Anarchy loosed upon the world

It was a warm and sunny afternoon -a wonderful day to find a park bench and read my book. I had the perfect place in mind, too: a lonely meadow surrounded by trees overlooking the ocean just outside the city. I could divide my face between book and breeze, birds singing in the trees, and ships passing quietly on the horizon -retirement pleasures.

It was the middle of the week and the park was almost empty, except for a couple sitting on a bench while their child played quietly in the grass in front of them. They looked up at me and smiled pleasantly when I sat on the bench beside theirs and then continued their conversation. Their little girl, who had been talking to a doll she was holding, stared at her parents for a moment, and then stood up and walked slowly over to me.

She spoke softly, and I couldn’t really hear what she said, but she was obviously more curious than afraid. She couldn’t have been more than two or three years old and her long black hair danced merrily over a grey sweatshirt that was only partially still tucked into her jeans. I had to chuckle at the earnest expression on her face as she examined me where I sat. Finally, after a quick glance at her parents, she raised her ragged cloth doll to show it to me.

I smiled warmly, delighted at the gesture, and nodded my head to show her I liked the doll. Her eyes twinkled with pleasure and she touched the doll’s hand to my knee.

The father seemed nervous though, and I could tell he was watching me closely. “Sorry, mister,” he said when our eyes met. “She and mother just here,” he continued in a heavy accent. He beckoned to his little girl, obviously embarrassed that she might be bothering me. “Haya,” he called, and the little girl ran over to him, laughing, and then began to play with the doll again on the grass in front of them.

I settled in to read my book, but found myself too distracted by the gentle breeze, and the sun glinting off the white collars of waves rolling in from the open sea. When I looked up again, I noticed that another man was sitting on the only other bench and staring rudely at the couple. He seemed upset, for some reason.

“Where are you from?” he asked -although it sounded like the demand a suspicious policeman might issue, rather than a question.

I suppose I am naïve, or perhaps too accustomed to different cultures from my years as an obstetrician, but it was only then that it occurred to me that his wife was wearing a hijab, although the husband was casually dressed in western attire.

The father smiled to diffuse the man’s tone. “Aleppo,” he answered.

But the man screwed up his forehead as if the word meant nothing to him.

“Syria,” the father added, his smile less certain now.

“And do you make your wife wear the headscarf?” The man’s tone was not friendly.

The father seemed at once perplexed, and perhaps offended that a stranger would talk to him that way, but he managed to keep the smile on his face. “I… Eva only just here…”

The man was scowling at him now, and I could see he was about to say something about that, when the woman raised her eyes from her lap and stared at him. “I choose to wear the hijab,” she said in flawless English. “Is that a problem for you, sir?”

The man clearly did not expect that, and his expression changed from irritation to surprise. He shook his head slowly, a little embarrassed I thought. “No…” I could tell he was trying to think of something to say, now that he realized the woman was fluent in English. “But you’re in Canada now… Why would you still choose to wear it?”

She smiled a patient smile -as if she were a teacher dealing with a slow student. “Would you choose to wear something different if you found yourself in Aleppo?”

The man was clearly taken aback, and looked at the little girl for a moment as he considered his answer. “But… But the scarf-thing makes you stand out here…”

Her smile grew as he spoke. “Is it the ‘scarf-thing’, or is it my brown skin, or maybe my husband’s accent…? “ She glanced at her husband and said something to him in Arabic that I couldn’t hear, let alone understand. “We are different, sir.” The man stared at his lap, and I think he was blushing. “So, would you like us to choose a different bench, or a different country?”

He looked up from his lap and stared at her. “I… I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”

“Yes, you did, sir. And isn’t it interesting that when you actually talk to one of us, you find another human answering back?” She whispered something to her husband and he smiled at her. “You know, we’re grateful to be in Canada, but in truth, we would have gone to any country that was safe if it had taken us in. We were just the fortunate ones that got chosen by your country.”

“I… I really didn’t mean to…”

The woman shook her head vehemently and the floral patterns on her maroon hijab jumped back and forth. “Yes, I think you did…” But at that point her face relaxed and her eyes softened. “I think we needed to have this conversation, you know. Sometimes you have to confront things head on, don’t you think? Clear the air…” She stood up and walked over to the man, her husband in tow. “I’m called Eva,” she said as the man rose to greet them. “And this is Rifat.”

Rifat extended his hand in greeting.

The man finally smiled and shook the proffered hand. “And I’m George. I’m so sorry I’ve been rude…” He was about to say something more when he noticed a tug on his coat. As he looked down to see what it was, the little girl stared up at him and touched his leg with the doll’s arm. Even from my distance away, I could see his eyes brighten and his entire face become a smile.

Are we unreasonable? I’m not a sociologist, but the recent upheavals in the public domain certainly do not reassure me. When the falcon cannot hear the falconer, things fall apart, as Yeats came to believe. And yet, although incivility seems to be spreading like a virus, does this really signal something bad? Something untenable?

I cannot say that the populist trends in societal discourse cause me to fear Armageddon, but I am old now; History is my companion, and Time has perhaps dimmed the consequences that may hide ahead. I was, however, both heartened and intrigued by the essay of Steven Klein, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Florida, in the online publication, Aeon: https://aeon.co/ideas/against-civility-or-why-habermas-recommends-a-wild-public-sphere

‘In democracies around the world, anxious commentators exhort their fellow citizens to be more open-minded, more willing to engage in good-faith debate. In our era of hyperpolarisation, social-media echo chambers and populist demagogues, many have turned to civility as the missing ingredient in our public life.

‘So, how important is civility for democracy? According to one of the greatest theorists of the democratic public sphere, the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, not very. For Habermas, the function of public debate is not to find a reasonable common ground. Rather, the public sphere ‘is a warning system’, a set of ‘sensors’ that detect the new needs floating underneath the surface of a supposed political consensus. And if we worry too much about civility and the reasonable middle, we risk limiting the ability of the public sphere to detect new political claims.’

‘Consensus is not the highest good… Democracy, according to Habermas, requires a vibrant political sphere and political institutions that are able to respond to and incorporate the energy that arises from debate, protest, confrontation and politics.’

The more I think about Habermas’ contention that argument and disagreement are necessary bricks in societal progress, the more I understand importance of challenging what we have come to believe. We are all unfinished paintings, and unless we step back from the canvas from time to time, we lose perspective; we lose the ability to see what others see. We become the pentimento we are trying to cover up.

Sometimes the Twain Should Meet

That we are, each of us, different is a given; that societies and the cultures they produce are different, is also self-evident. But that any one individual picked at random should be representative of that difference is another matter. We humans tend to be bicameral when and if it suits us. For example: my Asian friend is clever and devious, so most Asians are probably clever and devious (inductive reasoning); but at other times: everybody knows the French are rude, so perhaps I should not hire that French person (deductive reasoning).

How much credence can we put in either type of reasoning when it comes to judging world views of different cultures? There was an interesting article in BBC News about this a while ago: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170118-how-east-and-west-think-in-profoundly-different-ways  And as you can imagine, the issue is complex: ‘From the broad differences between East and West, to subtle variation between U.S. states, it is becoming increasingly clear that history, geography and culture can change how we all think, in subtle and surprising ways – right down to our visual perception. Our thinking may even have been shaped by the kinds of crops our ancestors used to farm, and a single river may mark the boundaries between two different cognitive styles.’

‘[…] our “social orientation” appears to spill over into more fundamental aspects of reasoning. People in more collectivist societies tend to be more ‘holistic’ in the way they think about problems, focusing more on the relationships and the context of the situation at hand, while people in individualistic societies tend to focus on separate elements, and to consider situations as fixed and unchanging.’

For example: ‘An eye-tracking study by Richard Nisbett at the University of Michigan found that participants from East Asia tend to spend more time looking around the background of an image – working out the context – whereas people in America tended to spend more time concentrating on the main focus of the picture.’ So, ‘[…] this narrow or diverse focus directly determines what we remember of a scene at a later date.’ But because things like these seem to be so widely dispersed in a population, is it a genetic difference, or merely a learned, culturally favoured response? ‘Alex Mesoudi at the University of Exeter recently profiled the thinking styles of British Bangladeshi families in East London. He found that within one generation, the children of immigrants had started to adopt some elements of the more individualistic outlook, and less holistic cognitive styles. Media use, in particular, tended to be the biggest predictor of the shift. “It tended to be more important than schooling in explaining that shift.”’

The article goes on to suggest several theories as to why the so-called East-West differences arose in the first place -everything from epidemics, to types of crops grown by different populations, but the problem still remains: the differences lie on a spectrum –‘broad trends across vast numbers of people’. And yet even so, especially in small interpersonal discussions –dare I say ‘arguments’?- we are very likely to use whatever generalization makes our point.

But, for many of us, that tends to preclude any semblance of critical analysis. It’s far easier to succumb to the prevailing opinion without questioning the reasons for its presence, let alone its validity. And it’s not just the so-called East/West divide –the potential seems to arise whenever any culture examines another. Perhaps an example that stands out clearly in contemporary life, is that of the hijab –the headscarf. Sometimes the objections are couched in religiosecular terms of course, but they often boil down to simple perspective –Weltanschauung.

Aaisha, a Muslim friend of mine recently decided to wear the hijab, and although there were no prohibitive policies or objections from her bosses at work, she encountered resistance from a source she had not anticipated –her co-workers.

Some of it was just petty –“Why would you want to cover your hair?” one woman said to her, adding “It’s so beautiful” no doubt to take the sting out of her rudeness. But the woman had never complimented her hair before, so it rang hollow to Aaisha.

And then she told me about another, a man who had just joined the company a few months before and who seemed quite uncomfortable with hijab and glared at her whenever he passed her desk. Finally, she decided to talk to him about it.

“You keep staring at me, Jeffrey,” she said, smiling confidently as she walked up to his desk. “I get the impression you’re unhappy about something.”

He acted surprised at first, and then his scowl returned and he pointed at her head. “You didn’t used to wear that scarf, Aaisha,” he said, trying to keep his tone friendly.

Her smile broadened and she pointed to his tie. “I don’t remember you wearing that tie before, either, Jeffrey.”

He blinked uncomprehendingly. “It’s just a tie. I wear different ties all the time…”

She didn’t skip a beat. “It’s just a hijab,” she said, obviously proud of the word and pointing to her head.. “And you may have noticed, I also wear different ones all the time…”

His eyes narrowed and his forehead wrinkled. “A tie is different, Aaisha…”

She waited for him to continue, but he seemed to think his answer was complete –and for him, it probably was. Finally, she decided to ask the obvious question. “Oh…?  And how is it different?”

He actually rolled his eyes at the stupidity of the question. “It’s what men are expected to wear to work.”

The smile never left her face and she pointed to another man at the next desk. “John never wears a tie…”

Jeffrey shrugged. “We’re different, that’s all… And anyway, I’m my own person.”

Aaisha stood there, for a moment, and then blinked. “And so am I, I guess…”

Jeffrey seemed surprised at her answer, then shook his head. “Nobody makes me wear the tie…”

At this point, Aaisha laughed. “And nobody makes me wear a hijab, Jeffrey.”

He didn’t seem to know how to react. “But… Well, how about your husband?”

She shook her head, still smiling. “I’m not married… And my father and brothers are still back in England -just in case you want to involve them,” she added with a laugh.

Jeffrey began to sense he was losing the argument. “It’s a family tradition -and also a society thing- Aaisha. My father always wore a tie to work –and his father before him…” But his voice was less confident.

Aisha sighed. “Should I tell you about my mother, and her sisters? They all wore the hijab back in London –and not because they were forced to, they’d be quick to tell you. They just felt more a part of the community wearing hijab, so it, too, was a society-thing as you called it…”

He blinked, but slowly. “Your society, Aaisha, not ours!”

The smile returned, and she nodded her head towards John again. “And what about John? Does he belong to another society, as well? We’re all immigrants, Jeff; we’re all other if you go back a generation or two. And thank god we don’t all have to dress the same,” she said, touching the sleeve of his fraying shirt with her hand and winking coyly at him.

And for the first time, he smiled at her.