Monday, March 13, 2006

Do you turn the lights off?

At an earlier post (Dec. 4th), I spoke about selfishness. Back then a tragic event had provoked me to do so; today, I want to explore selfishness from another perspective and put it in the context of our modern world. My premise remains the same: "We, human creatures, are very selfish: we don't feel grief unless it touches us, we are not grateful for what we have unless we lose it, we worship ourselves leaving everyone else that is not friend or family out. (sometimes, sadly, there is no room for them either in the bubble we have created for ourselves)".

At this very early stage I want to clarify that I do not intend to generalize since there are millions of people, certainly, who are both caring and compassionate. Fortunately. Yet it seems to me that the multitude of problems that our world faces today is to a large extent a consequence of the self-centered behavior of many people (how many I do not know, and it matters little, since what matters are the consequences of their actions). There is no doubt that much responsibility lies with governments and instirutions that make decisions; yet people are equally responsible either because they contribute directly their part to the problem or because they tacitly approve, or still, because they refuse to take action for what they think is wrong.

In lieu of apathy you can read selfishness or any other word you think captures best this behavior. Yet one must point out that this apathy can magically transform into courage and action, if the following condition is met: it has to affect the individual directly. For example you care about the forests if you live in the forest and know that a threat to the trees means a threat to you. Plain as that. You care about the unpolluted beaches of your island if you rely on tourism, cause if you are a tourist it makes little difference to you whether you dispose of your empty water bottle in a trashbin or the beach.

If reading these lines makes you scream, I am glad. Before defending yourself and your values [that would never ever make you one of "those uncivilized people"], remember that these examples are important to consider, even if they seem extreme since they reveal the mindset of many people [you thought did not exist] and more generally the obstacles that we all need to face in trying to solve any such problem.

Often times, we tend to think that there needs to be a revolution or something really big for a change to take place. Yet my take to all this is that each and everybody can make a difference. What is more worrisome to me, is how difficult it is to persuade large sums of people to do something that they see no interest in. Should we come to a day that people will be turning off their lights not because they want to lower their bills, but rather because they want to do "their part" for the environment, then I think that we will be much safer saying that the world is becoming a better or safer place than with any scientific or elaborate plan of action. So why not spending that good money on education?

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


Everyday, everywhere, willingly or unconsciously we all tend to use stereotypes when referring a specific group of people that share an identity, (ethnic or religious being the most common examples). How often do we catch ourselves attributing specific characteristics to a set of people or generalizing about their behavior based on a trait? We sometimes go that far so as to predict behavior based on some knowledge we think we have. Earlier in the day i had a discussion with an American gentleman, he insisted: "Europe is different. You are in Spain today, you move a little and there you are in France. Without even noticiing, you are in Switzerland. In the US it's different. You may travel the same distance only to find that you have changed a state or two. People in America are very different, and non-Americans hardly ever realize that".

Stereotyping. For a speaker of Greek, the guess is easy since "stereo" means solid; while by no means the most accurate interpretation, understanding stereotyping as the assigning of specific, general, simplified or exaggerated attributes to a set of people is a close call. What is most important though is to notice its volatile nature: stereotyping may stir anything from friendship to politics, even rhetoric (here: inspire). Yet stereotyping appears to be one of those things that people refuse to grant importance unless they become affected harshly by its consequences: not until we lose a friend or we are stigmatized/classified for what we are (not), do we really comprehend the significance of stereotyping.

And admittedly stereotyping is an easy pitfall to fall in. It easy to create an argument based on a single notion (because X people are Y they...) rather than considering various influential parameters. Such is our "love" for stereotypes that we have even created jokes about them!Probably because stereotypes appeal to that lazy part of our brain that adores simple-straightforward concepts and rejects the more complex ones. What do you think? What is alarming however is that in a world of increasing access to information, we still uphold many of such stereotypes instead of trying to get to know how "these" people really look like. If for our ancestors stereotypes were one way to refer to people they had hardly ever met what is our excuse today?

So, should we abolish stereotypes altogether? Considering the cultural dimension of some of the stereotypes, (often they do reflect important components of a people's identity), it is difficult to dismiss the concept altogether. It is important however not to abuse stereotypes and rather to opt for a genuine understanding of another people by delving into its culture. Yet above all, what is most important is to understand that under the socially and culturally constructed façade, we all humans are the same: meme si on parle français, o español, oder deutsch ή ελληνικά ya da türkçe! Having realized that commonality, perhaps we will be able to even use stereotypes; yet at that point we will be doing so without intending to ridiculize or criticize people: two of the intentions responsible for the aforementioned consequences that divide people.

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