Sunday, 23 February 2014

Loops and Escapes

Two points that have arisen from my last two blogs.

First, briefly, I posted a blog entitled "You Are Living In A Fantasy World", and there was some content which referred to religion. I received an email objecting to this slur (i.e. the title) on somebody's religious beliefs. That was absolutely not my intention, and because that person won't be speaking to me again, I can reply somewhat more frankly than in my original reply.

Don't be so sensitive. It wasn't about you, and it wasn't about your religious beliefs. The emphasis was on WORLD and if you had read the entire thing instead of taking umbrage at the beginning, you'd have realised that. Possibly.

I manage to have very good friendships with people of all possible beliefs. Issues only arise when people read things that aren't there. That's something I have no control over. Misunderstandings can occur with the written word because you can't hear the tone of voice/see facial expressions, so the best approach is to assume the best intent. In any case, reading the whole thing matters.

Which brings me to the second point, and the main thrust of this post.

I wrote a piece about ethical limitations and I was discussing it with a friend on Messenger. We got onto how lack of education leads to prejudice, and while he agreed with me, I am pretty sure he didn't really understand what I was saying about culture because he's not very well-travelled. I have already apologized to him for saying that, he concedes it's true, and I promised to explain it in depth, so here we are.

At the end of the post I pointed out that we don't know what we don't know, and perhaps more importantly that we don't know that we don't know. We live in blissful ignorance of many, many things. Every day of my life I learn new things, and while some of them are "AHA!" moments, mostly it's just "Oh, how interesting" because it had never arisen before, and it's probably safe to say I had managed fine without that information.

Sometimes I actively seek out information. An example would be cuttlefish. I know what they taste like, I knew they were related to squids, but it occurred to me that I didn't know what they looked like while swimming around. Well, now I do. Good old Google images.

But most of the time the truth is that we don't know what we don't know. If it's never presented to us, we don't go looking for it because we are unaware what we are looking for, or that there's anything to look for.

Small children are curious. They explore constantly, and they ask questions. Even children who never attend school grow up able to function in an adult world simply by watching, and by experimentation.

But we also make the effort to show them things, teach them about our world and save them a lot of time by revealing to them all that we have learned. Even the dullest student grows up with a considerable amount of information in his head that was not from his own trial and error, and of course this is why we are able to do the amazing things we do. Engineers are taught everything that many generations of previous engineers discovered, so they don't have to start from scratch. Our most highly skilled people have several lifetimes of research taught to them before they begin their own journey. It is a tremendous advantage.

Most of us grow up with gaps in our knowledge. It's impossible to cover everything, and there is still quite a lot we have to figure out for ourselves, because while it can be taught, it doesn't actually make a lot of sense until we experience it.

Imagine, for example a Mongolian yak-herder who has never left Bayan-Olgii in western Mongolia. They've never even been to Olgii, its only city, and trust me Olgii is not what we think of as a city. But they have been to school, and they have learned about the world outside their personal experience.

They were taught about the west and they've heard of and seen pictures of big cities. But could they really imagine it? Could they understand about highways and tall office buildings and subways and malls and sports stadiums? Let's face it, they'd have a hard time really understanding trees.

But just as we are able to imagine weird civilizations on other planets in Sci-Fi stories, these people are not fools. They have the same intellect as you and I, and they can read about our world, they can study it. But they don't "get it" any more than we get theirs. Their confusion and probable discomfort if they were dumped here would be as great as ours would be if dumped there.

But it doesn't have to be that extreme. If you recall your first trip some distance from home, especially if it was a different climate, you begin to get a feel for how books and videos just don't cut it. Things smell different, sounds are unfamiliar.

When I was 48 I went to Los Angeles, so, hardly a child. I had never been to California before and what struck me immediately was that the flora was different. Not just the amazing pink flowers growing in December, but everything. In fact all of the weeds growing around the edge of the parking lot at the airport were unfamiliar. At home, I can look at a patch of weeds and even if I can't name them, I've seen them all before. These were all new. Even the grass was totally different.

There were many things that seemed familiar, roads, cars, etc, obviously, but it was quite a different place to home. The buildings had a different style, the road signs had a different style, even the way the roads were built was different. If I were to stay there any length of time it would become familiar, but as a visitor I was bombarded with differentness at every turn.

It doesn't matter how I relate to weeds, or road signs, or houses. But it does matter how I relate to people, because people have feelings. Californians aren't terribly different to Ontarians. So, no problem there. But did I know that before I met them? What was I told about Californians prior to going there?

Whatever it was, it wasn't useful. Because in fact, when you meet people, they are just who they are. But we are told all sorts of things about people we haven't met, and they are referred to in groups, not as individuals.

And we have to do this. Because cultures really do vary, and while stereotypes are often wrong there has to be an overview. It really helps to be told, for example, that if you go to Paris, the waiters are likely to be brusque, so that it's not such a shock. Then you can see the funny side of it. What's a trip to Paris without a rude waiter story?

There is a website called Wikitravel that warns you of risks specific to each location. It's worth a browse, but I'll get you to the site by going to an actual example of what you do need to know before visiting:

But it's risky, this whole grouping thing. Not only because there are always exceptions, but because without knowing WHY people in a given culture have certain beliefs, behaviours, or attitudes, it's really of no help at all. Some of the WHY goes back hundreds of years. Some is more recent. When I was in Spain I needed to know what all the graffiti was, and why road signs had place names in spray paint over the top, with a different spelling. I was told it was a dispute over official languages. Some of the place names had one letter different. It looks trivial to an outsider, and it would be easy to make a major faux pas and get into an argument, if you dismissed this as petty. To them, it's not. It's huge.

I remember being taught about different countries, and different cultures in school. And it was rubbish. It was of very little practical use. We learned about national costumes, music, and food. But nobody told me that the police in Germany can fine you on the spot.

Obviously, it's impossible to cover every eventuality, and it's up to the traveller to do some research. There will still be surprises.

I do think, however, that all of us are badly let down by not being taught what's underneath all of this. I mentioned in passing to a friend the other day that my absolute first exposure to American culture, was the TV show the Monkees. She was horrified. I assured her it was a good first impression, but of course, it was hardly accurate.

But even if it had accurately reflected culture in one part of the US, it wouldn't have told me much about the rest of such a large and diverse country. And yet, living where I was, in England, I thought I saw, gradually, over the years, in the media a thing called "American Culture" but what the hell could that mean? Is there such a thing, really? To define it would be to generalize to an absurd level.

At the same time, if you say the words "American Culture" everyone hearing it immediately has an idea in mind. It may be positive or negative, but it's there. It's obviously not right, because there are many, many versions of it. There's an old story that describes what's going on here:

But you can break it down, and then you get closer to reality. The culture of the Florida Keys should be fairly easy to represent, and to describe to an outsider. It doesn't tell you what each inhabitant is like, but it'll prepare you better than watching a movie about New York City.

This is assuming that variation in behaviour, attitudes, and beliefs are divided up by location. There are lots of other ways that people differ. Age will have an impact. What older people find unacceptable, and young people find perfectly OK (and vice versa) is an important distinction, and worth bearing in mind. Social status may vary dramatically within a pretty small distance. Especially in cities, it's not unusual to have the wealthiest and poorest people living cheek by jowl. This is nothing new. An interesting feature of the poverty maps of Victorian London show how the upper classes lived on the main thoroughfares, but there were slums just round the corner, on the narrow back streets. That pattern can be seen throughout history and around the world.

It probably also goes without saying that in many parts of the world race and/or religion can cause differences too, and having a multi-ethnic society works better in some situations than others. In Toronto it works extraordinarily well, but in other parts of the world there is constant conflict.

And then there's what we have to call politics, but isn't. And that is the liberal-conservative or left-right spectrum. Because the basis of this isn't about politics at all, it's a personality type, a worldview, an attitude, although, without doubt, it is based on historical factors, and much of it is acquired from peers and the prevailing culture of whatever one was born into.

Because wherever you go there will be a dominant attitude that leans to the left or the right. Typically the country is more conservative than the city, ports are less conservative than inland, and the old are more conservative than the young. Some of it is easy to explain, some is harder, and some is positively inscrutable.

I try to think outside the box, to avoid bias. I am aware that my own life experiences and background affect my attitude. I question everything, even my dearest held beliefs, and I consider that to be a wise thing to do. That alone, by definition, puts me on left side of the spectrum. Did I just accuse conservatives of being closed-minded? Yes. Oh. So much for not being biased. (For the record, I don't think conservatives are bad people, I just think they are mistaken.)

But wait. Closed-mindedness, or more accurately, an aversion to change, is not by and of itself a bad thing. Calling a person or group closed-minded is only a negative if you think it is. It's just a rather ham-fisted way of describing the conservative mindset. By definition, conservatives are less open to change - that's why they are called conservatives. And they justify the aversion to change, by offering examples of where change is a bad thing. After all, they are easy enough to find.

A few paragraphs up I said that the old are typically more conservative than the young, and I'm about to appear to contradict myself. A broad education causes people to become more liberal, on the whole. Obviously there are exceptions to this, but that is the usual effect. Broadly educated people tend to be more liberal. The more education they get, over time makes them more liberal. And the cause and effect direction is pretty clear. While there are definitely conservatives in power who don't want people to be educated (it leads to change), it's not a case of only the liberal minded people getting an education. Most young people, given the motivation and opportunity, seek education, at least of some sort. And most young people are more on the liberal side. See, I didn't contradict myself.

But note that I said "given the motivation and opportunity". If one or both of those are missing, the likelihood of a person getting a broad education diminish, and the chances of them leaning further to the right with age increase. And.....I said a broad education. There are plenty of highly educated people who are very conservative indeed because their studies were restricted to conservative interests. Consider the average Ayatollah, for example.

So, in certain societies, because of a prevailing conservative mindset, AND lack of motivation and opportunity to obtain a broad education (or much of one at all), the poorest people, the ones who need this advantage the most, are often those most frequently lacking it. You can always find exceptions. Somewhere in northern Pakistan, for example, I guarantee there's a dirt poor kid with an open mind, desperately trying to learn more, more, more about ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING, despite help, and possibly in the face of pressure to stop. And he'll become something really awesome as a result, we may even get to hear about him when he invents something the whole world benefits from. But we hear about these success stories because they stand out, they are not the norm. Most of his peers will remain in a state of de facto ignorance. And they will be far more conservative than him.

Some of this is truly political, that is to say, because of governmental factors. But that's a separate issue and...... not today.

OK, I've gone on at some length about this and if I'm not careful it looks like I'm saying that conservatives are dumber than liberals. And I'm trying to avoid bias. Not doing very well, am I?

What I have (I hope) said at length, is a better (or at least a more detailed) way of saying this:

That quote always causes an argument, because it comes with no explanation. To explain fully the phenomenon of why a lack of education leads to a conservative mindset would take volumes. They are out there and I've read some of it, but as the basic theory here - no matter how well the data supports it - is controversial, I know for a fact some readers are shaking their heads at me.

And some are saying, but Melanie it's not their fault they don't get an education. Yes, I know. That's my point. I'm not exactly going to defend them, because there are choices involved here, but I'm going to go back to not knowing what you don't know.

Where does the responsibility lie?

In theory, first with parents. But if parents are totally encultured, they aren't even aware they need to do anything. My mother was rather advanced for her generation, but my grandparents, wow, some of the things they believed and said would make your hair curl.

For example, my grandfather was rabidly anti-Catholic. Why? Because his father was. It is my considered opinion that this actually went back several generations to the Gordon Riots. So that's the background to it.

He had precious little education, left school at 14 and became a dockworker, his father owned a shipyard. They were not poor, they had servants, but they were barely middle-class, and none of the children received more education than this. It wasn't deemed necessary.

Nobody bothered to tell him why Catholics believed what they did. I don't think he knew anything about them at all. So, he would not have been able to explain to you what was wrong with them, and he never bothered trying to find out, or to learn that, in fact, they were not very different from him at all. The seed was planted in his mind early, that they were very different, in a bad way, and he never moved on from that belief.

This is classic prejudice. It is incredibly common. And if you don't know any better, then you don't know, and you don't know that you don't know.

My mother somehow managed to rise above that. She was no better educated - formally, anyway. But she read a lot. She thought outside the box. The more she read the more she wanted to think outside the box, and the more she thought outside the box the more she wanted to read. My first boyfriend was Catholic and she never batted an eyelid.

She taught me how to think outside the box. She introduced me to people in her social circles who were "on the fringe" of society. Hindus, actors, transsexuals. As I said, she was way ahead of her time. But I don't want you to get the idea she was free of prejudice, because she was still a product of the times. She believed, for example, that the reason Hitler was able to gain control of the German collective psyche, was because they were "like that". This was a common belief in Britain for those who lived through the war. I daresay it was helped by propaganda - it really helps to have the people hate the enemy, and it's not difficult to achieve when they are dropping bombs on you - but it was rare to find people of that generation who didn't believe that the basic nature of the German people caused them to welcome Nazi activities. "He was elected, you know!" It's a complete misunderstanding of how things happened, but if you don't know, you don't know.

Of course, she was kind to Germans. I did student exchanges and she was sweet to the girls who stayed with us, and she had no problem with me going there. Before we left England our neighbours were German and she was perfectly friendly with them when she visited me. But even then, if I should happen to comment on something quirky from next door, she'd sometimes say "Well, they're German" as if that explained everything. It was still there.

And me? Well, I was taught to treat everyone kindly, but I don't remember being told to treat everyone equally. Not at home. Not in school. And I was taught that differences in people were directly due to where they lived. I remember distinctly that being the overarching belief. Racism was not a huge thing, but nationality was. They are different, not least because London was very multi-cultural, and had a long history of being so, and it was made quite clear to me that black English people were more "like us" than white foreign people. Especially the French.

(I have a theory why this is, but I'll save that for another occasion.)

Luckily I started to travel abroad quite frequently, and I discovered that, actually, people are.......people. No better, nor worse, anywhere. And not THAT different, once you got to know them. Even the French.

People all have the same basic needs, we are after all, all the same animal. We need food, and shelter, and companionship. We like to get up in the morning, wash and dress, eat, then work, study or play, and we all get tired at the end of the day. We all look the same when we're asleep. We all have dreams.

But attitudes, yes, they differ. They do. They don't make people good or bad, but they do take a bit of explanation sometimes. I am still frequently forced to explain my English husband to Canadians. I'm never quite sure I succeed.

So for us, moving to another country, albeit one with colonial roots, the same language, and so on, was interesting. And I have spent the last 21 years explaining the one to the other, as I see both sides of it. And I've been here long enough now that I find much of English culture a bit foreign...well, I always did, I suppose, or I wouldn't have left. I didn't fit in, despite being born there. It was only after a long time I realised I don't fit in anywhere. I am very poor at being encultured. I think outside the box too much. And there was a brief period when that bothered me. And then it stopped bothering me. I think I decided that if I didn't belong anywhere, then I belonged everywhere. In a way. And it's good enough.

As I get older I like being that fish out of water more and more. I can excuse any quirk of personality to being a foreigner. It's also the go-to explanation assumed by others. Gets me out of a lot of trouble. It doesn't work on people who know me well of course, but for the most part I use it to my advantage. I am a citizen of planet Earth, I just happen to have been born there, I live here, and I'll go anywhere.

So am I free of prejudice? Of course not. Is that even possible?

I admit to a prejudice towards conservatives in the southern US. What some people see as "Good Old Boys" I see very negatively. And not just the toothless, inbred, gun-totin' stereotype either. In a conversation recently about hats I confessed to seeing a cowboy hat quite differently to the way I did as a child. Back then it was cool. Now I just assume "religious right, racist, homophobic, anti-choice" even though I'm well aware it's hardly fair. I try very hard to get past that, but social media has done a number on me.

I have never been to the southern states, I'm actually a bit scared to. Common sense tells me to get over it, and then along comes somebody who actually lives there who says "well, you should be safe in a big city" which doesn't exactly help my fears. Others just tell me I'll be fine if I keep my liberal opinions to myself, but that's who I am. The idea that I would have to pretend to be something I'm not doesn't exactly make me want to visit.

Believe it or not I don't like to argue. I LOVE to discuss and debate, but I hate to argue. At the same time I can't just listen to people saying offensive things and keep a straight face, stay jolly, or want to continue my meal. I actually gave up a perfectly good job in a bar because I could no longer smile mindlessly at the drunks spewing filthy opinions. It's impossible to avoid the dodgy topics completely, at some point somebody is going to say something that makes me bristle.

Put it all together and it's best I don't go there.

As I said social media has drilled into my brain like a worm. People I like and trust have made it very clear that some of the southern stereotypes are based in fact (well, stereotypes often are), but the discussions I get into aren't an insult fest, believe it or not. Sincere questions are asked.

Why, for example, do poor southerners act against their own best interests? Maybe this is The Big Question really. Why do these disenfranchised people vote Republican, when anyone, even a child, can tell you that conservative politicians, conservative governments, in general, are actively opposed to helping out the most needy? Especially in the southern US with its traditional attitude of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.

Why have millions of people in a modern nation chosen a backwards way of looking at...well, everything really.

This mystery has been presented to me in many ways, frequently (mostly) by Americans themselves, including those living in the areas in question. This is not a foreigner asking the question. But I ask it too, because I want to get past my prejudice. I think I have an answer.

Some of is historical, and some is fear of change (q.v. definition of conservative, again). Partly, the answer is they don't know why they do it, any more than we do. They just do, because they have a conservative attitude, so they seek conservative representation. And partly it is because they are poorly educated, as I've said. So, not only do they not know any better, they don't know that they don't know. But instead of finding out, they avoid education. They eschew it for themselves, and they aren't actively seeking it for the next generation. In fact, by voting as they do, they demonstrate that they oppose better education. And round and round it goes.

People get caught in a loop. Ignorance leads to bad choices, and those bad choices lead to ignorance. Which is bad enough on an individual level, but when the local culture encourages that, it's awfully hard to escape, unless you think outside the box. But most don't do that, because the opportunities and motivation are not available to them. Loop.

The only way to stop this is to interfere by educating them, by inserting information, as it were, but it's a bit like putting a stick through the wheel of a bicycle. It'll stop. It'll stop very fast, but the rider won't. Ever watched that? My husband and my daughter both have scars on their chins from learning to fly the quick way. Anyway, that sudden stop leads to a lot of pain.

The modern world, especially the internet, is that stick. People are discovering not only what they didn't know before, they are learning how much more they don't know, and they are asking questions. So there truly is hope out there. Today's kids are far more worldly, far more open to change, far less likely to be prejudiced, far more likely to want to have a broad education. But we are a long way from where we need to be, because it's scary to think outside the box, it scary even to peek out. You may get hurt. And without information, it's just really, really hard to do.

Like it or not, the world has changed and is changing. You are going to meet lots of different people and you do need to try to relate to them, to get along. We can no longer shrug off the "quaint" prejudices of the more insular places, allowances will not be made for those who don't know any better, because it has all become a choice.

It must begin, however with children. It must begin with education. It must be broad and it must be good. It must inspire instead of bore them. It must raise them up instead of putting them down. It must make them want to learn more. Knowledge leads to good choices, and good choices lead to more knowledge. It's harder to remain ignorant and stuck in old mindsets when the local culture encourages personal growth and awareness. Once you start thinking outside the box you tend to pull others out with you. Escape.


  1. Wait. Are you saying people who hold different political views from you are uneducated and stupid and need to be educated because then they will feel the same as you?

    1. Please tell me that's not what you meant.

    2. Yes and no. Firstly, as I said, these aren't really "political views", they are attitudes that can lead to specific voting habits, certainly, but they just happen to bear the same names as the categories we put politics into, for historical reasons. The idea of a person being a liberal (small l) existed long before we had political distinctions (big L) that led to the formation of parties in democratic systems. For example, if you go back far enough, to a tribal system, an absolute hereditary leader (chief/king) and you had no say in how things were run (politics) you could still have views/attitudes that can legitimately be classified as liberal or conservative. An example would be if you opposed the young members of the tribe wearing two rows of beads instead of one. That is a conservative attitude. It's not politics. The chief doesn't give a damn.

      And if you took that tribesman, and helped him understand that it was no big deal, beads are just beads, it does not harm the individual or the tribe, and spent some time explaining why all this is, you have just educated him, and you have probably caused him to be a tiny bit less conservative. (Depends how stubborn he is.)

      If it were a true political view it would be somewhat different, it would be perhaps arguing with the chief over "foreign policy", should you kill the neighbouring tribe or not, and while education (information) might help decide that, two people with equal information could easily go head to head for a whole load of other reasons. When we are talking about real political decision-making, those in charge are generally equals.

      Do I think racists are stupid? Yes. Do I think they need education? Yes. Do I think it would be a good idea to educate those who are racist, and help them to become less racist, like me? Damn straight I do. And on a more subtle level, I think people who oppose universal health care are just not understanding it, so the same applies, and I have seen the light bulb go on in their eyes, so I know the effect of education here.

      And I think this matters, because whether it's just information (education) helping us understand our neighbours a bit better, and being more tolerant and generous towards them (liberal attitudes) it also matters in the big picture because if the West and the Muslim World are ever to make peace, they have to learn more about each other, i.e. the truth (education) and this will move them both to a more liberal attitude. Do I think not bothering to this is stupid? Yes. It does so much harm.

      And thank you for asking :) I obviously wasn't as clear as I thought!