Stay out of your head

Mourners listen to a memorial service over a loudspeaker outside Newtown High School for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. Photo: AP Photo/David Goldman

December 17, 2012


Cow dung being dried to be used for fuel

Try to use descriptive terms rather than ones which express approval or disapproval.

For example, the words clean and unclean are relative.  The comment that cow dung is used for fuel in many Indian villages often provokes reactions of disgust from many urban dwellers in the United States.  It may be instructive on this point to quote from a Kansas editor, writing in 1879 at a time when buffalo and cow dung, he calls them "chips," were commonly used for fuel.  "It was commenced by picking them up between two sticks, or with a poker.  Soon they used a rag,  Finally growing hardened, a washing after handling them was sufficient.  And now?  Now it is out of the bread, into the chips and back again--and not even a dust of the hands."

Try to use phrases that indicate conditions which should be considered with a statement.

For example, awareness may be increased by the use of such phrases as "in our culture," "from our point of view," and "at that time."

Try to become more alert to the ways in which cultured conditioning shapes our value judgments.

For example, historian Carroll Quigley reports:

We divide the whole range of colors, as found in the rainbow, into six colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet.  With our background, we think a view is beautiful if it consists of alternating horizontal bands of green and blue, as in a landscape consisting of a foreground strip of green shore, a blue lake beyond, a father shore of green trees and hills, and a blue sky beyond that.

But to a Bantu of dry Africa, such a view is a rather boring panorama of a single color, for many natives of that language-group place green and blue in a single category with one name, although they divide the lower red-orange-yellow portion of the spectrum into a larger number of basic colors, with names.  That is why what impresses us as a beautiful view of shore, lake, and sky strikes them as a rather monotonous field of one color, whereas, conversely, an African view, which to us seems to be a dull explanse of semi-parched soil with dry grasses, may seem to them to be an exciting scene of many different colors.


Try to recognize the degree to which the mind itself projects the kinds of answers which it obtains.

For example, writer Carl Sandburg tells of the responses which newcomers to Kansas received from one of the local farmers:

"What kind of folks live around here?"  "Well, stranger, what kind of folks was there in the country you come from?" "Well, they was mostly a low-down, lying, thieving, gossiping, backbiting lot of people."  "Well, I guess, stranger, that's about the kind of folks you'll find around here."  And the dusty gray stranger had just about blended into the dusty gray cottonwoods in a clump on the horizon when another newcomer drove up: "What kind of folks live around here?"  "Well, stranger what kind of folks was there in the country you come from?  "Well, they was mostly a decent, hardworking, lawabiding, friendly lot of people."  "Well, I guess, stranger, that's about the kind of folks you'll find around here."

Try to avoid either-or evaluations, substituting instead the idea of a continuum which encourages answers expressed by "in-between" amounts when appropriate.

For example, in our culture we often ask quesitons about the weather, such as "Do you think it will snow?"  The form of the question seems to suggest that it will or it won't; either yes or no.  But to Eskimos, for example, "snow" is described by about 50 different names, each one indicating a degree of snow varying from blizzard-size to snowflakes.  Each kind of snow is important in knowing what the "road conditions" for dog-sleds will be.  Similarly, skiers have developed many new names to describe conditions on the slopes.


Try to become more suspicious of our own "wisdom."

Anatole France once said of a man, "He flattered himself on being a man without prejudices; and this pretention itself is a very great prejudice."  In the Devil's Advocate: A Pleas for Superstition, written in 1909, Sir James G. Frazer argued that so-called superstitions more often than not embody a realistic distillation of experience whereby the uninitiated and unwary may receive tested guidance.  Behind many "myths" are 'truths" which have helped people to rationalize and maintain social order and organization.  Thus, for example, the "superstition" held widely in many Asian countries that the left hand is "evil" or in some ways inferior to the right-hand becomes more acceptable to the Westerner when he becomes familiar with the functions for which the left hand is reserved exclusively00functions which he would readily agree were "unclean" and worthy of giving the left hand its "bad reputation."