Monday, 24 May 2010

These versus Us

I love using this space to be utterly bitchy and ranty about some of the things I hear, in a way that I could never be in my face-to-face life.
Don't get me wrong: I call the B.S. in my face-to-face life. Just in rather less corrosive terms. So why put up the bilge here? Dunno. Perhaps I don''t call the B.S fully enough, or it just makes me maa-aad and I need to vent.

Here is something that has been prickling me since it happened.
An exceptionally close friend and I went out last year to the village I did my research interviews in.
For me this was a chance to revisit my friends there, get a day out in the fresh air, let them know that I was finally! writing! up! and eat some great village food. It was also a chance to chat with some of the people I'd interviewed and ask them to clarify some of the things that they'd said during the interview that I didn't fully understand, but thought I had at the time.

Here is a snippet of the conversation we had on the way home. I began by mentioning how much I loved some of the people I'd met there, even though I barely knew them. I felt connected to them, to their place, to their warmth, generosity and care. Romantic of me, perhaps, but so what..
The next few lines of our chat went something like this:
Me: ...and you know they're so incredible every time I go there. They always have time to sit and talk to me, even if they have to go meet someone in Parner (the nearby town), or go to the market that day, or take the goats out...

Him: *scoff

Me: What was that?!

Him: You know, they really have nothing better to do. These people (that's the part that stabs at my mind: these people) will take any chance to just sit around and do nothing. No matter what you try to do to help them (another stab: help them? How patronising!), nothing will change. They're just all incredibly lazy.

Me: I beg your pardon... I think that's a totally condescending thing to say. And you have no idea whatsoever about their lives, lifestyles or priorities.... you've never even been here!

Him: I don't need to have been here. These people are all the same. Seen one? Seen them all.

Me: So what do you do exactly? What do you do that demonstrates that you're not just a lazy sod yourself?

Him: How dare you... (with no further qualifying answer, I assume he couldn't answer and left it at that.)

You know what bugs me the most?
This is a fairly typical set of opinions. In conversation with friends about my fieldwork, I've often uncovered incredibly condescending opinions about rural lifestyles and people, lurking just under the surface of seemingly egalitarian, open-minded, cosmopolitan people. People who are curious about the world, relatively non-judgemental and god damn it - imaginative. So why the spillover 'these people' opinions that so many of my parents' generation seem to have?

What bugs me also is the fact that the opinions are never qualified by experience or example. They must be lazy because they're poor.
They must be miserable because they're poor.
They must be poor because they don't have houses in the city and can't read or write and eat fried chicken at will until all their arteries clog up.
They must be miserable because they don't have the opportunities 'we' do: to see museums and shows and dance all night and drink and picnic at the weekends and watch documentaries and sit around discussing national politics and art and philosophy and manicures.
And if they're poor and miserable, it must be their fault! They're lazy! They don't work 14 hour days in an office, so they must be lazy. They enjoy sitting under neem trees? Wow. Lazy.

All the assumptions are grounded only in ones' own personal agendas. You know one life - your own - you've known them all. Apparently.

What I've loved discovering during my fieldwork is that 'these people' are just like me. Equally, I've loved discovering how they are different: each one of 'them' is different to the other 'thems', and to me. Individuals. Yes, with some conditioned attitudes, prejudices and agendas. Just like me. But also with entirely individual and powerful traits, personalities, destinies and hopes.

There is no them and us, there's just all of us.
And if there were a them and us, the powerful condescension inherent in 'these people' almost guarantees that them and us will never ever meet, even if we sit next to each other under a neem tree.

What does it take to shatter thems and build us-es?