Words

We use words all the time. There is a bottomless well of words, a huge mountain of them. There is a never-ending supply of words. Like anything else that is all around us and that we take for granted, we waste words because we see them never running out.

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We never think we have to watch them carefully, but words can teach and inform, or they can conceal and perpetuate lies.

Words can wound or words can heal.

Words can speak to people half a world away, or be whispered into someone’s ear.

Words can bring down governments and send the world to war, and words can bring people together and heal divisions.

Words can soothe troubled minds and words can reopen old wounds.

Words are powerful weapons and words are a lover’s touch.

Words are laughter and words are bitter tears.

Words are pleasure and words are torment.

Words are just…words, but…

The wise use words carefully, for they may have consequences far beyond the intention of the user.

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A Letter To The Editor

I don’t write to national newspapers, not any more.

I used to, occasionally, and then I had a short letter published a couple of years ago. An opinion piece, of course.

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And it will not have altered how even one single person thought about that particular issue.

Guardian readers write to the Guardian. Telegraph readers write to the Telegraph. What good does that actually do?

You can open any one one of the daily papers, and be fairly certain of the point of view of a writer to the letters page. There may be differences of detail, but usually not of any substance. It is possible that in some newspapers, the editorial process rejects any letters that go against their particular outlook. I don’t know. I suspect that at least ninety nine percent of the letters they receive agree with what they have printed, in any case.

And to save the bother of reading the letters, you might as well just read the opinion pieces in the newspaper the day before.

I would argue that the letters page is a complete waste of time.

When someone writes to the letters page of their chosen national newspaper, they are doing two things: First, they are preaching to the converted and, second, they are failing to hear any counter argument.

Listening to the counter argument allows us to identify flaws in our thinking, and countering it allows us to strengthen our position, hopefully influencing the opinions of those with whom we hold a discussion. That does not happen in national newspapers, however.

Of course, I am quite prepared to learn that there are some national newspapers that break this mould; I have not read them all, not even in the UK (at least, not for some years, now).

Social media, though. This is where you will reach those who think differently to you. And there are additional advantages in that you can publish your opinions without having to get them through a selection process, and there is always the possibility that many people will share them, so they might reach a very wide audience.

And, naturally, by doing so, you run the risk of having your opinions and theories ripped to pieces and shot down. Assuming that this happens in a respectful way, you then have the option to examine the opposing view and either accept it or counter it.

Where am I going with this? Well, it’s my opinion…

An Alien Culture?

More people travel for leisure purposes today than have ever done so in the past. And many work abroad on short- or long-term contracts, often with a certain amount of leisure time available to experience the culture that surrounds them there.

And this will result in these travellers meeting the people that make up the indigenous society where, for a while, they find themselves. Will there then be a meeting of minds?

Having lived in an ex-pat society, as I have referred to on here before, I am familiar with the laager mentality that often pervades it. I won’t go into all the permutations, but there is frequently a combination of arrogance and fear that leads to a strong feeling of ‘us and them’.

Many travel with the firm conviction that their own society is superior to any other, and are unwilling to see any good at all in any others. Some who go away to work resent being uprooted, and arrive with that resentment packed in their baggage. Some find the experience to be fearful, if they do not understand the language being spoken around them or assume that this alien society has values that somehow threaten them.

And they can either lock themselves away and peer over the barricades, or they can embrace the experience and learn from it.

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Travel broadens the mind, it is said, but sometimes it seems to just cement prejudices more firmly in place.

And how easy it is to travel around just looking for things to justify prejudices!

One of the more infuriating things that I come across occasionally is a bigoted and ignorant letter or article in a local newspaper (it often tends to be the local ones) where someone’s idiot views are justified by the phrase ‘I know; I was there’. I imagine them living their entire time in a foreign country in a compound that they rarely leave, yet thinking that they now know exactly how the society functions beyond their walls.

I’ve met one or two of them, over the years.

I spent three years in Oman, working, and I’ve travelled fairly extensively in India, but I do not imagine or pretend that I really have much more than a superficial experience of these places. I knew little of the local culture in Oman beyond what I could see in the streets and villages and markets that I visited. I didn’t know anyone well enough to spend time at their homes or in their social circles. I went with groups of other westerners to places of interest. I did spend a lot of time exploring the desert and the nearby towns on my own, but I was effectively still inside my own little bubble. It is a huge regret that I never got deeper under the surface.

I have, perhaps, managed to learn a little more about the real India, especially through spending time on a project in a village, although I cannot pretend, even to myself, that I really have any idea of what it is like to actually live in an Indian village.

During the later days of the British Raj, the rulers took the approach that their civilisation was naturally superior, and that there was nothing in Indian civilisation worthy of their consideration. The irony of this is that around the end of the eighteenth century, and the first years of the nineteenth, many of the British in India had taken a keen interest in Indian history and culture, themselves doing a tremendous amount to unearth much of the history that had been lost and forgotten. For that comparatively brief period, it would seem that many of the British treated Indians and their culture with a deep respect.

The reasons that this changed are probably deeper than my understanding, but two things stand out. Firstly, that from the beginning of the nineteenth century, many British women came to India in search of husbands, bringing with them what we tend to think of as Victorian attitudes, and secondly, there was an upsurge of evangelism in Britain, which translated itself in India as a movement to convert the ‘heathens’ to Christianity. These combined as a new feeling of superiority, and contempt for a society that was now seen as inferior, especially when much of it resisted their overtures.

With this, the British as a whole seemed to become more intolerant and arrogant, and less respectful of sensibilities. This culminated in the horrors of 1857, which could be said to be caused directly by these attitudes.

To return to the present day, it seems that many travellers have attitudes no better than their Victorian predecessors’. I wrote a post a few months back that mentioned a number of westerners I came across in a Himalayan hill resort, https://mickcanning.co/2015/10/25/the-mad-woman-of-the-hill-station/  should you wish to view it, whose behaviour and attitudes were just downright arrogant and disrespectful. They were doing no more than confirming their prejudices as they travelled, and at the same time I daresay they were confirming many people’s views of western travellers.

Yet there are many people who travel with open ears, open eyes and an open mind, and their rewards are far greater than those of the blinkered traveller. They have the wonderful opportunity to experience and learn about different cultures at first hand, speak to people who hold different beliefs and ideals to them, and perhaps learn a little of what drives them. In return, they have an opportunity to enlighten others, perhaps, to things in their own society that might not be understood by those others. In a small way, each and every one of them can choose to contribute either to different societies coming to understand and become more tolerant, or to the further spread of tensions, mistrust, and misunderstandings.

And all of these little interactions, added together, are as important and influential as the contacts between politicians and diplomats.

The Language Barrier

As part of its strategy to counter extremism, the British Government has today announced its intention to fund a plan to help all migrants to this country learn English. For once, I think that this is a plan to applaud.

For the inability to speak and understand the language of others around you fosters fear, misunderstanding and distrust.

Having lived in an ex-patriot community myself, I remember how easy it is to become persuaded by others that you are somehow surrounded by ‘enemies’, and to develop a laager mentality. This mindset takes it as a given that everyone outside of the circle does not understand you, they are somehow ‘against’ you, and forever plotting to attack or undermine you, so you sit there muttering darkly about these ‘outsiders’, and voicing your dislike and prejudices against them…it becomes a cycle of mistrust that can possibly become violent.

It is another example of the saying that we hate what we fear, and we fear what we do not understand. And when someone is trapped in a limited social circle because they cannot understand anyone outside of that circle, their chances of becoming a full member of the wider community are severely limited.

Having travelled in non-English speaking countries, I realise how much easier life becomes for me when I make the effort to learn even a small amount of the language.

There will be some who refuse to learn the language on the grounds that they feel that they are there temporarily, possibly working on a short term contract, and can get away with using their own language in a limited circle of work, shopping and socialising.

And there will be some for whom it is a matter of pride to use only their birth language.

I think that both of these viewpoints are mistaken.

Writers understand only too well the importance of language. We worry over whether to use this or that word or phrase to get our meaning across; we worry over whether the way we have worded something may be misunderstood. But when you are attempting to communicate with others in a language that you only vaguely understand, every single conversation is full of these fears.

And when that is the norm, it becomes easier just to avoid any situations where you have to try to use that language.

But it does not actually take much to overcome these fears. Perhaps accepting an invitation to visit to someone’s home, or their place of worship, will lead naturally to conversations where people can learn about each other. But the essential thing is to be able to communicate, which becomes next to impossible without at least a few words of a language in common.