Thursday, December 25, 2008

On Stories

Today, across the Christian world, people are celebrating the story of a baby boy, born in a barn, who went on to walk on water, turn water into wine, heal the sick and rise from the dead. They are celebrating as they have done for centuries - exchanging gifts, giving alms, going to church, eating and drinking. Or, in the case of the six year old boy sitting in the pew in front of me during mass, playing with their new plastic figurines of dragons and three headed snakes.

The, rather pagan, death match that seemed to be taking place between the snake and the dragon while the priest droned on about the miracle of Bethlehem, got me thinking from a child's eye view about stories. Earlier in the week I'd had a conversation with two psychologists about whether or not children can, from a cognitive point of view, deal with multiple stories. But they do so all the time. The story of a baby born in a manger who came to save the world nestles effortlessly next to the fable of a man who travels around the world in one night delivering toys to kids, which itself seems no more preposterous or believable than the tales of a sea sponge who lives in a place called Bikini Bottom (this is a reference to SpongeBob SquarePants for those who dont have under age siblings/cousins/a predilection for kid's cartoons). Children, without any difficultly or fuss, can do two things that adults struggle with; they believe in stories and they believe in many stories at the same time.

As we grow up, both of these abilities come under sustained attack. Santa is unmasked as an illusion, the stories of the Bible/Torah/Koran/Ramayana etc become quite preposterous by the light of rational day and books and films are clearly delineated into categories based on the degrees to which they relate to reality; fiction, non-fiction, based on true events. The lines harden between what is credible and what is not and jumping the fence, beyond rationality, requires faith. And in most cases sustaining that faith requires denying all other stories in their claims to validity. It is as though the leap required is so onerous that it simultaneously demands closing down on all the other alternatives.

These thoughts were mulling around my head when later, after a lot of secular materialism and frankly pagan eating, I watched 'The Nativity Decoded' - a programme on Channel 4 which promised to extricate fact from fiction in the story of Jesus's birth. Robert Beckford (who should never have cut his hair) pitted slightly sardonic historians against rigid representatives of the church. The former pointed to a more historically probable version of events (that included Mary being raped by a Roman soldier and Jesus being born at home in an underground area in Nazareth surrounded by women rather than wise men), while the latter defended the fluffier, more benign and mythic version that is re-enacted in schools at this time of year.

Many programmes and books of late have taken this line and the ammunition of the atheist is generally that there is no evidence and thus it is just a story. But, as any six year old with a plastic dragon will tell you, stories are all we have. The material and its meaning are different things and to link the two we need narratives. But equally, to prevent those stories from ossifying they must be recognized as such; stories - not literal truths but expressions thereof - allowed to evolve, open to reinterpretation and most importantly of all, not exclusive in their claims to meaning. This isn't something we need to teach children - it is something we could learn from them. Many stories, one world. And - note to Vatican - when the old story gets a bit boring, introduce a three headed snake into the equation.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Cognitive Disonance in Dar es Salaam

Last Sunday I returned from a week in Tanzania to the land of subzero temperatures and contaminated pork. I sat in the taxi and listened with incredulity to the news that all pork products had been recalled because a very small amount of a probably non-harmful toxin had been found in three herds. Twelve hours earlier I had walked through the market in Zanzibar where live chickens were haggled over, sold and slaughtered on the spot, giant sword fish on stone slabs, buzzing with flies were auctioned off to the highest bidder and someone had to warn me to 'watch the manta ray' that I was about to step on. The world has always been a place of contrasts but the ability to fly from one time zone, climate, way of being to another in half a day makes you very aware that it is now a place of extremes.

This was my second trip to Africa and sadly I think I have got to the point where I've stopped seeing. After prolonged exposure, at some point you normalize realities that at first seem utterly new and alien. There is only a relatively brief window of time to really grasp what is unfolding before your eyes, to contrast it with what you know, to become aware of all the implicit assumptions of your own culture and expectations by their absence in the new reality you face. I seem to have passed that point, so I watched others go through the process but felt none of it myself.

We spent an inordinate amount of time talking about mosquitoes and how to avoid being bitten by them. One member of the trip slept (in 30 degree heat) in full length pyjamas tucked into their socks and industrial size can of repellent in hand. We walked around in a collective cloud of DEET so strong you could see the insects hit the wall and simply drop. There was a lot of paranoia about food and going out after dark. And whereas when we turned up at an airport for an internal flight to find that it had been cancelled and we might miss our connection back to Amsterdam I felt the calm fatalism acquired from 6 months of plans not working out in India set in like a blessed opiate of the masses, most of the others became agitated and irritated with the local officials. When we finally did get on a plane, there were nervous jokes about the sign on the seat that said 'Use seat cushion as flotation device in case of crash'. And when we finally arrived back in surgically clean Skiphol airport everyone seemed to sigh with relief - no more DEET or hand sanitizer - we were back in regularized, standardized, predictable modernity.

All of this got me thinking about psychology. There is an implicit subtext in development that 'developing countries are lacking something, that the process of development is about filling in those gaps. I think part of my shock when I first went to the developing world was to realize that it wasn't merely a suboptimal version of the reality I was used to, like an outdated model from a few decades previous - recognisable but shoddier - but rather it was a whole different system, with different rules and ways of doing things. I was severely culture shocked - shell shocked - at first. It took a month to stop feeling miserable. It took two months to start laughing rather than crying at what seemed completely illogical (a traffic warden with a sign that says 'Halt and Go' on the same side for instance). It took three before I began to realize that it wasn't in fact illogical, it was just a different logic ('Halt briefly before you launch yourself into oncoming traffic and when you do go, go, go because they sure as hell wont slow down for you'). And it took the full six before I could begin to indulge in 'chalto hai' - relinquish the need to always be in control of time and circumstance, accept that I could not be completely the master of my own destiny, that risk was unavoidable but that usually, if you have some trust, things work out somehow. It was a psychological process - slowly wrenching my mind away from the pillars on which equilibrium normally rests: risk aversion, logical reason, understanding of my environment, and above all else - control.

In many ways, development is asking people to do the reverse journey: to alter psychologically from one mode to another, but crucially without the benefit of having their material conditions change first. It was relatively easy for me, with time, to adjust, because the reality was different, so I had to change and the psychological state I had to acquire was the one best, equilibrium response to the material environment I was in. Becoming unnervingly calm and fatalistic when you discover that all the roads are blocked with mud slides and you need to get back to Delhi to catch your flight tomorrow is the best psychological response. Accepting risk and not getting too stressed about mosquitoes is the only thing to do when you live in a tropical country. Relinquishing control is your only option when you step onto a decrepit bus taking hairpin bends over a precipice on the only road to your destination. Asking people to have different responses to the same conditions entails a considerable degree of psychological strain. But it's what the process of development does ask them to do - to become risk averse, used to standardization and legalization, accept extreme rationality, exert control, demand more from others and life etc.

In some way this dilemma was summed up from talking to a linguistics student in the University of Dar es Salaam. She explained how the fact that Tanzanians are multilingual means they are not completely proficient in any one language. They speak their tribal language at home until they go to primary school, when they start speaking Swahili. When/if they go to secondary they start English, which is also the language of instruction in university. She said the end result was proficiency, but not fluency in tribal languages and Swahili, and often quite a poor grasp of English (she estimated that only about 10% of students at university spoke English competently). From the point of view of development, a common standardized language is essential. From a personal point of view, the absence of the true fluency of a mother tongue seems, from my Anglo-centric, monolingual standpoint, appalling. It brought home the scale of the challenge and also the near barbarity of wrenching people from one system to another.

I don't want to finish on a completely anti-modern note. Travelling through the country side and seeing the desperate conditions in which people live, you cannot but want to see the material comforts of modernity. But sometimes it isn't acknowledged enough what you are asking people to do in that transition, how difficult it is to get from one state to the other and what is lost in the process. And how it delivers you to a place where your full Irish breakfast can be whipped out from under your nose for fear that, if consumed in large quantities for 30 years, you might, might suffer side effects.