Society is no comfort to one not sociable

The curse of modern society may be our need to discover patterns. Our need to explain everything could be an honest atavism, but the reasons we find may be way off the mark. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc, is a common fallback position that is often useful when the gun is not smoking -or when there’s no gun.

I suppose societies have always faced threats, though. And whether from without or within, they have always looked for remediable causes; the death of a society means the termination of shared customs at the very least, and shared loyalties just as probably -the sense of an us pitted against an implacable them who do not understand us.

Just as frightening, however, is an adversary who does not share our basic humanity. In an interesting article written by Nabeelah Jaffer, who is a former associate editor at Aeon, https://aeon.co/essays/loneliness-is-the-common-ground-of-terror-and-extremism  she discusses ‘the inner dialogue’ which the philosopher Hannah Arendt writes about in The Origins of Totalitarianism. ‘We speak in two voices.’ Jaffer says of Arendt’s ideas. ‘It is this internal dialogue that allows us to achieve independent and creative thought – to weigh strong competing imperatives against each other.  You engage in it every time you grapple with a moral dilemma. Every clash of interests, every instance of human difference evokes it. True thought, for Arendt, involved the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. True loneliness, therefore, was the opposite. It involved the abrupt halting of this internal dialogue: ‘the loss of one’s own self’ – or rather, the loss of trust in oneself as the partner of one’s thoughts. True loneliness means being cut off from a sense of human commonality and therefore conscience.’

‘Loneliness is the common ground of terror’, as Arendt says. ‘It was loneliness, Arendt argued, that helped Eichmann and countless others … to give themselves over to totalitarian ideologies and charismatic strongmen. These totalitarian ideologies are designed to appeal to those who struggle with the internal moral dialogue that Arendt valued as the highest form of thought … Totalitarian ideas offer a ‘total explanation’ – a single idea is sufficient to explain everything. Independent thought is rendered irrelevant.’ So is the inner dialogue.

This got me wondering about what I see when I wander the streets of my city, and what I read and hear as people attempt to explain seemingly senseless crimes -especially violent ones- and attribute motive, usually in retrospect, to so-called ‘loners’. Not to loneliness, you understand, but to loners, an ostensibly different, more malignant, and ‘I should have guessed’ variety of human who does things of which you and I could barely conceive. But, I don’t know that the average person understands the difference between ‘loneliness’ and ‘loner’ -or even thinks it might be important.

As sometimes happens, I emptied the change in my pocket into a hat lying on the sidewalk in front of a young man. He was sitting quietly, eyes closed, in torn jeans and a dirty grey sweatshirt on a busy corner with his dog. The roughly printed sign by the hat merely said ‘We Are Hungry! Will You Help?’

He must have sensed someone stopping in front of him because he opened his eyes and smiled as I put the change in his hat. I was about to walk away when it occurred to me to ask about the ‘We’ in the sign. I don’t know why it mattered, to tell the truth; I suppose I was just trying to be friendly.

“Where’s the ‘We’?” I asked, trying not to sound too nosey.

His smile grew as he pointed to the sleeping dog at his side. I think I blushed at the naïveté of my question, but he didn’t seem at all surprised. “When the sign just said ‘I’m Hungry’ most people only walked by and pretended they didn’t see either me or Jason. I was only another runaway kid trying to get money for drugs, or something…” He shrugged resignedly, as if this was just life on the streets. “But they had no idea what it’s like -and even worse, they didn’t care.”

He reached over and patted the dog -a black lab, I think- and received a couple of tail wags for his effort. “I thought maybe letting them know I had a dog to feed might help…”

He wasn’t a menacing-looking boy -his auburn hair looked clean and combed, and although his face was definitely in need of a little soap, his expression was friendly and, well, innocent.

“And did changing the sign help?”

He seemed to think about it for a while, then nodded, and his eyes sought mine for a moment. “Well, you stopped to talk to me…”

That caught me by surprise. “Doesn’t anybody usually talk to you?” I felt foolish saying it, but the words tumbled out before I had time to think about them.

The expression on his face answered for him: ‘Are you kidding?’ it said. But I could tell he felt he should explain it to me. “I’m a beggar on the street -an eyesore for most people- so I spend my days in silence, just trying not to look frustrated. Trying not to annoy…”

He studied my face for a minute, obviously wondering whether or not it was worthwhile discussing it any further. Whether I would listen. “But I have Jason,” -he patted the dog again- “And he has me, so neither of us is lonely.”

For a moment, I felt I had entered his world. “And what about at night? Do you stay with friends, or…”

He shook his head and chuckled. “It’s just Jason and me. I’ve really never needed much more.”

I could tell by his face that he felt I was discouraging others from contributing to his hat, so I smiled and wished him good luck. But as I turned to walk away he looked up at me again, his eyes fluttered around me like little sparrows looking for a branch, and wondering if they should perch. “Loners are humans, too,” he said, and his face lit up with the joy of an inner dialogue he simply could not disguise. “Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, mister,” he added, just before he closed his eyes again to wait in daylong silence. But I was left with the impression that our words, as much as my money, were important in his world. And I couldn’t help wondering what those who never stopped to talk would think of him.

For that matter, I wonder what Arendt would have thought.

Advertisements

The itsy bitsy teenie weenie?

I am no longer simply bemused at the secular paranoia that seems to be growing like Topsy in the Western world; I am becoming irritated; I am becoming annoyed that it is now even conflating fashion with politics and spreading like blight in a deliberately monocultured crop. Pick your battles, folks –this is a demeaning one. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/16/burkini-ban-defended-as-french-mayors-urged-to-cool-local-tensions?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

Or is it just silly: burkini -coined merely to suggest the word ‘burka’ and also contrast it with its other ‘ini’ cousin the bikini? An attempt to denigrate opposites? Have we grown so accustomed to less being more on the beach, that more is now less? Have we already forgotten how shocking the bikini was when it first appeared in the middle of the last century? How it was banned from many beaches then, and declared sinful by no less an authority than the Vatican?

Admittedly, the bikini reveals considerably more of the female anatomy and no doubt arouses different sorts of… well, passions, shall we say, than the iteration I’m discussing. But some of the burkini styles and colours are quite beautiful and, at least from my prairie -and admittedly male perspective- far more attractive than the burka parent. It is, for all intents and purposes, a tempest in a teapot.

Terrorist events in France have undoubtedly kindled a controversy over an issue that would otherwise have been merely a dispute over aesthetics –“Why would anybody want to wear something like that, on a beach? It must be so hot…” And that would have been that. Except for the resistance of some governments to clothing with even a hint of religious affiliation, the burkini would have quietly slipped into normalcy – become as obvious as nose-rings or purple hair. A barely noticeable mise-en-scène.

Of course there was that skirmish on a Corsican beach in August between some villagers and three Muslim families: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/15/corsica-mayor-bans-burkini-violence-beach-protests-sisco-france  But, interestingly, it was not at all certain whether any of the women were wearing burkinis at the time… The mayor decided to ban them anyway.

I can understand the reason… sort of. The idea, presumably, was to defuse tensions -not draw attention to cultural or religious differences in a time of us and them. Even when, in fact, they are actually us. The problem, I suspect, is that we are living in an inter regnum –a time when differences, no matter how picayune or superficial, may assume larger than life proportions –a significance that, when viewed years hence, might seem recondite –if not puerile. But it’s all very confusing, not to mention counterproductive, even now.

Surely inclusivity engenders familiarity and acceptance –on both sides. Banning something often breeds resistance and anger. And banning an innocent article of clothing is both capricious and inflammatory. If there were ever anything that could engender feelings of separation and non-acceptance, it is the belittling of the honest attempts of a culture to adapt to something that so enamours the population in which it is enmeshed -something that allows Muslims to visit beaches while letting them adjust their customs to what may never have been envisioned as a desirable or even feasible activity by their ancestors.

I remember a patient of mine that had a different take on the issue. Fatima was a devout Muslim woman who had nonetheless adopted many of the dress codes, so familiar on our streets. I was seeing her and her husband for antenatal care in their first pregnancy and once they both realized that I was nothing to be feared, we were able to talk openly about many things other than her pregnancy.

At the beginning, for example, she would always arrive wearing the more inclusive covering of a niqab –albeit a colorfully patterned one. Then she began wearing a hijab to our visits. I asked her why.

I remember she looked at me and her eyes twinkled as her mouth wrinkled into a shy smile. I noticed her husband was smiling, too.

She immediately shrugged, as if it was an unimportant observation on my part. “I wanted you to know when I was smiling,” she said mischievously. Then, her eyes suddenly became the interrogators –gentle inquisitors- and hovered about my face for a moment. “And quit looking at him,” she giggled. “He’s terrible at choosing clothes anyway…” It was a good-natured rebuke; Fatima evidently disliked our western stereotypes.

Although it was her husband that was the reason for her presence in Canada –he was doing some post-doctoral research in oceanography- Fatima was also fluent in English and more observant about our own vagaries than I was.

It was a hot summer that year, and conversation naturally turned to Vancouver’s love of its beaches.

“I really don’t understand Vancouverites,” she said with a laugh. “They flock to the beach and strip down so they can lie on the hot sand like wieners on a barbecue…” We all laughed. “I think it’s just a fad, though,” she added, her face turning serious for a second.

I nodded. “Maybe someday, someone will design beach clothing that is comfortable and cool, but still protects them from the sun…” I said it without thinking, I have to admit.

“We already have,” she said and winked.

How parochial we can be in this country, despite the vaunted cultural mosaic of which we are so demonstrably proud.

Cultures change –but more slowly than fashions. Maybe the rest of us will someday find ourselves covering up more of our skin on beaches to prevent UV damage; mothers are already dressing up their toddlers as they muck about in the sand… Beaches themselves are a fashion, after all. There was a time not so long ago when people feared the sea and –at least in Britain- only aristocrats seeking the putative benefits of both spa and beach for reasons of health were able to afford the areas where this was offered. In time, of course, the rabble followed and now we merely view beaches as de rigueur. But given the fickleness of contemporary life, perhaps this too shall pass, as the adage has it.

Fortunately, however, France’s highest court has allowed us to breathe deeply again, and step back a few paces for now -it has decided to suspend the ban on burkinis: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-37198479 Sadly, the issue has not yet been put to bed; there is still considerable resistance among politicians and elements of the population who fear an upheaval of the status quo, and a slide into the morass of sectarianism. Several mayors have even threatened to ignore the ruling.

French law notwithstanding, it seems to me that the noticeability of an article of clothing like the burkini should not merit more than a transient raising of an eyebrow –if that- and certainly not a clash of Civilizations. Its proscription will not discourage terrorism, but perhaps its approval might. Who knows what a welcome might do to a culture so long viewed as other: strangers in a strange land…?