“Most quarrels amplify a misunderstanding.” — Andre Gide
I have lived in the United States many years since birth, but also have spent about two and a half years living abroad. I watch people, sometimes reporters comment on the outside world and the things that are going on there as they perceive them and I’m reminded how little the people of the world really know of each other. People speak about places they have never been with the ring of authority and so often, in my humble opinion, couldn’t be more wrong about their findings. And how much better off would we be as a country if we would reserve judgment on so many things we see abroad until we really did know more?
I am for some reason reminded of an old “Language and Meaning” course I took many years ago. We here in the West hear the sound of a fly as “buzz.” In Asia though in a moment of onomatopoeia their fly, to them, goes “Tse, Tse.” Thus the Tsetse fly. But It is not that the acoustics of the actual fly sound is so different, but what that region’s people bring in the way of cultural understanding tells them that is what the fly sounds like. Bring an American fly to them and they will hear the same sound. The same thing occurs when you compare the sounds of dogs, cats, goats, cows ect across different cultures. Ask a person from a different country to aurally reproduce animals sound and they often will mimic a sound we here won’t recognize as representative of the animal in question. We are all humans, but we’re not on the same page. Geographical distance has fractured our understanding of one another.
Even with people who speak our own English language, but just live across the pond in England… We misread and misinterpret each other so often. And it is so detrimental. How many times have you seen two previously neutral people feel some discomfort with one another, perhaps even argue over misunderstandings related to language?
I visited London in 1995. I had been pubbing and on my way home desperately needed to relieve myself of some of the beer. I stopped in a little shop and asked if I could use the bathroom. The man asked with some surprise and a straight face why I wanted to shower there. What kind of place did I think this was, I later thought with a smirk. “Laboratory” was the term I should have substituted for bathroom. And I read an article the British had written about American basketball and I was struck by how a professional publication, a smart one, could get so wrong their analysis of our American game. Now compound the complexity of understanding one another by removing the common language. A common language already woefully inadequate and fraught with imperfection to fully flesh out and represent all the various nuances and utterings that go a long way to making us what we are.
At the root of some of this is the fact that Americans don’t travel. Something like 75% of Americans don’t have passports. American people don’t want to understand other people around the world. Americans increasingly don’t even want to understand each other. And it seems like Americans will travel less in the near future.
All this speaks to the idea that you can’t try to control people you don’t understand as seems to be US foreign policy these days. It’s a flawed notion that has brought us nothing but pain and if you are looking for long term peace, security, profit and cooperation we would be way better off with working together in educational settings with people from abroad. Our results would be much better. And isn’t that what we really want? Shouldn’t we be asking about our foreign policy, how can we get better results?
And that is why living in the US these days is like living in the Bizarro world of the Superman comics. For those who don’t know Bizarro is a disfigured version of Superman who tries to imitate Superman’s heroic behavior. But Bizarro’s interpretation of what to do is often the exact opposite of what the correct action to take would be. Bizarro is delusional, disconnected from reality. And Bizarro acts, often destructively, on his wrong-headed interpretations to the detriment of those he comes into contact with. We live in a time where our education has done a good job of showing us histories past errors, yet as if to do just the wrong Bizarro world thing we seem to embrace all the wrong questions and get stuck with really bad answers. Why? Because a small group of Bizarros have co-opted from 95% of us what used to belong to all of us. Somewhere the members of the “Greatest Generation” are turning over in their graves. We need blue kryptonite now.
Historical examples of human misunderstanding can be comical. Germans after WWII used to marvel at how strange American comic books were and if you get outside of it… Look at it from the outside, not as someone who grew up in American culture. The Germans were like, why do the Americans feel it is their duty to “save” everyone. They put on these bright colored costumes with capes and go around solving crimes. To some it was entertaining. Personally I think comic book culture is wildly inventive and beautiful, but to more critical minds seeing the genre play out from the outside it might seem like the height of ridiculousness. Here in the US we seemingly never stop to think about why we created this admittedly strange category of literature. In all the rest of the world there was nothing like this.
Explorer Captain Cook landed in Hawaii and the Hawaiians initially thought he was a God. But when one of Cook’s crew died the Hawaiians saw Cook was just a mortal and perhaps one that had designs on their land, they killed him. Cook misjudged the Hawaiians because he didn’t understand them and lost his life for it. And here in the 21st Century we are still seeing how these misunderstandings hurt relations between all the world’s people.
In the US we blame Colombia for so many of our drug woes. But Colombians blame their drug woes on the US for buying so much. In Asian countries they use a toilet hose in place of toilet paper. I think they are correct in a cosmic sense, but the people here in the US still prefer toilet paper and big septic tank cleaning bills along with a chafed butt. Here in the US we stubbornly cling to our system of measurement while the rest of the world long ago switched to metric.
“Star Trek: The Original Series” got it right. They had the technology. But they used it to physically get out and check out the stars, not to sit in a little cubicle or room staring into the abyss of the computer screen. Not to sit in a tiny room where common ground can’t be found. Their efforts to travel great distances helped them understand the other inhabitants of the universe and as a result the explorers, earth’s important figures, the James T Kirks of the Federation had respect and a seat at the table when it came to interplanetary negotiations.
Maybe one day we’ll all share chips in our minds where we can each see an image clearly as if in a dream. The same image at the same time shared between different minds in efforts to communicate more effectively. Wouldn’t that enhance understanding and get us more on the same page? Yet, even then we will bring all of our different expectations to that one and the same viewing and still produce wholly different conclusions. Will a truly symbiotic, one-in-the-same communication that is error free ever exist?
But for now… In a time when travel is expensive we may not have the money to seek out enlightenment and knowledge of others through travel. But I still think it is exceedingly important that we try. Sadly, I am in the minority on that score.
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