11 October 2018

Hurricane Watch

Once when I was yet in high school we were either sent home in the middle of the day or told to stay home in anticipation of a hurricane. Maybe then we experienced a hurricane but if so I recall nothing of the event and only the anticipation. Many years later I lived in New York City on the Upper West Side in a corner apartment with a number of large windows. A hurricane was forecast and we were warned to prepare ourselves with food and water supplies (and chocolate donuts) and to place duct tape in X patters on the windows to prevent them from dangerously shattering in the onslaught of gale-force winds splaying shards of glass about the rooms. I did as I was told . . . but there occurred no hurricane—we were spared--but in my lethargic relief, I waited too long to remove the tape from the windows and the sun baking my rooms burned shadows of the tape onto the glass resulting in the panes to remain marked with a large X that now covered the entire length and breadth of the oversized windows.
     The newscasters (and weather people) hourly give alarming reports on the destruction that has resulted from Hurricane Michael (and before that Hurricane Florence and before that Maria, and before that Sandy) making landfall in Florida before it will move North into parts of Alabama and North Carolina. The news would say that the storm will ‘leave devastation in its wake as it moves.” I am intrigued by the anthropomorphizing of the hurricane. The headline of today’s New York Times reads “Storm Devastates Panhandle,” and the lead sentence says, “Hurricane Michael, one of the most powerful storms ever to hit the continental United States, slammed into the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday, unleashing a trail of destruction across 200 miles that splintered houses, peeled off roofs and stirred up a terrifying surge of seawater that submerged entire neighborhoods and set boats careening down city streets.” The on-line headline reads “Hurricane Michael Cuts Path of Destruction Through Florida’s Panhandle.” I am interested in the action verbs that attribute agency to the hurricane. My own use of an active verb “move’ in the first sentence of this paragraph is symptomatic of this assignment of agency to a natural phenomena that clearly has no consciousness to choose anything. Hurricanes simply are, and destruction follows in their wake. Destruction is caused by hurricanes, but hurricanes do not choose to destroy.Actually, in Hartford, Hereford, and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly happen!Natural conditions there are not suitable to the formation of such storms but unprepared as the location might be for such storms massive damage could be caused. Hurricanes have no agency and I wonder what is the consequence of assigning human agency to natural phenomena. In this construction the active agent becomes Nature as if Nature could with any conscious good or bad order events—as if hurricanes actually knew what they were doing, and we humans merely passive objects of the hurricane’s fury. Yes, we are certainly victims of the fury of the storm, but we are not the storm’s enemy. The storm is an impersonal force that is incapable of consciousness and therefore, of agency. But I think our willingness to employ language to reduce humans to passivity indicates further our sense of helplessness in these first few decades of the 21stcentury. If Nature has agency then climate change can be attributed to Nature’s way and not to human action. We humans are relieved of responsibility. Anthropomorphizing non-human phenomena (I am told we live now in a post-human world—another topic for another time) gives agency where it does not belong and removes agency from its proper place of origin. I think our verbs tell a great deal about our sense of self in the world. If we learned to speak with greater consciousness and acknowledge our agency.