“It is very seldom, as he noticed, that in debate any one of two evenly matched antagonists will succeed in actually convincing or “converting” the other. But it is equally seldom that in a properly conducted argument either antagonist will end up holding exactly the same position as that with which he began. Concessions, refinements and adjustments will occur, and each initial position will have undergone modification even if it remains ostensibly the “same”.”
Christopher Hitchens on Sir Karl Popper ’s argument for argument. Letters to a Young Contrarian
This week’s book of the week was recommended to me by a student of mine who is nothing short of a genius in the making. This Colombian has a vocabulary in English that outstrips many native speakers, and has just landed a job in a law firm in Bogota. He also has a knack for reading people evidence for this lying in the very title: “Letters to a Young Contrarian”, by Christopher Hitchens.
Now, I find the word “contrarian” quite a sharp word to use to describe anyone. I mean, who wants to be labelled as the person who says black, just because the rest are saying white? Personally I like to think that I am more yin and yang, a balance of both. However, this young prodigy made the very good point that I come across as quite a strong character (some have used the word “fiesty”), and some of my beliefs and practices go against the current of my surroundings. In that sense, I guess he is right to have identified certain characteristics of a “contrarian”.
What beliefs and practices you ask? Well, I am a British Algerian living in Latin America, who doesn’t eat meat or drink alcohol. Talk about melting pot. As soon as Latinos hear that I am an English teacher, they think that after a few drinks I become a Nancy type barmaid singing “Oom Pa Pa” on a table with a cockney accent. You may have some preconceptions about Colombians, but don’t kid yourself, they have some about you too. Not many of them have come across any Arabs, let alone Muslims, and the ones on their televisions don’t really look like me.
When I tell my Colombian companions that I don’t drink alcohol, they try to give me beer instead of spirits. Similarly when I say that I don’t eat meat they start getting the chicken out of the fridge. Colombians are a lot more direct than Brits. They want you to have a good time, and for them that goes hand in hand with doing shots of the national tipple, Arguardiente. (“diente” means tooth, so for some reason this always has me thinking about drinking mouthwash…). In these moments one has the sometimes uncomfortable task of asserting some limits that go against popular expectations.
When I have said I don’t drink and, shock horror, the national party-starter has never passed my lips, my dear Colombians can be somewhat offended. “Do it for Colombia”, they tell me. “You can’t go back to England without trying the national drink of Colombia!”, “A sip won’t get you drunk, just stick your finger in and lick it to see what it is like”. To which, I politely decline.
This is when it becomes evident that on this topic, we are on different sides of the fence. We are the “antagonists” of which Popper speaks. I know that I am not going to change my position, as do they. However, that does not need to be a problem, or push us into two separate camps. As I said to some friends the other day at a party “It is one thing to say you don’t drink because you don’t fancy it, it is another to not drink because of your own convictions”. That got them nodding their heads and mumbling in agreement. After all, it is a Catholic country, so they have a respect for faith-based decisions. I believe that I have no right to tell someone that they should not be drinking, or put pressure on them to behave according to my own morals, and equally I expect the freedom to not engage in whatever I don’t wish to participate in. Plus, at a party or a dinner, I am one of the lively chatty ones, buzzing from my iced tea and sweets. I might not drink, but I am the real party-starter!
Standing by your decisions and beliefs doesn’t mean imposing them on anyone else but when dealing with people who are on the other side of the fence it is important to remember that they are your neighbour. Hence, even if you aren’t always on the same side, you can have a nice chat about your differences over the peonies and the honeysuckle, and plan a barbeque to get to know each other better. It is only through discussion between two parties that disagree that understanding is developed.
Hitchens uses a lesson learnt from Dr Israel Shahak to further crystalize the importance of conflict in resolution:
“…a long and risky life has persuaded him that only an open conflict of ideas and principles can produce any clarity. Conflict may be painful, but the painless situation does not exist in any case and the pursuit of it leads to the painful outcome of mindlessness and pointlessness, the apotheosis of the ostrich”
People aren’t so different really. We all have dreams and hopes and want to succeed. Generally most cultures value the importance of family, trust and respect. Wherever you go people rally behind their national football teams, boast about their national dishes and unite behind some kind of music, be it Michael Jackson, Magic System or Berber drums. No one trusts the politicians. Yet sometimes, there are going to be points where cultures, faiths or customs collide. It is impossible to just try and convert another party, but through discussion, we can come to learn about the context behind which customs and practices have been formed.
Last week, there was a big debate over the fate of the San Andres Islands and the surrounding water. It was a struggle between Colombia and Nicaragua and was taken to an international court. My best friend who is Nicaraguan was debating the issue with one of my students, a Colombian, over Facebook. It was a heated topic fuelled by the fire of patriotism and the two parties were not going to agree. That much was obvious. However, my student told me later that he respected my friend for what he said, because it meant that he defended his country, which was exactly what he was doing on his side. Whilst they did not agree on the matter in hand, the principle of loyalty was mutually understood and respected, and that meant more than the argument over the islands.
If we cannot share the same opinions, the next best thing is sharing mutual respect. As Popper explains, in this way, we may not be “converted”, or be able to “convert”, but we will come out with a richer understanding of not just our own convictions, but of those which conflict with our own. Why bother with this you ask? Well if you can identify the reasons behind someone acting against what you believe, it is easier to live in peace alongside it. As long as it remains foreign and inexplicable, you will always fear it or hold it in contempt.
One last point. I have been known to stand up for one or two opinions that go against the popular majority. I was against the Kony propaganda from the get-go, I never liked Julian Assange and I think that whilst we should have freedom of speech there should be greater penalties for those who intentionally provoke or incite hatred. Whilst this may merit the title of “contrarian” I believe that the path to peace is picking your battles and remembering to express your positive views also. I don’t feel the magic of the Beatles, but I won’t say that to someone who lives for their music. I also can’t stand reality shows, but I will sit through La Voz Colombia and comment on the dresses when my flat mate wants to watch it. I wasn’t feeling the Olympics because of the corporate money circus that it became but I didn’t rain on everyone’s parade. I did rather like the Royal wedding however, despite the fact that it goes against my anti-elitist views. I just felt like the party was going ahead anyway, so I might as well smile with the masses and have a celebratory cup of tea. One doesn’t have to militant every day to defend ones beliefs. In doing so you make yourself the argumentative bully that people think is always trying to pick a fight.
It is important to know what you won’t budge on and why, but also to try and reach out to people and find some common ground, because it is unlikely that one of the parties is simply going to evaporate into thin air.
Maybe in reading this you haven’t been “converted” to agreeing with any of my opinions about opinions and beliefs, but perhaps there may have been some modification in your initial standpoint. Who knows? The best I can hope for is that somewhere in these words you might have found a little peace and maybe a few points that we can share. As long as we can agree on the value of respect, we can continue to have discussions that will bring about greater harmony.
I will leave you with a quote from Malcolm X, for those moments when you need a bit of courage:
“If you don’t stand for something you will fall for anything”
Have a nice day, wherever in the world you are.
Love and blessings from Bogota x