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  • Writer's pictureKeith Sones

Gaslighting 2.0

Somewhere along the way, back when people were starting to organize themselves into groups that could live and farm together, someone or a perhaps a group somewhere made some decisions that I really disagree with. It was probably a committee. He/she/they sat down and determined that the logical part of the human brain was getting in the way of things, so he/she/they came up with a brilliant scheme. Somehow, and I’m still trying to figure out how, the decision was made to install a switch in our heads. Kind of like a light switch.

The idea went like this. Sometimes we would act completely rationally and use logical analysis to work things out. When we started building houses with roofs made of heavy materials like stone and wood, having a structural collapse when you and your family were sleeping was probably a bad thing, so our ancestors figured out how to prevent imminent death by making walls strong, invented engineered rafters and let you sleep soundly (and alive) night after night. On other occasions, however, the switch would flip to the other side and we would collectively get stupid. Like “hey, let’s get drunk and play in the freeway traffic” kind of stupid. To an un-indoctrinated observer it would look crazy and dangerous. But to those of us that were part of the system, it all looked just fine.

No long ago, my business travels took me across the country from west coast to east coast. Day one of the trip, albeit long and tiring, was pretty uneventful and I arrived safe and sound. The meetings went well, so I was pleased as I winged off to my next ports of call, Fredericton and Saint John in New Brunswick. Or at least that was the plan.

Now, to be fair, winter is a challenging time to travel in Canada. Ice, snow and wind often conspire to make road and air transport close to impossible. And I’m okay with that. Driving a plane into a blizzard is probably not the best idea and may in fact put one as the front runner in the annual Darwin Awards ( Weather delays are a fact of life. So imagine my surprise when the flight notification alerted me that the airline couldn’t find a crew. Huh? I called them and was informed that they didn’t know where the crew was. Not that they were delayed themselves. But were missing in action.

Now, this wasn’t my first rodeo so I knew the drill. Hotel room near the airport, start again early the next day, arrive late, hope there is still enough time for the meetings, apologize profusely for my tardiness, meet, collapse, then do it all over again. I was able to make it as far as Halifax, Nova Scotia that evening and was optimistic for the next day. Booked on an 8 AM flight, I was in the starting blocks by seven and ready to go.

Then, the delay announcement. A mechanical problem, I was informed, easy to fix and all should be ready for boarding in about 15 minutes. Okay, no problem. I sat back and waited for the call, only to be greeted with another declaration that we would have our airport stay extended by another 30 minutes. Glancing at my watch I casually thought about Plan B, which involved a flight to an alternate destination followed by a rental car. “No problem” I told myself. I can still make it. I felt a bit more anxious but held an hour in contingency.

My reaction to the third delay, another 15 minutes, caught me off guard. I instantly felt angry, and pretty intensely. “Hang on”, the angel on my shoulder told me. It’s just a few extra minutes. Relax. In corresponding fashion, the guy dressed in red and holding a pitchfork on the other shoulder bellowed “don’t listen to that crap. These guys are screwing you. Can’t they get their story straight? Whatever happened to “an easy fix, done in a few minutes”? Your day and three key meeting are going straight to hell!”.

I had admit he had a point, but I still felt off balance. I’ve travelled hundreds of thousands of miles and have been delayed or cancelled by airlines on four continents. C’mon Keith, what’s the big deal? You can always reschedule.

Fortunately, and in a very ironic way, I was ultimately glad that I had a few extra hours to think about why I was so upset. The irony flows from the fact that I endured three more delays and an ultimate flight cancellation, for a total of eight hours in the beautiful Stanfield International Airport, which is why I had time to think. So I reflected, pondered, contemplated, ruminated and considered why I was so bent out of shape. It wasn’t like to me to get so fussed about airline delays. It had to be something else that had settled into my mind and created this serious angst.

I discovered it in hour six.

It wasn’t the broken plane, lousy communications from the airline, missed meetings or even the feeling that I had wasted an entire day. I was being hounded by something much larger with far reaching implications.

It was the idea that this frustrating, miserable, time and money consuming experience was deemed acceptable. Not just by the airline, but by society at large. And I’m pretty sure I missed the meeting when “they” decided this was okay.

Think about this. If you called a taxi to take to you to an important event, say your daughter’s graduation ceremony or a critical business meeting, and they delayed multiple times before telling you they weren’t coming at all, your hair would be on fire. Very few people would accept your “cab company screwed up” excuse, and you would be shunned for lack of planning. But tell your audience that the airline delayed or cancelled your flight, you’re likely to get a “oh, bummer, happened to me last week” sort of response. Somehow, this situation has been normalized by polite society.

And it’s not okay.

In hours seven and eight prior to the flight to (now) Toronto, I ran through several other scenarios where the ridiculous has become the standard. Once I started to run everyday situations through the “when did we all go crazy?” filter, I wasn’t short of examples. A few to think about.

Politics on both sides of the 49th parallel and in fact around the world includes a specific ongoing narrative that is instantly familiar to all who pay attention to the news, and even many of those that don’t. Politicians of all stripes make several pledges during the run-up to an election, promising to balance the budget, save the environment, feed the hungry and educate the nation’s children. Upon settling into office, the newcomers face the reality of governing (which is difficult on a good day) and trot out the predicable replies. We had no idea the books were in such bad shape. Things cost more than we thought. Turns out that promise I made is unpopular with more folks than I thought, so it’s dead.

Imagine running your business like that. Or your relationship. Hello, members of the board. Half of what I promised in my CEO job interview was fiction. Won’t happen. Hi sweetie, sorry but I was kidding about wanting to have kids, live in the city and that I liked your mother. Chances are that neither the budding executive or new husband would last until the end of the conversation. But when it comes to those that govern us, we give them a collective out.

A few years ago my wife was the victim of an assault by employees of a municipality. It was investigated and no one disputed the facts, but when it came time to hold the perpetrators accountable, it was a wall of lawyers, non-disclosure documents and blocked freedom of information requests. A couple of people, paid by the taxpayers, worried about looking bad and were willing to spend many thousands of dollars to make sure the details never hit the street. Reasonable? Of course not. But socially acceptable? Apparently.

In the course of my day job, I see many organizations that own and operate electric power systems struggling for a number of legitimate reasons. Aging infrastructure, customers feeling the financial strain, a public that challenges the viewscape that comes with new transmission lines, new technology, lower or reduced investment opportunities/returns and higher expectations from customers all lead to tough decisions every day of the week. The reality is that different times and new problems call for updated discussions by industry players. What’s new out there? How can we save some real money without cutting corners on safety and reliability?

My grade 11 Physics teacher said I will only need know two things to be successful. Number one – F=MA. The basic force equation, like all formulas, is important in finding the correct numerical answer. Number two – you can’t push on a rope. When something feels or smells wrong, it probably is and will ultimately be proven wrong. We have been gaslit in many ways; there are a number of corners of our society where we have been lulled into believing that crazy is normal. Be on the lookout. One of them might be right in front of you. And it’s time to change.

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