Character: it's source, it's power


Pandemic Identity

The last few months have been a surreal psychological experience. Mid-March, I found myself witnessing societal shifts that subconsciously I wasn't expecting to see for another decade.

My approach to handling recent world events is, I suspect, not that different from yours. Like so many of us, I regularly retreat into my mental safe space, leaning on and melting into much loved past times. An article by my former boss, Roksanda Illincic, led me to Vogue.com, where I found myself scouring the archives when I stumbled across Self-respect: it’s Source, it’s Power by Joan Didion, which was first published in Vogue in 1961.

I was seeking out a particular Vogue reading experience; a gorgeous floral blend of words, coupled with an equally gorgeous floral blend of design and illustration but ended up somewhere profoundly more significant.

My definition of self-respect is in sync with Joan Didion’s. All my fights, my current climate curiosity crusade included, have been motivated by a crisp, unyielding sense of self-respect, that is not unlike Joan’s description. So this article couldn’t have found me at a more perfect time. By this point, I had already spent weeks wondering about the extent to which our pandemic identities were being defined by something we no longer talk about, our moral character.

We don’t talk about character much anymore and we should. It’s a rare, unshakable, and immeasurably seductive component of anyone’s identity.

Climate Change Identity

Speaking of identity, I once found myself discussing my climate change identity with a scientist during a research call.

In my experience, if a conversation goes on for long enough, talks about climate action eventually trickle down to identity. And conversations about identity within a climate context at least, almost always lead to conversations about authenticity, about morality.

Most of these conversations venture into the borderland of science and philosophy. The philosophy part dominating the lion’s share of the conversation.

Philosophy, as an academic discipline, is well equipped, to take on the wholeness of the climate issue and provide a framework to process its more uncertain aspects. However, at its core, our interpretation of the climate crisis is wrapped up in a tangle of identity and morality.

I am stating the obvious I know, but nonetheless, it took this pandemic, and more specifically the media coverage encircling it, for me to realise just how acutely relevant character is when discerning the value and credibility of everything and everyone. Because it’s absence, it’s presence, defines everything and everyone.

Recovery for instance, economic, spiritual, or otherwise is invariably always a creative process and our collective pandemic recovery will require all the creativity we can collectively cough up. But can creativity be executed without confidence, without character?

The top jobs in the Cabinet have shown that they can put party politics and a century of dogma aside to stay focussed on the matter at hand, in the face of panic journalism. Putting political affiliations to one side, I believe that anyone who can withstand being asked different versions of the same banal, sometimes uninformed, leading, and passively and openly aggressive questions over and over again on a daily basis, in a calm and focussed manner, is worthy of respect.

In short, leaders at the very top of government and their scientific teams have demonstrated, the possession of a resource that is seemingly under-represented and under-valued in everyday discourse: restraint and expertise. In other words, they are demonstrating character.

The mainstream media haven’t exactly treated climate scientists with much restraint or valued their expertise on the matter. They somehow manage to disregard and sensationalise the science all at once. For the most part, climate science and the scientists presenting the science have been consistently ignored and/ or politicised by the mainstream media.

Before the pandemic, it seemed as if expertise was being indefinitely side lined in favour of disinformation and partisan confirming news. Since the 80s, opinions especially of the outrageous and incensed variety have crowded news headlines, an indicator of expertise’s slipping prestige.

And this is as much a problem for the climate crisis as it is for the pandemic. New media needs a new set of ethics if it’s going to do right by the public. Unless they start providing clear, objective and credible information about the pandemic and the climate crisis they are going to continue to strain the emotional health and compromise the educational development of the public on these matters.

The Moral Character of the Media

It’s safe to say a crisis reveals who you are at your core, especially now, under the glare of the neon white, hospital lights that is the 24-hour news media.

The coronavirus has caused so many of us to edge into the most extreme aspects of our personalities, which I suspect is why I have become so acutely aware of the absence and presence of character.

Likewise, disgust is something I sense we are all especially sensitive to at this moment in time.

Speaking of disgust, this is as good a time as any to bring up Piers Morgan, if only to draw comparisons between him and a journalist who exudes character and professionalism - Alexandria Bombach.

Character is what fundamentally separates Piers Morgan from Alexandria Bombach. Her work is thoughtful, sensitive and respectful because of her character. The same cannot be said for Piers Morgan.

To be fair, Alexandria and Piers are proponents of two wildly different media and communication channels. One champions authenticity and a willingness to be humble and respectful by focussing on the interviewee and the other imposes themselves into every narrative, positioning themselves as the reality tv star of that particular interview turned circus act.

But that’s my point. We need more of the good stuff right now and less rabid self-virtuosity and childish theatricality from the Piers’ of this world, charming as they are.

It’s become nearly impossible to get information, without regularly ingesting the insincere outrage and incomplete reporting that accompanies that otherwise noble quest. You invariably end up consuming a lot of synthetic and toxic binders in the process and there is no escaping the feeling that you’re being endlessly manipulated and emotionally drained at every turn.

Unfortunately, the moral character of the media, for the time being at least, is defined by whoever is willing to be the most unreasonable and has the loudest voice. And I don’t see that changing anytime soon. But I know we can’t afford to let the already dying medium of environmental journalism go the same way. Because when that happens, we all lose.