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:  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.


To Have, or not to Have

There are two worlds out there, two Magisteria. Two contrasting inclinations that pass each other on the street without a wave. Strangers who sometimes know each other well. They sit, unwittingly close to each other, in the waiting room of my office. They chat and smile obligingly, trusting that their ignorance of the other is no impediment to friendship, however brief. Indeed, there is no barrier, only a perspectival boundary: Weltanschauung.

And yet, I don’t want to make too much of the difference; it is often in flux, and can mutate even as we watch –Time has a way of adjusting viewpoints,  justifying decisions. We all try to vindicate ourselves in the end. Validation requires exculpation, does it not? Absolution in the eyes of those who matter…

So the stronger the tradition, the societal apologue, the more the justification and guilt assigned to those who stray from it. There is a sort of canniness in the collective –or at least strength. Acceptance… And it is easier to regress to the mean, than defy the group. Especially when it comes to attitudes towards pregnancy –or more specifically, the decision whether or not to have a baby.

I’ve just read an incredibly powerful  book, whose title captures some of the agony and guilt attending those who dare to deviate from societal expectations: Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed. It is a collection of 16 well-written and generally thoughtful essays -13 from women, and 3 from men- about choosing not to have children. None are from paedophobes; and only a few are from those who decry the notion of pregnancy in others. They are not outliers –except perhaps on a carefully constructed Bell Curve- nor could they be construed as deviant. Each has merely made a personal decision not to accept the tyranny of the Norm.

The essays took me back to the early days of my practice, when, as a newly minted obstetrician, the very idea that someone would not want to have a child at some stage in her life, was anathema… Well, perhaps curious would describe it better –memorable, at any rate. And yet, it was not unknown. It was always a difficult decision in those faraway times to accede to a request for sterilization in a young woman. Contraception, yes, and although this closed the door effectively, it did not lock it. We were suffocatingly parental in those days: we knew she might change her mind –she was young and inexperienced, after all. Like a child, she had to be protected; it was our responsibility to keep her future mutable and open. We –society- were the guardians of that door…

But there are surely two issues at play here. It is one thing to criticize a decision made prematurely –before the kaleidoscope of life has fully displayed, when the future is more chiaroscuroid, more obscure and uncertain- and another developed in that fullness of time when a considered, even retrospective analysis of the factors leading to the choice can bear fruit.

This, too, can seem arbitrary, I realize. Is there a difference between a thoughtful twenty-five year old woman who -in her mind at any rate- has weighed the risks and benefits of having a baby and decided against it, and a forty-five year old who, on looking back at the way her life has unfolded, is grateful and reconciled to never having a child? It is a vexing question on several levels, I think.

In these days of autonomy and non-maleficence when it is considered medically paternalistic and politically incorrect to suggest that a decision need not be vetted by experience, we forget the other ethical duty of a health care provider at our –her- peril: beneficence –serving the best interests of the patient. It seems to me that this entails both a mature and non-directive dialogue and a list of other, more malleable options that would not only adequately serve her needs, but would also allow for change at any stage. Some form of reliable and non-intrusive contraception, for example, might respect her desire to avoid pregnancy, and yet enable some flexibility should she change her mind, or harden her decision for a permanent solution.

But I have to confess that I am still troubled. On the one hand, it seems to me that wisdom is the ability to judge a situation based both on knowledge of what it entails, as well as experience of how it usually turned out in the past. It is why elders were revered in the days before the plethora of information technology that assails us today. I am trying not to be Ludditic here but what the elders contributed, that Google often does not, is digestion. Analysis over time and place. Evaluation. Information can be coloured by current trends and bent by traditional assumptions –but of course so can needs. We must not forget that.

I have always been leery of ‘facts’ divorced from context. Are they then still facts or do they inhabit some terra incognita we have yet to fully occupy? A territory of collation, a thesaurus that is able to list endless variations on whatever theme we decide applies to us, so we can pick and choose the reality we prefer?

It is not the decision to have, or not to have a child that should preoccupy us, but rather the reason it has been chosen. And for such an important life-changing resolution, the depth and –dare I say- maturity of  thought that has gone into the consideration is paramount. It is not, nor should be allowed to fall under, the purview of political correctness and thereby escape a more cautious and examined approach. There is no correct answer, no unquestionable myth that can justify any position. We may have a spur to prick the sides of our intent, to paraphrase Hamlet, but it is a different one for each of us. We must take care that we, and those we counsel, are not –Hamlet again- hoisted with our own petards.