gun since; we didn’t let our children play with guns.

            But the real problem is not guns. It’s our ever-growing desire to distance ourselves from the effects of our actions. 


Avoiding direct contact

            The shooter, or shooters, in Toronto could just as easily have used a baseball bat. Or a knife. (Indeed, someone did, about an hour earlier, injuring four more celebrants.) But he didn’t. Because those weapons would require him to confront his victims directly, face to face. 

            Guns let you do harm from a safe distance. The bullet does your dirty work for you. You need not look into your victim’s eyes; you need see the pain, the fear, the anger. 

            Guns are not the only weapon that harm at a distance, of course. The English longbow did the same, during the Battle of Agincourt. The crossbow increased the longbow’s lethality. Even Palestinian boys throwing rocks aim to hurt at a distance. 

            All modern war technologies distance us. Snipers pick off supposed enemies a kilometre away. Bombs and missiles fall out of a clear blue sky. Drones guided by operators twiddling joy-sticks in a darkened room blow up schools, hospitals, and community centres visible only as coordinates on a screen.

            In one of his science fiction novels, Orson Scott Card wrote about  a planet where the inhabitants could not imagine weapons that killed at a distance. That didn’t stop them from developing advanced medical technologies or even anti-gravity vehicles. It didn’t stop killing, crime, or violence. But it eliminated spears, arrows, bullets, and bombs.

            If you chose to harm someone in Card’s world, you had to do it person to person. 

            I’m a writer. I suppose that makes words my weapons. And I cannot deny that words work at a distance -- you read them in a different place and at a different time. So I try not to say anything about someone that I would not say to that person’s face.. I don’t always succeed, but I do try.


Aggressive emails

            By some coincidence, the same day that newspapers headlined the shooting at the Raptor’s homecoming celebration, they also carried a story about a senator in Ottawa challenging the nastiness of some of his colleagues’ “aggressive, harassing, and in some cases bullying” tweets and emails. 

            Too often, we evaluate a technological development like electronic messaging as “good” or “bad.” 

            Good, perhaps, because it facilitates wider communication. I can discuss issues with correspondents in Africa or Australia, as if in person. 

            But bad, when those messages spread falsehood, misinformation, hatred, and prejudice. 


A different test

            I suggest that perhaps we need a different rubric for evaluating good and bad. A technology itself may be neither; it may be both. The pipeline endorsed by parliament this week fosters different views; some people see benefits, some see risks.

            Perhaps we should apply two criteria: “Does it do unnecessary harm?” and “Does it distance us from each other?” 

            Anonymous nasty emails obviously fail both tests. So do all modern weapons. 

            Industrial development has elements of both. Medical science may too. Government legislation generally intends to do good, or at least to reduce harm, but it imposes solutions at a distance that might be better worked out by local consensus. 

            Mining and burning the solar energy stored underground since the Carboniferous Period, 300 million years ago, has given us the highest standard of living that humans have ever known. Those same technological advances may also render human civilization extinct -- along with thousands of species innocent of our industrial excesses. 

            Religions? Despite near-universal injunctions for love and respect, religions often erect more barriers than they remove. 

            I suggest that we should actively oppose anything that fails both the harm and distance tests. And even when a new technology or process seems to offer great benefits, if it distances us from each other,  we should treat it with caution. 


Copyright © 2019 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.

                       To send comments, to subscribe, or to unsubscribe, write jimt@quixotic.ca





Joan and I were in at a live theatre performance last weekend. During the intermission, a woman in the row ahead of us turned around and thanked me for the column about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. It’s the first time that has ever happened in a public place. 


Our collective guilt is not just the residential schools. Tom Watson wrote, “Last fall, I heard a speech by Tauni Sheldon, an Inuit woman. She talked about the Sixties Scoop, a bleak time in Canadian history. When she was born in Thunder Bay, she was taken away and flown to Toronto and later advertized for adoption in the Toronto Telegram

            “The ad read: ‘Ellen is a contented baby who eats and sleeps well and is not at all demanding. A sober little girl, she doesn't often smile or laugh, but she doesn't fuss either. She is very strong -- she's raising herself off the floor. Little Miss Eskimo can't crawl yet but she moves around anyway, pulling with her arms and pushing with her sturdy legs. She's big for her age and has lovely almond-shaped eyes and round cheeks.’

            “Tauni was adopted by a family in Milton, Ontario. You can read more about the Sixties Scoop at this link: 



Bob Rollwagen looked at the broader pricture: “What we have experienced in Canada is not unlike what white males and other dominant male societies around the globe have done in their attempts to control their status and power down through history. Daily, we witness continued attempts by supremacist leaders to weaken minorities by limiting their support structures, slightly reducing their own tax burden, or putting social structures on a cash basis so we have less public debt. At the same time, many of these people borrow beyond their means to build personal monuments to their wealth and living style. They use economic freedom as an excuse. 

            “They fail to recognize the relationship of poverty to lack of opportunity or should I assume they privately believe their future power requires continued control of opportunities.”


Dave Edwards from Camrose,  Alberta (I think this is the first time he has written in response to a column) recommended a couple of books: “Thank-you for raising the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women. If anyone wants a couple of infuriating (and depressing) books about our racist attitudes toward Indigenous people, try Clearing The PlainsDisease Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Aboriginal Lifeby James Daschuk (2013) which shows the issue in the earlier days   (1730's to 1870's), and Children of the Broken Treaty: Canada's Lost Promise and One Girl's Dream by Charles Angus (2015) which deals particularly with the Residential Schools and the continuing failure to provide good schooling for Indigenous children and youth. 

            “The latter book is worth reading for the inspiring story with which it begins, of Shannon Koostachin from the Cree First Nation in northern Ontario. She led what Angus calls ‘the largest youth-driven rights movement in Canadian history’ which moved the House of Commons to support unanimously a resolution called Shannon's Dream motion, calling on the government to close the funding gap faced by First Nations students, and to establish quality First Nations education. {I'm not sure how well or badly we are doing with that.)”


Mary Collins also recommended two books: “I trust you have read Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, And Hard Truths in a Northern City by Tanya Talaga; and The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King. I've just finished both; a reading long overdue. They say it far better than any words of agreement I could give to your today's column.”


In the column, I commented about the absence of Indigenous people on civic councils and boards on B.C.”s north coast, at the time I was there. Doug Linzey was there around the same time: “As it happens, my first job out of UBC took me to Kitsault, BC, on Alice Arm, north of Prince Rupert (almost exactly 50 years ago). We were quite proud of the fact that our provincial rep was Frank Calder, from Atlin. He'd been MLA since 1949 for the CCF, eventually becoming a cabinet minister in 1972. Frank was a hereditary chief of the Nisga'a nation and over his lifetime was extremely influential in putting B.C. First Nations on the map.”

            JT: Indeed, I should apologize for not noting the contribution of Frank Calder, at many levels. 

            Doug then picked up another aspect of Canada being a white malesupremacist society: “Perhaps the most salient fact about the results of the 1969 election in B.C. is that of the 55 members elected, only 5 were women (3 of them from the Vancouver region). I don't recall even thinking about that aspect then. Nowadays, my principal consideration in voting (as a shareholder) for corporate boards of directors is the ratio of men to women.”


Mike Figurski questioned my claim that in some residential schools the death rate exceeded 50%. For the record, the sources were:









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To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. (This is to circumvent filters that think too many links constitute spam.)

                       Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on YouTube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8

                       Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. The website for this project has closed but you can continue to order the DVDs by writing info@woodlake,com

                       Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” is an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca. He set up my webpage, and he doesn’t charge enough.

                       I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also has beautiful pictures.

                       Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet



                       The late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures now have an archive (don’t ask how this happened) on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. Feel free to browse all 550 columns.



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Author: Jim Taylor

Categories: Sharp Edges

Tags: email, war, Toronto, weapons, Senate



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