Express Cash

Okay, it was nothing to get my knickers in a twist about, but it was still mildly annoying. As I bellied up to the express cash (1-12 items) with my bit of cheese and carton of eggs, a pudgy middle-aged person of the male persuasion was unloading his cart onto the cash's black rubber conveyor belt. There must have been a couple of dozen items already on there, and he'd barely made a dent on the contents of his cart. I watched stony-faced, looking over my glasses the way my mama taught me, as he crammed on packages of hamburger, bags of rolls, a half-dozen cans of dog food, bananas, milk and bottles of soda. Looking around, he saw me with my measly two items and said with a placatory little giggle, gesturing at the express cash sign, "Oh, sorry. I didn't notice." He shrugged and went back to unloading his cart.

A small but incorrect part of me wanted to tell him, nicely but firmly, that express cashes are ALWAYS located at the end of the cash-register rank closest to the door (I haven't run into any exceptions that I can think of) and that therefore he should have known to look for the express sign. I also wanted to have a word with the cashier, who should have known better too. But I am a good Canadian, and I just gave him a wooden look and went over to the next cash. I was heading out the door, and so was the person behind me, before he'd finished getting his load checked through.

I think it bothered me a little more than usual because this has been a week marked with the effects of wilful stupidity and the refusal to notice what we are supposed to notice. On Thursday, near Kandahar, four soldiers of Canada's Princess Patricia's Light Infantry were killed and eight others wounded when an American National Guard pilot flying an F-16 dropped a 500-pound laser-guided bomb on them. They were conducting night exercises; he thought they were firing at him. And also on Thursday, but in Toronto, the father and stepmother of Randal Dooley were convicted of second-degree murder in his death by prolonged gross physical abuse, amounting to torture. He had been a sweet, sunny, loving little guy. He was seven when he died and weighed only 41 pounds. He had 13 broken ribs, a broken vertebra, a lacerated liver, and scars from belts and bungee cords over most of his skinny small body. On Thursday, too, although it didn't make the papers, police in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, continued digging at a pig farm where, it seems likely, at least some of 56 missing women from Vancouver's Lower East Side may be buried. The women went missing over more than a decade, victims of a serial murderer. They were drug addicts and prostitutes; about half of them were Aboriginal.

Aside from the deaths of innocent people, all these three things have something in common: they involved "mistakes"--booboos, errors in judgment, call them what you will; but in all cases, failures by people who should have known better.

The Princess Pats were doing their stuff in a recognized training zone and had told the U.S. military about the exercise. The exercise was surface-to-surface shooting, not surface-to-air. Nobody yet knows what happens, but it looks as though there were (as the paper calls it) "gross errors." The pilot apparently did not have permission to drop his bomb, but he went ahead and did it anyway.

When Randal Dooley's teacher saw welts on his arms and back, she reported them to the school principal, and the school principal notified the Children's Aid Society, which notified the police, who talked to Randal's stepmother, who told the police a pack of lies, which they believed. Neither the police nor the CAS followed up, nor did they question the child by himself--only in the presence of his formidable stepmother. Randal was dead five months later.

And the Vancouver police didn't take the disappearance of dozens of Lower East Side prostitutes and drug addicts seriously; "people like that", they said, just move elsewhere, drop out without leaving word. The families said, "No, my daughter/sister/friend/girlfriend isn't like that; she always calls, she always comes home for Christmas." The cops shrugged, figuratively speaking. Even though families begged them to list the women as missing, nothing happened for years--not until more than 40 women had vanished.

Compared to all these tragedies (much less to the Middle East, a pool of the deepest, most stubborn sort of wilful stupidity on God's green earth), the stupidity of the guy at the cash was a hundred-thousandth part of a pixil on the great Screen of Creation. But it was still the refusal to use the brain God gave him. And that, to my mind, is problematic.

I am holding out for a revision of the Seven Deadly Sins. Pride, Anger, and Sloth are all crucial, of course; and the other four (Covetousness, Envy, Lust and Gluttony) are certainly not Good Things. But I'd like the four minors dropped in favour of Deceit, Fearfulness, Despair, and Wilful Stupidity. And Wilful Stupidity is not the least of these.

Note that word "wilful". There are people around who are not particularly intelligent, but that's not the same thing as wilful stupidity. As I was driving down to Kingston yesterday, I found myself being extremely closely tailgated by a young man in an expensive new SUV, weaving back and forth as he talked on a cellphone while trying to crawl up my tailpipe at 130 kph. I do not, for a moment, think that he was of less than average intelligence. He was just being as dumb as a sack of hammers.

Maybe some people are indeed smarter than others, but every single healthy, undamaged human individual has far more intelligence than even the brightest Canada goose. And yet we say, "(S)he doesn't have the sense God gave a goose"--quite correctly, since geese actually behave more sensibly than we do, much of the time. I suppose they don't have the choice: a stupid goose is a dead goose. A wilfully stupid human being, on the other hand, can get by very nicely, especially in large organizations.

Of course said organizations often don't want us to use the brains God gave us, because that might bother the Established Order and who wants that? The last thing the Emperor wants is that bright young kid in the crowd saying, "Hey, he's starkers!" It would have inconvenienced the Vancouver cops to have to start real investigations into the disappearance of those women. It would have inconvenienced the guy in the grocery store to go wait in line at a non-express cash with his cartload of groceries. It's an inconvenience to wait and put the litter in the garbage can instead of tossing it into the air. Who wants to be bothered?

It's an inconvenience, too, for the rest of us to have to pay higher taxes so that social services are adequately funded, so that social workers can spend more than 15% of their time with the dozens (sometimes hundreds) of families in their case loads. At the same time, if you're a social worker, it's problematic to have to use your judgment, instead of relying on the rules, or on tired, unexamined bromides ("families should always be kept together") that may not be true for a given situation.

It's inconvenient, too, to have to think of others' needs or desires. Easier to play dumb. Easier still to damp down your consciousness, or to distract it with more gratifying and stimulating notions that don't require you to discern anything: urban legends, Jerry Springer, conspiracy theories, celebrities' lives. That way, you don't really have to deal with anything other than fantasy, a far easier way to live your life--if not one that does much for your soul or for those around you. So far from cultivating our ability to think, and think in a discerning and careful way, we'd just as soon stampede off in ways that are, in the end, deeply counterproductive and a complete waste of time.

I know, I know.... this is a tired lament. But it still has to be said sometimes. I keep coming back to the notion that, in the end, we will have to face God, holding up our lives in our hands for God's inspection; and God cannot be fooled or lied to. I doubt very much if God's going to be too cranky at the guy in the supermarket, unless the guy makes a practice of being wilfully stupid to his own advantage, but if he does, I suspect God will not be best pleased. God did, after all, endow us with large, complex and incredibly powerful minds, and God does expect us to use 'em.

"Never ascribe to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity", someone once said, and it's a useful thing to remember. Now, if we can just get to work on stupidity....

Copyright © 2002 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 20 Apr 2002
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