Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the tag “society”

Cultural pitfalls

About 20 years ago, when online discussion forums were relatively new, a forum for discussing Christian mission puiblished guidelines for participants, which included the following tip:

Write with an international audience in mind. Don’t assume the reader is necessarily familiar with your culture,  especially popular culture (eg food products, TV shows & personalities), current events, and politics. This doesn’t mean you can’t refer to these or discuss them as appropriate, but you may need to explain them as you go.

Perhaps even now such tips could be useful.

Recently an Orthodox Christian poster on Facebook posted the following picture:


In view of who the poster was, I took it for a picture of a group of Orthodox monks, dressed for gardening.

The one second from the left looks most like a monk, and the next one, in the baseball cap, looks least like one, but could be a novice or a visitor.

I later discovered that they were characters in a TV show that is popular in the US, called Duck Dynasty, about which there has recently been some controversy.

Fortunately, unlike in 1993, we have the web, and search engines, which makes it possible to look up such things and find enough of the backstory to discover what is going on, but in spite of the globalisation of culture, there are still cultural pitfalls, and we still haven’t arrived in the global village that Mashall McLuhan foresaw.

But it still raises questions for me.

Why would a TV show in the US have characters dressed to resemble Orthodox monks?

And what cultural images come to the minds of people in the US when they see real monks, particularly when they have been influenced by TV shows like Duck dynasty?





Google+ sowing confusion?

Someone posted this statement on Google+, which sounded to me rather like a justification for apartheid:

Children will be confused as long as they live in multiple cultures incoherent internally and disharmonious in such proximity with each other. Study after study says that the kind of diversity so many people believe strengthens group and makes them more tolerant has the opposite effect. More than that it dangerously undermines our sense of self.

I made a comment to that effect and referred to a post on my blog which gave a fuller explanation, Apartheid wasn’t so bad – historian | Khanya, in this passage in particular:

According to apartheid educationists (or pedagogicians, as they liked to call themselves) it was the “greatest possible injustice” for a child to be taught by someone of a different ethnic or cultural group. Think about that for a moment: “greatest possible”. You could starve a child, whip him, push burning cigarettes into her, lock him in a lightless cellar, make him slave in a mine or factory or farm at starvation wages, keep her as a sex slave, but none of those would be as great an injustice as being taught by a teacher of a different ethnic or cultural group.

But it seems that Google+ separated my comment from the text I was actually commenting on, and attached to to some other text I had not seen before, and which meant nothing to me, dropping the names of a lot of people I had never heard of.

I’m posting this on my blog, where I hope it won’t be messed up by Google*.

But now at the top of my blog I read this:

Tip: Connect to Google+: Increase your readers’ engagement with your content by connecting your Google+ profile and enable publicize for Google+ to share your posts to Google+.

So it looks like they want Google+ to mess up our blogs too, to cause even more miscommunication and misunderstanding!

Thanks but no thanks — when this is the kind of “engagement with my content” it produces:

Do you think it’s fair just to rattle off a brusque and exceptional comment like that, post a link to an article you wrote about an article someone else wrote about apartheid and … well, anyway, if you’d care to answer David or say something more, you’re welcome to. As it stands right now, and pardon my own boldness, your comment more resembles the tactic of some teenage boy trying to stir things up with a bit of pithy trolling.

— I’d rather keep Google+ as far away from my blog as possible!

Postscript – 23 Dec 2013

For more on the substantive issue, see my post on Apartheid and multicultural education.

This post is mainly about the role of Google+ in promoting misunderstanding.

I’ve now left Google+, and no one seems to have noticved except Google itself, which now nags me to join Google+ every time I log in to Gmail.



A few days ago I read something somewhere on the web that mentioned “complementarianism”. It was the first time I’d seen it called an -ism, and that seemed strange to me.

Someone else pointed me to this web site 24 Useful Words From Laádan, a Language Invented to Express a Woman’s Point of View | Mental Floss:

In 1981, author Suzette Haden Elgin was working on a speech when she began to wonder why feminist science fiction always portrayed either matriarchy, where women were superior to men, or androgyny, where women were equal to men. What about another alternative, where women were simply different from men? Perhaps it was difficult to imagine such a possibility, she thought, because we lacked the language to express it.

And that view, that women are simply different from men, seems to me best described asd the “complementarian” view, that male and female are not identical, not interchangeable, but that each is incomplete without the other. I wouldn’t regard it as an ideology (which is why I find the -“ism” puzzling) but just as a way of seeing things.

And the words on the linked web site seem to me that they could be quite useful, like the Zulu words for different colours of cows.

But it seems to me that “complementarianism” is regarded by many as a thoroughly bad thing.

Matriarchy, androgyny or patriarchy are where it’s at, folks.

Stereotypes of evil and menace

What do you consider the most powerful and scary stereotypes of evil in your society? In the West, perhaps “terrorist” and “serial killer” might spring to mind. In Africa, “witch” or “zombie”.

But if you want to find something pretty horrific, try Googling mom’s boyfriend or mum’s boyfriend. It seems to to be right up there with the others.

Hat-tip to The Western Confucian: Mom’s Boyfriend.

Have you seen my wife, Mr Jones?

I just watched on TV the last rescue worker who went to help the trapped Chilean miners being brought to the surface, and no doubt millions of other people were watching the same thing.

It reminded me of the Coalbrook mine disaster 50 years ago, when the attention of the nation, if not the world, was focused on the drama of attempts to rescue the more than 400 miners trapped by a rockfall in the Clydesdale colliery. It was pushed off the front-page news by the attempted assassination of Dr Verwoerd and the Sharpeville massacre a couple of months later.

And of course it also reminded me of one of the BeeGees’ best songs:

I keep straining my ears to hear a sound.
Maybe someone is digging underground,
or have they given up and all gone home to bed,
thinking those who once existed must be dead.

In South Africa, as I remember it, the news was full of the fate of the trapped miners, and the desperate attempts being made to rescue them, but unlike what happened in Chile, all rescue attempts failed. A contemporary issue of Time magazine came up with some aspects of the story that didn’t make the front pages in South Africa, where, at that stage in our history at least, mining and media interests were closely allied. SOUTH AFRICA: Delayed Reaction – TIME:

Like some modern Moloch, South Africa’s mining industry has long come to expect its regular sacrifice of human lives. And even though in good years South Africa has 15 times as many fatalities per ton of coal mined as the U.S., the fact that most miners are black men has kept the subject from becoming too important in South Africa. But three weeks after the Coalbrook rockfall entombed 411 blacks and six whites in the worst mining disaster in the nation’s history (TIME, Feb. 1), the Union finally was working up a real case of public indignation.

And the Time article goes on to say

For South Africans one awkward test of compassion still remained. A relief fund for the survivors had climbed past the $300,000 mark. In South Africa there is no racial equality even in death; compensation laws grant a white miner’s wife a pension for life of up to $93 a month. But a Bantu widow gets only a lump sum payment, which, if prudently invested, would give a return calculated at $9 a month. At week’s end keepers of the fund were trying to decide whether or not to apply a similar ratio (Time, Monday, Feb. 22, 1960).

Society has changed for the better since then — or has it?

The media tell us of the huge international effort that went into saving the trapped miners in Chile. But there has been very little publicity given to the question of who pays for it. The answer is, no doubt, that the bulk of it will be paid by the taxpayers of Chile and the other countries that helped.

And that leads to two further thoughts.

First, I wonder about the people who begrudge the spending of any taxpayers’ money on things like health care. Are they fuming? Are they throwing things at their TV screens in indignation of this massive instance of “armed robbery”? Yes, that’s what some American ideologists call it — the money used to rescue the miners, they firmly believe, was taken from them at gunpoint.

And secondly, when all these huge international resources are concentrated on rescuing 35 miners in Chile, even more resources are being expended on sending drones to kill 35 villagers in Pakistan.

In the words of another song, almost contemporary with the BeeGees’ one, “It’s a strange strange world we live in, Master Jack.”[1]


[1] Dave Marks, who wrote Master Jack, was a real-life miner, and the song is said to have come from his experiences when working on the mines.

Current reading: a tourist’s guide to modernity

From Dawn to Decadence From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I haven’t finsihed reading this book, and will add to these comments when I do. I recently picked it up again after putting it aside , and then putting other books on top of it, after I’d got about halfway through.

It’s a kind of history and tourist’s guide to modernity. I was moved to pick it up again after an internet discussion on science, magic and miracles.

View all my reviews >>

I first came across Jacques Barzun when I was working on my masters dissertation and read The modern researcher, which he wrote with Henry Graff, and found it enormously helpful, and have recommended it to postgraduate students ever since. So when I saw this new book of his in a bookshop I had no hesitation in buying it, and i have bot een disappointed.

American Feelings About Wicca

John Morehead reports on a survey of American feelings about Wicca: Morehead’s Musings: New Barna Survey on American Feelings About Wicca:

Among those who have heard of Wicca, nearly two-thirds (62%) described it as an organized form of witchcraft. Smaller proportions defined Wicca as a form of Satanism (7%) or as a religious cult (7%). About one-fifth (18%) said that although they were familiar with the name, they knew little or nothing about Wicca.

When asked to express their view of Wicca, 6% held a favorable view (2% very favorable and 4% somewhat favorable), and 52% held unfavorable views (7% somewhat unfavorable and 45% very unfavorable).

Perhaps the most intriguing response was from the remaining 43% who said they did not know what they thought of Wicca or had no particular opinion about it.

I’m a little puzzled about why the last point is so intriguing. If my opinion had been asked I would probably have answered that I had no particular opinion about it.

i would expect practitioners of a religion to have a favourable opinion about it, and I would expect militant atheists to have an unfavourable opinion about it, as they would have about any religion. But what more can one say?

I can see why sociological researchers might want to know, but it doesn’t make it any easier to answer the question. Asking questions like that seems to imply that one must make moral judgements about everything, and assign it to categories of good or bad. Is that a peculiarly American thing, I wonder? In various conflicts around the world there seems to be a tendency, stronger in America than elsewhere, to know who the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are. In the recent conflict in South Ossetia, for example, some Americans, apparently following what they were told in American media, were absolutely convinced about the good guys and the bad guys, even though it was an area most knew very little about.

As a religion or worldview Wicca doesn’t appeal to me, so I’m unlikely ever to become a practitioner. That means my view of it is not favourable, just as it is of any other religion I don’t practise. But saying one’s view of it is “unfavourable” seems to be heading into dangerous territory.

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