25 February 2012

We learn much folk wisdom – some couched in semi-superstition – either from other people or simply from experience.

I USED to muse that there seems, these days, to be a lack of common sense, the wisdom that comes from basic knowledge and experience. Everyone seems to be more interested in fantasising about imaginary things or providing far-out solutions when simpler ones may do.

People in leadership positions seem to have the least common sense of all, probably because they think people expect something different from them instead of the obvious.

I am reminded of this more and more lately. People are so obsessed with getting from A to Z that they skip over B and C and don’t realise that the wisest outcome is in fact D.

So we get, for example, people who think the ultimate goal is to bring out a website in English but who forget that in order to do that, one needs to first find someone competent in English to do it.

Or who, without checking a simple encyclopedia, wish the wrong people greetings for a religious festival. All it takes is some care and common sense.

There are of course worse examples. Sometimes it makes better sense to say nothing than to open one’s mouth and disclose that one’s head is full of rubbish. It can be jaw-droppingly embarrassing for all observers, if not for the one speaking.

Sometimes we can’t blame those laying out such nonsense. Common sense comes from having some basic knowledge handed down from teachers and guides, as well as lived experiences and just plain intelligence.

Getting websites so excruciatingly mistranslated or sending out wrongly targeted tweets is not so much the fault of whoever wrote them but whoever supervises them.

If supervisors and leaders have not had the sense to lay down some basic rules and procedures, then it’s not surprising that such faux pas happens.

I recently had a request for an interview for a student research project. Reading their proposed project, I was appalled by the entire premise of their topic, one so nonsensical that had it been a foreign university, they would have been laughed out of their room.

But then I realised that it’s not the students’ fault. Such a research proposal should really not have passed by their supervising faculty at all.

Their lecturer should have questioned them much more, made them read more background material to come up with something that made better sense.

Then I had the awful realisation that maybe the lecturer, too, thought it was a topic worth researching.

In our lifetime we learn much folk wisdom either from other people or simply from experience. Some are couched in semi-superstition.

Our mothers would tell us not to cut our fingernails at dusk. It may have sounded a bit mystical but the real lesson was that if we cut them at a time when the light was bad, the chances are we’re likely to cut ourselves.

Or we would be told to close our mouths with our hands when we yawned so that the Devil would not enter our bodies, when in fact it was so that we would not rudely display our open mouths to other people.

When dealing with the public, simple psychology will often do. Nobody really likes to be berated all the time. Often gentle persuasion works better.

Most people have a certain innate sense of decency and justice, so will tend to take the side of the underdog. Thus wielding a stick too heavy-handedly over someone much weaker will only elicit sympathy for that person.

Being humble, even if suspect, usually wins over arrogance. Doesn’t take a genius to figure that out.

But repeatedly, all we see is the opposite of such common sense. Perhaps some people feel the need to be too clever, or assume that the audience must be simply too stupid.

This is the worst mistake of all. If there’s one of you and millions of them, chances are there are probably lots of people much smarter than you out there and they’ll outgun you with brains any time.

The trouble is, like those students, once there is no common sense at the top, the bottom takes the same cue and loses all ability to think clearly, too. Whatever is the prevailing logic on high, no matter how absurd, becomes everyone’s logic, too.

The illogic when unquestioned is accepted as gospel. Thus a talk becomes a seminar, a party becomes an orgy, a gathering a riot. The simple matter of supporting evidence is ignored.

Where on earth will this collective stupidity lead us?

Will it make us stand tall and proud as Malaysians, punching above our weight, as someone put it, all round the globe? Or will it make us increasingly isolated and provincial?

Or don’t we care?

11 February 2012

If ever there’s a phobia one can promote, it should be a true loathing of graft in any form, regardless of it being the petty everyday variety or the major million dollar ones.

I’VE been thinking about phobias lately because there seem to be so many around. I have a phobia about snakes; I simply don’t like their slitheriness. I know lots of people who have phobias about spiders, cockroaches or even cats.

To have a phobia means to have both a fear and a loathing of something. There are people who have a total phobia about germs, and are obsessed with keeping things clean, because they fear if they don’t, they may get ill.

Phobias have nothing to do with evidence or reasonableness; most times they are irrational. Hence it was with that 21st century pheno­menon called Islamophobia, the fear and loathing of Muslims by those of other faiths.

It leads to all sorts of irrational acts, including blaming Muslims for every single human infraction there is, and insisting that they are going to do things that they have no intention of doing, for example, setting up syariah law in the United States.

Witness the current Republican primaries. Almost every candidate has said something Islamophobic as a way, they think, of getting votes among the conservative right-wing Christian population.

In the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron has said that the biggest threat to multi-culturalism is young Muslim men. What else would account for such a shocking and outrageous generalisation but a phobia about Muslims?

It has to be said that such religious phobias do not go one way only. The response to Islamophobia has been Christianophobia, where Christians are irrationally blamed for every social ill and accused of plotting to take over Muslim countries.

(This fantasy always prompts the question in my head of why anyone would want to take over a Muslim country these days, when so many are ill-managed and under-developed.)

Judanophobia, the fear and loathing of Jews, also known in the West as anti-Semitism, is another one that goes a long way back, although Judaism is often wrongly conflated with Zionism.

There are some common features to these phobias. The first is that the target of the phobia is not one that the phobic actually knows. Most of the most rabid Islamophobes have never met a Muslim in their lives.

Secondly, it always involves reducing the human target of the phobia to negative stereo­types: “All Jews are tight-fisted” or “All Muslim women are submissive.” If you point out anyone who doesn’t fit the stereotype, then they are regarded as exceptions to the rule.

It helps to remember that every time we stereotype any group, someone somewhere is also stereotyping us. And those stereotypes about us are no more reasonable than any we make of other people. But what do phobics care about such fairness?

Thirdly, while some people may complain about being the targets of phobias, they also often have no problems having phobias about other people.

Many Muslims who complain about the injustices and oppression wrought by Islamophobia have in turn no qualms about oppressing their own women or groups who may not fit into their idea of mainstream Islam.

Homophobia, for instance, is a pretty routine reflex among many Muslim men, especially those men who are the most likely to be picked out at an American airport for further questioning.

In the end, we have to ask in what ways do phobias like these help to advance society? If the US becomes more Islamophobic, will it make Americans happier, richer or safer?

If Muslim countries become more Christiano­phobic, will their people be less hungry and better educated?

If our societies allow homophobia to become the norm, will our schools be better and our public transport more efficient?

Are phobias even worth using to get votes? At the beginning of this year, Jamaica’s People’s National Party won a landslide victory on a platform that explicitly rejected homophobia and promoted greater inclusiveness.

What’s more, Jamaicans even elected their first-ever female prime minister, Portia Simpson Miller. It just goes to show that using negativity to win votes is a losing strategy because people really want positive and inclusive leadership.

Perhaps, if there was a phobia to promote, it should be a phobia about corruption. Our society should develop a true loathing of corruption in any form, whether it is the petty everyday variety or the major million dollar ones.

We should get to the point where instead of joking about it, the very mention of any form of bribe would be met with severe disgust and rejection.

Coupled with this should be a phobia for the sense of entitlement and impunity that some people enjoy while disregarding other people’s feelings. Instead of simply putting up with this, we should collectively and decisively say it’s simply not acceptable.

Now, that would surely be worth a vote or two.