Laughing At The New Generation
I am fascinated by the differences that separate peoples and cultures. If human beings are the animal for which life is a problem requiring an answer -- liberated, as we are, from the autopilot of instinctual programming -- then what could be more interesting than answers to life developed by radically different cultures over thousands of years?
Other cultures, after all, provide us with an entry point for investigating the nose-on-our-face problems, the nose-on-our-face mistakes that bedevil us individually and as a society. In one of his most telling observations, Thoreau wrote:
"Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new." (Thoreau, Walden, Penguin, 1983, p.68)
When we encounter, and quite possibly laugh at, foreign cultures, the precious opportunity also arises of laughing at our own. This is a laughter of liberation -- not just from the disco flares and bowler hats of “the old fashions,” but from the worship of the flag, of the “fatherland”, from hatred of the official ‘enemy’. As I will discuss below, it is also an opportunity to laugh at our notions of how best to make ourselves happy.
The Internationally Famous Cabbage Dish
In late 2005, I visited South Korea for the first time. I was delighted to sit on floor cushions around low restaurant tables to be confronted by dozens of small dishes of food, most of it unknown, almost all of it devilishly spicy. Equally delightful were the loud noises made by my endlessly polite and kind Korean hosts as they slurped their noodles and guzzled their soup. The part of me that remains forever ten-years-old felt at last vindicated by the fact that a whole society deemed civilized and polite the same behaviour that had earned me fierce looks as a child. Thoreau again:
“The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behaviour. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?” (Ibid, p.53)
I also enjoyed slurping the mysterious, traditional herbal teas with curious objects bobbing about in them; the fruits I’d never seen before; the ornate rice cakes and other mysteries of the ancient Korean culture. I feel there is something heart-warming about seeing difference and thinking: ‘That’s how they like it -- that’s what they enjoy,’ even when what they enjoy means nothing to me. I find it wonderful that Koreans are deeply proud of their spicy pickled Chinese cabbage, kimchi, the national dish. A guidebook declares with typically supercharged Korean enthusiasm:
“Visitors cannot really say they have been to Korea if they have not tasted kimchi, the internationally famous cabbage dish . . . These days kimchi is gaining popularity worldwide for its nutritional value and disease-prevention effect.”
In Seoul there is even a kimchi museum!
A few years ago I went with my Japanese girlfriend to an English pub for the first time. As we sat down, she took out two small, folded towels and placed them next to her glass on the table -- one to wipe her glass, as required, and one to dab her face. The joy of seeing that little ritual carried out in the middle of a spit-and-sawdust pub is exactly what I have in mind. Difference reminds us of the uniqueness of others, of their preciousness, transience, and in fact of their fundamental aloneness in the world.
A sense of fellow feeling and compassion can also be found in a sense of unity beneath difference -- others may do things differently, but we can understand what it is they like about it; we can empathies with their happiness in doing things ‘just so’ in a way that makes them feel more comfortable in the world.
By contrast, there is something depressing and dehumanizing about the thought of people as anonymous crowds, as blank “masses” of humanity. I’ve always recoiled from the title of John Carey’s book, The Intellectuals and the Masses. Regardless of the contents of the book, the title always reminds me of the sense, which many “intellectuals” seem to have, that a select few brainy types are real, serious individuals, while the rest of us are mere “masses”, “proletarians”, a kind of human porridge.
But what exactly is an “intellectual”? If someone describes themselves as an “intellectual”, I cringe, much as I do when I hear someone describe themselves as “a celebrity” or “famous”. I greatly enjoyed reading this description of an intellectual upper class in H.G. Wells’ novel The First Men In The Moon:
"These beings with big heads, on whom the intellectual labors fall, form a sort of aristocracy in this strange society, and at the head of them, quintessential of the moon, is that marvelous gigantic ganglion the Grand Lunar . . . The unlimited development of the minds of the intellectual class is rendered possible by the absence of any bony skull in the lunar anatomy, that strange box of bone that clamps about the developing brain of man, imperiously insisting 'thus far and no farther' to all his possibilities."
By some quirk of fate, Wells’ description finds amusing and contradictory echoes in Noam Chomsky’s analysis of the role of liberal intellectuals in our own society:
“[W]hat's not recognized is that the role of the liberal intellectual establishment is to set very sharp bounds on how far you can go -- ‘this far, and no further’”. (Chomsky, The Big Idea, BBC2, 1996)
In opposition to individual and cultural arrogance, it seems to me a far happier and more rational thing to recognize that the world is full of interesting ways of being -- possibilities that may well be improvements on our own -- than to think that our culture has all the answers, all the best solutions. It is brutal and foolish to look down on others, to dismiss their ways of living and loving developed over millennia as ’primitive’. Surely all human cultural responses to the extraordinary problem of living -- even those we find unpalatable -- are worthy of our interest and respect.
Certainly, when it comes to evaluating foreign cultures, little is as it seems to our prejudiced eye. During the Vietnam war, the American GIs referred to their Vietnamese enemy as ‘Gooks’, a term that has become synonymous with dehumanizing racism. How tragic and poignant that American use of the word in fact originated in the Korean War -- guk is a Korean word which means ‘people’. The Koreans call themselves Hangukin, which means ‘the people of the Han river.’
Or to consider an extreme example, could anything be more alien to Westerners than the act of suicide bombing? Although it has almost never been reported, there had never been a suicide bomb attack in Iraq before the 2003 invasion. The UN’s IRIN news network reported on March 8 that a 41 year-old Iraqi woman, Um Abdallah, was learning how to turn herself into a suicide bomber. Revulsion, horror, incomprehension -- isn’t her decision the epitome of the ‘alienness’ of foreign culture to many Britons? And yet IRIN fills in some of the background:
Um Abdallah is one of thousands of Iraqis who have lost their relatives in the past four years. Her two boys and one girl were killed during a US military attack in her neighborhood.
"My husband was killed four months ago by Iraqi forces. Killed alongside him were my son-in-law and his two children. I cannot even remember how many bullets the children had in their bodies,” she said.
She does not know exactly when she is going to detonate herself but she is sure she will be ready whenever she is asked." (IRIN, “Killings drive women to become suicide bombers,” March 8, 2007)
Is Um Abdallah really such an alien being? She has lost her sons and daughter, her husband, and other loved ones besides. She has lost everything. Is her response really so impossible to comprehend? Is not our response to wish we could somehow do something to relieve her suffering and protect her from her own plan precisely because her suffering is so comprehensible? And yet, if our media are to be believed, our reaction should simply be one of loathing for this ‘alien’ product of an ‘alien’ culture.
So much of what we are taught to hate is actually the product of suffering -- real, comprehensible and very human -- rather than of some weird, mystical phenomenon called ’evil’. And far too much of that suffering originates with our own lack of compassion, our own system of domination and exploitation preaching hate. As Nietzsche said so well:
“Mistrust all in whom the urge to punish is strong!”
West Is Best.... Ignored!
In 1955, the British governor of Kenya, declared:
"The task to which we have set our minds is to civilise a great mass of human beings who are in a very primitive moral and social state." (Quoted, John Pilger, “Iraq is a War of National Liberation,” The New Statesman, April 15, 2004)
In "civilizing" the country, the British army killed 10,000 Kenyans for the loss of 32 European lives.
In a March 2000 Guardian article, Polly Toynbee wrote in similar vein:
"In our political and social culture we have a democratic way of life which we know, without any doubt at all, is far better than any other in the history of humanity. Even if we don't like to admit it, we are all missionaries and believers that our own way is the best when it comes to the things that really matter." (Toynbee, “The West really is the best,” The Observer, March 5, 2000)
Unfortunately, this arrogance appears to be a common theme among the “beings with big heads, on whom the intellectual labours fall.”
Happily, the people that Westerners deem in a “very primitive moral and social state” do not share their view. Historian John Bodley reported:
“According to Captain Cook’s account of his first landing on the Australian mainland, Aborigines on the beach totally ignored both his ship and his men until they became obnoxious . . . a complete lack of interest in white people’s habits, material possessions, and beliefs was characteristic of Aborigines in a variety of contact settings.” (John Bodley, Victims of Progress, Mayfield Publishing, 1982, p.16)
In his book Re-Enchantment, Jeffrey Paine described a common Asian view of Westerners in 1912:
“Many Asians then thought that white people, though wizards at technology, were otherwise mentally deficient.” (Paine, Re-Enchantment, Norton, 2004, p.31)
If ever there was a shocking challenge to some key nose-on-our-face assumptions about the world, then this surely is it. Aren’t Third World people supposed to share Toynbee’s view of the magnificent West? Alas, there is more bad news. Paine added of a particular group of Asians:
“Tibetans had tended to view Caucasians as idiot savants, preternaturally good at, say, constructing engines but otherwise dumb to the subtleties of the spirit.” (Ibid, p.56)
Tibetan Buddhist teachings, in particular, were deemed completely beyond us: “One does not teach the precious dharma to Westerners,” was the operating assumption. (Ibid p.59)
Big ships, big engines, big buildings -- small impression!
This might seem remarkable at first sight, but actually the reasoning is not so strange -- Tibetans appreciated that Westerners were more or less completely bewildered when it came to matters of psychological understanding. Consider, for example, the issue of psychological health and happiness.
Living Life To The Full
Contemporary Western culture assumes that happiness can best be achieved by gathering to ourselves as many pleasurable experiences as possible. When we talk of “making the most of life” and “living life to the full”, we mean a life filled with pleasure. Our focus is therefore, of course, very much externally directed. The psychologist Erich Fromm asked:
"What is meant by happiness? Most people today would probably answer the question by saying that to be happy is to have 'fun,' or 'to have a good time' . . . What does this fun consist in? Going to the movies, parties, ball games, listening to the radio and watching television, taking a ride in the car on Sundays, making love, sleeping late on Sunday mornings, and traveling . . . we might say that the concept of happiness is, at best, identified with that of pleasure." (Fromm, The Sane Society, Routledge, 2002, p.194)
What is so remarkable is that, as we are doing all this, we give barely a thought to the condition of the inner, psychological ‘receptacles’ into which these experiences are, as it were, poured and in which we hope happiness will arise -- our minds! How sophisticated would we judge a farmer who eagerly planted seeds without giving a thought to the quality of the soil in which those seeds were sown?
Up until quite recently, many people in the West gave little thought even to the importance of physical fitness for health -- the concern struck many of us as an effete indulgence, a symptom of hair-shirted hypochondria. But how many people today recognize the need, or even possibility, of maintaining psychological fitness and health beyond taking time out to relax? How many of us even believe it is possible to train our minds, much less for some version of mental or emotional fitness? Neuroscientist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison comments:
“There is a tremendous lacuna in our worldview, where training is seen as important for strength, for physical agility, for athletic ability, for musical ability -- for everything except emotions.” (Quoted, Sharon Begley, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, Ballantine, 2007, p.231)
As it turns out, for all the accumulation of pleasurable experiences, the Western crop of happiness is blighted by psychological weeds, toxic mental soil and ideational frosts. For the truth is that the untrained human mind is almost guaranteed to be filled with suffering -- a statement of obvious fact for many Asians, but an almost meaningless comment in the West.
Psychologist Oliver James reports that almost a quarter of Britons currently suffer from serious emotional distress, such as depression and anxiety, and that another quarter are on the verge of such conditions -- that‘s half the population! James believes that much of this emotional distress is rooted in what he calls “affluenza”:
“It entails placing a high value on acquiring money and possessions, looking good in the eyes of others and wanting to be famous.” (James, Affluenza, Vermilion, 2007, p.vii)
These values, in turn, are all oriented towards external pleasurable experiences. So to what extent do they deliver happiness, for example for people who are maximally ‘successful‘?
One survey found that over one-third of a sample of super-rich people (those with net wealth of £70 million or more) were less happy than the national average. A second study found no difference between the happiness levels of lottery winners and comparison samples of people with average incomes, or even of paraplegics. (Ibid, p.34)
In truth, as the statistics make very clear, we in the West are tormented by the fact that our minds are more or less out of control. Who amongst us has not been kept awake at night by a storm of angry, fearful, craving, jealous, or grieving thoughts? From the moment we wake up, to the moment we fall asleep, day after day, thoughts can completely tyrannize the mind. Our emphasis, in response, tends to be on ‘action’ -- by which we mean external action. We believe that doing something, going somewhere, seeing someone, drinking something, can bring peace of mind, control. Quite often none of this really helps.
I think one of the most shocking realizations we have as we reach adulthood is the dramatic power of the uncontrolled mind, the sheer intensity of psychological suffering, in the event of some kind of crisis. The feeling that nothing can be done, that we are helpless in the face of our own thoughts -- often interpreted in the West as a belief that there’s nothing we can do about ‘life’ -- is a cause of incalculable misery.
But it seems to me that our suffering is pointing us towards a solution. Indeed, I think this is a perfect example of how we can benefit greatly from opening our minds to non-Western cultural solutions. As ever, doing so requires the humility to see that we are not all-powerful, that we do not stride the world as giants among intellectual and cultural pygmies.
If we are tormented by uncontrolled thoughts, then perhaps answers can be found by asking the obvious question: Can some kind of control be gained over destructive thoughts? Can something be done?
Part 2 will follow shortly...
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