Friday 20 July 2007

We all smile in the same language (not!)

The above statement - minus the "not" - appears on the notice board of a school in West End, Brisbane.

It is quite wrong, in fact dangerously so. In the following short essay I will show why (and it is an essay; for more detail see the Otoom website with all its papers, confirmations from around the world, computer simulations, and references).

Let's take the literal meaning first. The sentence is meant to convey the common nature of us as humans, a feature underneath so many differences often emphasised and hence leading to conflict. A nice try if you will, but like other well-meaning but ultimately misguided views promising much but delivering little.

What is a smile? It is a type of body language representing the pleasure of feeling satisfaction. You don't need to be a profound philosopher to realise the prompts for smiling are as varied as life can make them. Even a child (and remember, that false proverb is there for mostly children to see) could smile for many a reason - to the face of a friend in agreement, to the face of an enemy out of Schadenfreude, because they got praised or because they got away with something.

But, you might say, aren't these the very things that bind us? Yes they are, but here we run into the first of several problems. Consider 'agreement'. Do we all agree on the same thing? Certainly not, but why?

Whether we agree on something depends on our disposition, on what we know, what we have experienced, on our surroundings, our culture. In other words, we interpret the world according to what our minds can make of any given situation. The thought associations we are capable of determine our response, and what we don't know won't get to play a role - end of story.

Yet even what we 'know' does not present the full picture. For an association to be made the right triggers need to be in place (think of mnemotechnics), but it also requires the brain to be sufficiently flexible. Certain psychological tests rely on that characteristic to evaluate a person's ability to process information.

Hence for some people a particular moment is enough to evoke an avalanche of ideas, others it passes by in silence. Being creative is a trait we sometimes admire (if it makes us smile!), and sometimes dread (if it takes us out of our comfort zone).

Going right back to the basic detail the associative capacity is a function of the connectivity of the brain's neurons and their processing ability. The more dendrites per neuron the greater the cognitive reach, the healthier the neurons the more efficacious they are. All this is no longer conjecture, and feeds into such aspects as goal setting and sense of responsibility.

Now shift the perspective to the recipient. If the source of a smile is difficult to ascertain, how much harder is it for the other to interpret? If I grow up among friends and only friends I will never know what it is like to smile with grim satisfaction - I never had the opportunity to learn. If higher abstractions are beyond me what do I know of wan wistfulness?

And so my mind will process the proffered gesture and respond accordingly. The other will do the same in turn. Where does that leave the "common language"?

If the response goes beyond mere conversation but involves acts of significance the diversion of our respective trains of thought can lead very quickly to radical measures.

Consider the fury generated by Salman Rushdie's knighthood. Consider also the attempts by the British government to hose down the flames. Neither side understands the other. Muslims don't relate to the often iconoclastic nature of our culture, and the government doesn't recognise how meaningless it is to point to Rushdie's authorship as an apology. In fact, an apology - like a smile - means different things to different people. For some it is a measure of manners, to others it represents weakness.

On a larger scale the contingencies have moved along. The idea has become the cultural meme, the individual has become the demographic. Just as in a person their mindset has to reconcile the differences somehow, so do the effects of varying cultures influence the status of a society. The mutual relationship between the greater whole and its parts requires a certain synchronicity, but enhance the differences and there comes a point at which the very definition of society becomes questionable.

Furthermore, although we all are capable of learning to some degree, what we allow ourselves to learn depends very much on our exposure to the wider world and how we perceive it. Increase the number of a demographic's constituents and the probability that any one of them will widen their frame of reference diminishes. From a certain size onwards there is no change and the culture will maintain itself regardless of their host.

In the era of globalisation the above applies not only within nations but across the entire world.

Tamil militants in Sri Lanka blackmail immigrants in Australia; radical Muslims associate in groups spread between tribal areas in Pakistan and the UK; newly arrived Africans evoke networks between Europe and their homelands to circumvent EU border controls.

The very laws we have created reflect our general mien. They can never define each and every act anyone is ever able to come up with, but are a collection of markers that rely greatly on social consensus. Introduce behaviour from outside that zone and the law becomes inadequate and needs to accommodate the new. Terrorism and the influx of religious intensity have shown how unsettling the shift can be.

For example, in Western jurisdictions guilt by association has been largely expunged, and for good reason. Yet an association based on family, tribe, and sect are most powerful drivers in Middle Eastern demographics. As I write this the law in Australia is forced to wrestle with the extent to which such alien concepts are to be aligned with our own definitions, in order to deal with suspects arrested here and connected with an act of terrorism that occurred in the UK. There are protests and misgivings, a fear of loosing the achievements gained through centuries of hard work. Those gains had sharpened themselves on the minds of Europe, and not on those of the Middle East.

We have moved beyond the land of rosy visions in which the downtrodden stand in awe before Western accomplishments eager to take part as we in our naiveté would like to assume. Some do, but more and more the darker side of wishful inclusivity in the face of irreconcilable difference emerges. The canvas so far is still the same, but increasingly what is painted there are not the comfortable idylls of yesteryear but the charring strokes of dissonance, anger even.

How long before the lines burst the frame?

No comments: