One of my favourite pastimes and one that I had significant opportunities for indulging in as a younger man, was sitting round a table nursing a pint of beer (real ale please) and solving all the world’s problems in conversation with one or two good friends. We usually had everything solved by the third pint, which in turn, opened the way for a celebratory fourth thus reaching my upper limit, especially if I wanted to function well enough to navigate back home. Which describes a particular conceit of mine; in that the world’s problems are solvable. This was an odd thing to be doing and perhaps a greater reflection of the cultural privilege that a white Western man enjoys – although I could not have framed it in quite that way at the time. The conversations were usually between men and, since they only rarely extended to include women, they beg the question (which I could blissfully disregard at the time, although the alcohol-based mental lubrication may have helped somewhat): how are you going to solve anything if fifty per cent of humanity isn’t even represented? Or even, as was definitely the case for this young man in his twenties, I really didn’t control very much at all and actually still don’t. It’s not like I could set global transport policies, or make State planning decisions, or initiate a comprehensive waste recycling scheme – to mention just a few.
That’s not to say that nothing good has come of this particular pastime – on the contrary, some problems did get solved as a direct result. But many fewer than the number and grandeur of those mental palaces I constructed. Worse still, my ability to effectively capture the problem in words seems to be failing. Every time I try to nail something down the issue either slips through my metaphors or my preamble becomes so overly top-heavy that I’ve lost my audience before we can really get started. As there’s less beer involved too, this may underlie part of the difficulty. These days it’s usually my wife who will cut me off leaving just my progeny who occasionally has the patience to put up with her father when he goes off on one of his overbearing rants. But the problem remains – defining issues has become considerably more difficult for me. The thought builds, I try to speak, and in that precise moment a multitude of other issues occur to me demanding my urgent attention, all of which have a direct bearing on the relevance of the issue, and I then feel the need to systematically explore each one. Little wonder perhaps that my family’s switch from good natured tolerance to extreme exasperation sits on a hairpin trigger. Worse still is when I try to write, because most of the time, the effort involved in setting thoughts on paper (computer screen nowadays), it’s like swimming uphill through a sea of mental treacle.
Why are words so damn difficult? Each word is a box inside of which sits the idea of what it is you want to say. Except it’s not really your idea. A “cup of tea” clearly means a mug-shaped vessel made of some kind of porcelain containing about 250ml of recently poured boiling water over brown tea leaves, usually held in a porous paper sachet or bag, with about 30ml of added cold milk. Except it doesn’t, to people who don’t like milk in their tea, or who prefer green tea, or insist on a cup and saucer, or it might even mean a cup filled with tea leaves. Ultimately, you won’t know what the other person understands unless you ask, and if you have to ask about every little thing then life can become quite exhausting. So most people prefer to rely on a form of shorthand and assume that their “cup of tea” is exactly what they imagine it to be. How easy it is to be fooled into a false sense of security, as anybody who has ever had the experience of being asked for “hot tea” by an American. Of course it’s hot, dammit, otherwise it wouldn’t be tea! All this confusion arises from three little words. What these words, these boxes surrounding ideas, these forms of mental shorthand really represent is a social construct – a “cup of tea” is like this because, well because everybody else around me who is like me thinks that this, and only this, is a cup of tea.
This social construct is my identity, and the brilliant thing is that I have many which express themselves in all the different roles I assume every day, as a parent, a husband, a friend, at work or while playing around. Here’s the rub – certain identities carry consequences, whether I like them or not, and I may not even be consciously aware of them. Things such as national origin, religious affiliation, as well as gender, ethnicity, degree of privilege, all define the boundaries – that is – the outer limits of what I’m prepared to accept that each word box will surround. And this has a real bearing on solving all the world’s problems, even when lubricated by my favourite beer. For example, I tend to assume that governments are benign structures mandated to help improve their citizens’ lives. Clearly, most governments are neither benign, nor do their officers feel in any way compelled to act in accordance with enacting or enforcing fundamental human rights principles. So, sitting in the pub, enjoyable though that may be and the odd exception aside, is not the most direct route to solving the world’s problems.
So this is my understanding: fixing anything requires us to understand that everything is a social construct that has been collectively invented by people who share the same identity. So if something is broken, or a problem, a big part of understanding the issue is understanding where the boundaries of our word boxes have been set. Commonly referred to as the paradigm, but that is only a particular word box which contains the idea of a commonly understood idea (I hope you begin to understand why I often feel like I’m swimming uphill through a sea of treacle).
When you are in the forest you can’t see the wood for the trees – what is required is a different perspective. And that means seeking out those who have a different identity, persuading them to share their understanding and taking the time to learn.
Anybody fancy a beer?
Michael in his own words:
For several years, my day job was largely (though not entirely) based on my skills in both the English and French languages – which I found highly amusing as these were, PE aside, the things I was worst in at school. The skills of caring, attention to detail, and customer focus I need for my current day job were essentially acquired through the example given to me by my parents, and most significantly my mother. Married with one lovely child, I live in London. I used to ride motorcycles, but development work and a Masters got in the way, leading to the occasional blog at: http://www.conversareblog.net/.
I aspire to do so again.