Trying to Understand Instead of Trying to be Right

“Echo chamber.”

It’s a word that has been reverberating around social media more often in recent years, and especially in light of the (fairly) recent US elections.

“a metaphorical description of a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition”

 

“official sources often go unquestioned and different or competing views are censored, disallowed, or otherwise underrepresented.”

[Wikipedia “Echo chamber (media)”

When it is used, it feels akin to an accusation, conjuring up the image of a cave full of bats who don’t know what else there is to the world outside. That there is even a world beyond the chamber. It kinda feels like being called ignorant and people don’t like that. I don’t like that. It’s not a good feeling.

The uncomfortable feeling of being accused of living in an echo chamber is not dissimilar to the reasons why we end up surrounded by only our own opinions in the first place. Defensiveness is a reaction that causes us to retreat into ourselves, or in this case, into our little groups of same opinions, where we feel safe and comfortable. And sometimes, that’s okay.

Sometimes, we don’t want to be “on” all the time, sorting through facts, opinions, and biases. We need that safe place where we don’t have to justify our feelings to others or feel like we have to defend our values tirelessly. Educating others is not an obligation and those who demand it are not helping anyone, really. We all need a break sometimes.

However, when we do venture out into the world and encounter people of different opinions, it would do well to remember that,

“I don’t have to be right all the time.” 

Maybe “different opinions” is too weak of a term to adequately describe the tensions that we are increasingly encountering in our daily lives. And I’m not even claiming to be an authority on what is “the objective truth.”

But I do know that when I argue with someone, it is usually like talking to a wall because we’re both trying to convince the other of our own version of “the objective truth.” Yet who is to say that my version is more true or right than the other person’s version?

I think that in times like these, when every conversation feels like thrashing against an immovable wall, it is important to remind ourselves that it would be more productive to try to UNDERSTAND someone else’s point of view, their values, their upbringing, and why they’ve come to believe in something like that – rather than trying to wonder at how you can convince them otherwise.

Why do we talk about echo chambers like it’s a bad thing? Because it implies that we stopped talking to each other because it made us feel uncomfortable to disagree. It calls out our egos on an inability to admit when we might be wrong. It redefines conversations as what they actually are – a competition for who can yell the loudest instead of a dialogue for understanding our fellow human beings.

It’s a problem. I have it too.

So the next time I enter into a conversation to with someone who disagrees with me, I’m going to try to remember these 5 things:

  1. How can I better understand this person’s point of view?
  2. It’s okay to admit that I was wrong.
  3. It’s okay to disagree.
  4. A debate doesn’t have to be an argument.
  5. What would Daryl Davis do?*

* Daryl Davis is a black musician who befriended members of the Ku Klux Klan in America. His story is a much more compelling testament to the challenge of engaging in dialogue with people who disagree with you. 

 

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There is a famine in Africa… again.

Two weeks ago I learnt that my host father in Malawi was facing some financial difficulties.

This week my friend told me that his mother in Malawi said that there is a food shortage in the country.

Today I realized that the two were related. But I don’t think I would’ve cared about the latter if it wasn’t for the former. 

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Actually, Malawi isn’t the only country in Africa that is currently facing a food shortage problem. Many other countries including Ethiopia are affected as well. The relatively poor harvests of last year are partially to blame as are the irregular weather patterns that bring floods and disease. Perhaps the government also bears some responsibility for the sufferings of some of its citizens because they manage the apparently abundant food reserves yet some people are feeling the strain of last year’s poor harvests. That is not to say that everybody in Malawi is on the brink of death – some people are managing just fine. However, food insecurity as a country is reportedly one of the worst in the last few years.

However, none of this is reflected in the mainstream media in Canada or the United States. I mean, sure, food shortages aren’t exactly domestic news material and there is so much going on in the world internationally that something like this is probably difficult to slip in among the crowded boxes of an 11.75″ X 21.5″. Yet that is exactly the problem. A man dying of starvation in Malawi is not “new” news. Why is that? Is it because it’s “just another famine in Africa?” Or is it because the famine is not severe enough to be a famine but is merely a food shortage?

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One of my former colleagues from the Chikwawa District Water Office challenged me today when I inquired about the food shortage. He asked me if I was asking because I wanted to donate. My immediate internal reaction was defensive.

‘I’m still a student. I don’t have a steady income and a ton of loans. Besides, doesn’t donating just create systemic dependence?’

I skirted around the uncomfortable question with some unsatisfactory response about not having an income or knowing where to donate to which he said something along the lines of ‘If you ask, you will find a place.’

And that made me uncomfortable because, in some ways, he was right. If I really wanted to donate, I could probably find a way. So instead of saying “I can’t donate,” a more honest response would be “I don’t want to donate,” as uncomfortable as it may be to say that.

I don’t want to donate. 

My reasons are legitimate, for me. I DO have student debt and I DON’T have a secure income at the moment. I DON’T WANT to risk being financially insecure in the immediate future so I’m being selective about my spending habits.

Yet I think I need to acknowledge that I’m not going to contribute financially to this problem out of CHOICE and live with the uncomfortable feeling of that decision, regardless of any moral judgment.

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I’m not really sure if there was a point to this blog post. I just felt like I needed to organize my thoughts because I had a lot of strong feelings about the issue this week.

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For people who wish to donate or help 

in some other capacity, I strongly urge doing research so that you can have the most positive impact. From just the news articles I’ve seen after a preliminary google search, it seems like the World Food Programme (WFP) and Unicef are trying to alleviate the situation. I’m not too sure what kind of methods they are using for this particular issue but it’d probably be a good place to start.

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A view of the beautiful gardens in Chikwawa

Learning to be alone again…

Today has been the first really normal day since I’ve returned to Canada. And it sucks.

I’ve been unpacking and cleaning all day without seeing a soul except for the brief encounter with one of my roommates. This was my norm before I left. I treasured these moments of solitude when I could think and dance and just do whatever I wanted in the privacy of my own space.

But now.. It’s different.

When I first arrived in Malawi, I fought so hard to find my quiet place, to take some alone time away from my host family. I needed it. To organize my thoughts, to take a breather from the culture shock, to be myself in the presence of only myself…

Near the end of my placement, I hardly ever took any alone time. I’d grown used to the routines and become comfortable in the communal space where you are only ever alone in your mind. I now realize that I dearly miss the community, especially since nothing like it exists in my Canadian cultural norms.

So now what?

Instead of turning to netflix as an emotional handicap and substitute for being alone, I think I might just finish cleaning my room first. Then I’m going to order some takeout and maybe read a book and knit.

It’s lonelier, for sure. But I think I just need to accept that I’ll always love that part about village life in Malawi and try to rediscover the solitary activities that are different, but are also of value.

There is no such thing as the perfect environment. You just gotta work with what you’ve got… Or at least that’s what Malawi has taught me this summer.

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Today’s Reverse Culture Shock: I found myself frowning at the bus stop the other day and forced myself to smile. But it just felt awkward and out of place. In Malawi I had always tried to smile and be approachable but I’m finding that my norm here in Ottawa is to be as unapproachable as possible. The same seems to go for everybody else. But it’s funny because nobody would ever approach anybody else anyhow, regardless of a smile on their face or not.

There and Back Again…

We landed today. Especially in the midst of story sharing with my fellow JFs, Malawi already seems like a distant dream. Did that really happen?

At least I have the photos and WhatsApp messages to remind me that it was indeed very real.

But now that I’m back in Canada, I’m starting to afford an outsider’s look on my placement. What was my impact? Did I actually work with my stakeholders in mind? In what state did I leave my partner, the Chikwawa District Water Development Office?

Canada poses many questions of its own as well. This is the donor side of the world and I’m finding that I am questioning the coherence of the marketed work here with the actual work across the ocean. EWB certainly does not escape scrutiny.

But right now, I’m too jet lagged and haggard from the 24+ hours of travel from Lilongwe to Toronto to dig too deep into these systemic issues.

So until the next time…

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