Friday, April 07, 2017

[Rant] A Vanishing

This article/expose in Outside about missing persons on public lands was interesting on two levels. I have spent a fair amount of vacation time hiking, trail running, and mountain biking on public lands (National parks, and so forth), almost always solo. Evidently, folks go missing in those circumstances more commonly than I would have thought. This article tells one particular story, highlighting how utterly baffling these disappearances can be. Vanishings might be a better word. It also indicates how much luck is involved in actually resolving them. In this case folks searched for nearly a year only to find the body less than 2 miles from home in a spot that they had been within spitting distance of. I occasionally joke about my ability to get lost on the simplest of trails, but maybe I shouldn't. Considering my solitary life, if I was lying dead in some unvisited ravine it could be weeks before anyone realized I was missing.

The other aspect of interest is the reaction of people to these situations. The writer makes a dramatic point that no one really knows how many people have vanished on public lands. Considered estimates run around the 1600 mark. That's 1600 people who have gone missing on public lands over the years who remain unaccounted for, but that's just an estimate because there is no agency the tracks this. Furthermore, if someone goes missing somewhere other than a major National Park like Yosemite, Grand Canyon, etc., the task of searching more often than not falls on small local sheriff departments who have to recruit volunteers for the search efforts. They do get volunteers although they are often not professionals, just folks willing to go searching for a day or so to do their part. Some individuals give even more effort and end up building non-profit organizations to assist in dealing with vanishings, often because a they have suffered a loss in similar situations.

But never underestimate the human propensity for righteous indignation. In this case, the missing fellow's father appears to have taken the opportunity to use the sympathy of others as an occasion for consequence-free impudent incivility. And why not? Who's gonna call a guy with a missing kid an asshole, even if he is? Evidently it got so bad the the local sheriff in charge of the search simply stopped speaking to him. More broadly, numerous sources and the overall tone of the article seem to imply it's an act of shameful neglect that there aren't well-funded government agencies brought to bear on this scourge. Why is no agency keeping statistics? Why isn't there an professional response team? What about the children?

To be clear, this is a good story and a well written article. You learn how easy it is to disappear even when you are capable and knowledgeable and not really in any sort of dangerous position. You see how people respond in this situation: mostly well -- volunteers participating as much as they can to help out, overworked authorities doing their damndest, etc. You sense the effect on friends and family. It's all good, personal, human, dramatic stuff. But that's not enough in our world. No, we have to have an outrage angle; everything has to take on the air of correcting some perceived grievance or injustice, because God forbid we do anything in life that is simply human and isn't sourced from a desire to correct a moral shortcoming of society.

Sorry to get cranky but there are times I am wearied by how deep this impetus is embedded into our lives now. It is the default vocabulary we use to communicate any complex message. The culture of indignation permeates everything we do and say. From a tweet to a facebook post to a press release to a corporate mission statement to the story of a missing person, it's become a thoughtlessly natural to refer to some greater societal moral failing as a cause. If there isn't one readily obvious, we snark up a comment about the current outgroup political enemy for cred. The socio-political has completely marginalized the human and the personal, and the way the socio-political connects with people emotionally is through sympathetic affront.

The cold truth is that 1600 missing people, some unknown percentage of whom are "missing" on purpose, don't amount to a hill of beans, especially in light of the millions and millions who tread upon public lands each year. The idea that this is indicative of negligence on anyone's part is way outright silly and, I suspect, often self-serving if for no other reason that the tone of indignation seems to be expected of any journalism for it to be published.

(Deep breath) Anyway. Like I said, good article and relevant to me. I think I will post on facebook anytime I'm about to go off into the wilderness alone. At least that way when someone gets around to wondering where I am, they'll have a lead. But once you find my rotted carcass please don't use me as a poster-boy for some noble cause or the source for some polemic. Just call me a dumbass and move on.

Addenda: A couple of tangentially related articles. 1. Age of Offence explores the effects of the desire for moral outrage on intellectual life. 2. The Strange Persistence of Guilt posits that the evelation of prestige via victimhood is sourced from a secular version of original sin (or somehting like that), although the author might put it differently. Both of these articles are a bit highbrow but not unclear. I continue to be troubled by the sweeping human desire for status through sanctimony.