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.

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.

Where has everyone gone?

A very short post, this week, because I would appreciate some feedback on what I have written.

Having had very little traffic to my site since putting up my last blog post, I am curious to find out why.

I don’t think that anyone could have been offended by it, but did it, perhaps, come across as being too political?

Did I test the patience of my readers by taking the subject into a second week? Perhaps most people felt that everything that needed to be said, had been said the first week.

Could it have been seen as *takes a deep breath, crosses fingers behind back* boring?

Please tell me. I won’t be offended!

We need to talk

I want to continue the thread that I explored in my previous post; in that, I wrote in favour of reasoned discussion as opposed to bigoted diatribe.

As an exercise, one could take a topic on which one holds strong views, and then honestly attempt to find arguments that support the opposing view.

As an example, let’s look at the ‘little local difficulties’ currently occurring in the Ukraine. The narrative in the west appears to be that the Russians are entirely to blame for both the tensions and the conflict there, and it is difficult to find much sensible consideration of the Russian view of the matter.

So here goes.

In 1945, at the end of WWII, Western Europe was divided from Communist Eastern Europe by a border that ran between what was then West and East Germany, giving the then Soviet Union a large protective buffer from what it viewed as the aggressive Western powers. After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, virtually all of the eastern European countries joined both the EU and NATO. Gradually, Russia then began again to make threatening noises, feeling that it was all but encircled and under attack. When the Ukraine applied for a pathway membership of NATO, strongly encouraged by the West, many in Russia felt that this was the last straw. The Ukraine has a long and complicated historical relationship with Russia, and about a quarter of its population see itself as Russian. The Crimea, which Russia effectively sized in 2014, had been historically part of Russia since 1783, only given to the Ukraine in 1954, and the vast majority of its inhabitants wanted to return to Russian rule.

So the Crimea, then, was viewed both by Russians, and also by many in the Ukraine, as historically Russian territory. The west was regarded as an enemy who was attempting to drive its tanks right up to the Russian border, and who had already subverted most of the old Soviet states.

This was the situation when hostilities began to escalate. Does it justify Russian actions in the Ukraine? Probably not. Does it help to explain them? Certainly. Might there have been a different narrative if the Western powers had understood the Russian point of view? Probably.

(There is, of course, the possibility that the Western Powers understood it only too well, but felt that it might be in their interests to foment unrest. But let’s assume that’s not the case.)

It may be that after looking at these arguments, or ones that you might come up with when interrogating another question, you decide yes, these other folk do have a point. Or you might think well, I can see why they say that, but I’m not impressed with the argument. Or even, who knows, you might be convinced by their point of view. But whatever the outcome, at least you should feel that you have thought about the problem in an honest and intelligent manner. And I think that discussion then is more likely to reasoned and civil.

It must be especially important to do this when one is exploring emotive issues such as US gun laws, euthanasia, or immigration, otherwise we just end up adding to the massive amounts of vitriol being sloshed around by all sides in these situations. It can then become the basis of conflict resolution.

I am right and you are wrong

I am right and you are wrong (regardless of whatever you are saying).

We are all human; we are all fallible and none of us are all-knowing. Most of us are beset by doubts, and we hold a number of conflicting opinions (which we usually try to pretend aren’t there). Is this a bad thing? Quite the opposite, I think.

We can only really grow in the company of people who challenge our beliefs. We can only really attain empathy for others when we understand where they are coming from. That is why it is, for example, so important to understand the reasons that terrorists carry out atrocities. Understanding is not the same as condoning. Understanding someone’s point of view, understanding why they hold that point of view; what events have shaped their lives, can only help us to a better understanding of how to deal with any conflict that this may produce. This is the way that conflict resolution works, and the way that we can work towards ensuring that in the future individuals or groups feel less inclined to resort to violence.

On countless opinion boards across the internet, countless posts seem to hammer home the point that there are no shades of opinion, only polarised beliefs. Whether it be political, religious, ethical living or even sport, it feels as though the only people who post comments, are those with extreme, unshakeable beliefs.

Just to contradict myself, though, for a moment, there are also plenty of posters, of course, who are constructive, questioning without being confrontational, willing to concede points, and even, heavens above, polite. They do seem to be in the minority, though.

But the predominant narrative does appear to be ‘this is my opinion, and I am right; I challenge anyone to dare to disagree with me!’ Does this all simply reflect a certainty that we are the only ones in the world who understand what is going on? That we have all of the relevant facts at our fingertips? That we are the experts on this or that subject? That anyone who disagrees with our opinion is a knave or a charlatan? It surely sounds ridiculous when put that way.

No one, as the saying goes, has a monopoly on the truth.

Phrases such as the ‘the voice of reason’ or ‘the voice of common sense’ prefacing an opinion piece are generally a warning that a bigoted piece of writing is following. Equally infuriating, I find, are ‘received wisdom’; such as ‘it is received wisdom that all left wing/right wing (delete according to your preference) politicians are out to feather their own nests and hate little fluffy animals and would probably eat babies if they had half a chance’ or something similar, or ‘everyone knows that…’ All of these are meaningless phrases, inserted into the piece in an attempt to justify the nonsense that the author is spouting.

To take a step sideways, slightly, there are the leaders who surround themselves with yes-men. This is generally considered to be a foolish move in a corporate situation, for a bad decision is unlikely to be challenged until it too late. And the nodding advisers are dismissed as sycophants.

It would also appear to be a common trait of dictators of whatever hue. Whether it is North Korea, Stalinist Russia or Hitler’s Germany, to contradict the great leader is usually a guarantee of a rapid and, often, most unpleasant end.

These are examples of where such blinkered certainty eventually leads us.