“Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, and that is what they become” – Chimamanda Adichie
Yesterday I was driving, and a minibus taxi driver squeezed himself as the 3rd vehicle in a 2 lane road, and he hooted until someone let him in, as if he was entitled to be there, to break the rules, and as if those around him were violating something and clearly irritating him for not letting his car in. He almost caused a crash on a busy road at rush hour and I was absolutely livid. I swore, hooted and felt my BP and adrenaline soar together.
Becoming acutely aware that I didn’t like this feeling, I zoomed out and lucidly looked at the experience. In that moment, yes, I was angry that he had put himself, all this passengers and us on the road in danger. But it also triggered all the memories I had of instances in the past where a minibus taxi driver has behaved above the law – my anger was not just about the one incident but about ALL incidents attached to negative memories about taxi drivers. I am frustrated that their driving is not regulated, I am frustrated that their driving is often hazardous on the road (eeking across red robots or stopping in the middle of intersections to let passengers out or in, not always indicating to cross lanes, squeezing in where they put others in danger etc) and I am frustrated that it just goes on and on. But. This was ONE instance on ONE day, and it raised ALL the frustration about all the other instances. What a waste of energy!
I grabbed my phone and made a note to write about this afterwards. This phenomenon does not just happen with taxi drivers. One area of particular interest to me is gender, and generalisations about men and women are rife. One bad experience with a man and women often suddenly become anti-men for a while, and I have seen the same happen with a few male friends who’ve had painful experiences with women. Trying to look nonchalant and end the conversation, we generalise in an angry flurry and the problem is, we usually get resounding agreement from those around us who hop on the same wagon and it only keeps us stuck in the same pattern. Who does this serve? No one. What does this change? NOTHING. We are not confronting anything straight on. It will thus happen again and again – life wants us to learn. I want to make a conscious effort to not perpetuate negative gender generalisations; I challenge us all to focus rather on similarities and complimentary aspects (yin/yang) rather than on pain from one situation.
In the taxi situation, I could have been frustrated, noted down the number plate, called the cops and reported it and had an otherwise-peaceful day. I could have not let him in and been a part of an accident. Or I could have allowed him in peacefully, and let the situation flow over me. The middle option is one I would never choose, but the former and the latter are truly viable options.
This thought path was also illuminated by the very talented Chimamanda Adichi, a video of whose I watched also yesterday. She speaks about how we are told stories about people, things and places and if we are only told one story, many of us take that as fact if the same story is told once and especially if the same story is told over and over again. Increasingly, people are discerning and questioning, but we cannot investigate absolutely everything and if we were all honest, we have all generalised this to some degree at some time. This struck home particularly close for me for a number of reasons. Naturally, our brains categorise entities around us because it is impossible for us to process each individual feature immediately. There is less of an issue with categories than with generalisations. How does that look? That taxi driver could fall into a category of bad drivers rather than me getting angry and generalising about all taxi drivers. Perhaps he was having a bad day?
Having recently returned home from New Zealand where I spent 3 years and another 1 in the UK/Mediterranean, on meeting people and exchanging names and countries of origin, there were rather mixed responses when I said I was from South Africa. The bewildered, sometimes unspoken “Hang on, but you’re white and speak English..?” – as if I would lie about where I come from. As a white person, passionately South African, I get frustrated that foreigners sometimes see us as less African because we are not black. Many people seemed excited by the idea of South Africa, having heard stories of Mandela and of the “Rainbow Nation”, of all the colour and culture of our magnificent land. But as soon as I suggested people go visit this country they spoke so warmly of originally, with quite a few, eye contact averted and the truth becomes apparent: Too many people are afraid of South Africa. Happy to jump on the culture wagon, to embrace Mandela and anything good to come OUT of South Africa, but too afraid to go IN and experience for themselves. I was very disheartened by this initially. It was absolutely NOT everyone I spoke to, and I consciously made the choice not to generalise about everyone, but on average, the responses weren’t great. I got “Oh no, my parents would NEVER let me go!”. On being asked why, there was the “Oh it’s so unsafe!” and once I heard something that really concerned me, “Everyone has had an immediate family member be killed in front of them or in their house”. This was a New Zealand man who had never been to South Africa, and as I questioned him, it turns out that he had spoken to 3 people who knew someone who had been killed and that was why they left the country. While each of those deaths is tragic, this man was blatantly and harmfully spreading negative generalisations about my home and I was angered by this. The people who he knew from SA, living in comparatively-safe New Zealand, obviously went there to “escape” the crime. Many have done that. I spoke to a number of South Africans in New Zealand who, shockingly without any shame, represented South Africa as a politically unmanageable, dispairingly unsafe, crime-riddled country that wasn’t worth going to and was worth laughing at and giving up on. This was part of why I left. How could someone disown their country, their roots? One person murdered each of those people – and yet the whole country was blamed.
No country is perfect. No person is perfect. No driver is perfect. People murder. People rape. People steal. People break the rules of the road. There is no justifying that behaviour, but we ALL have a responsibility to ourselves and humanity to do what we can to not generalise negatively about groups of people without being sure of what we are saying. It can be incredibly destructive and very hurtful. Fear mongering is a dangerous wild fire that needs very little fuel to spark, and even less fuel to spread.
Who does that serve? No one. I charge us to zoom out to see the bigger picture, to live our lives peacefully, to stand up for what we believe in but to challenge those around us who are Negative Generalists (racist, homophobic or heterophobic for that matter, xenophobic etc) living out of fear themselves, to probe before blindly accepting someone else’s opinion as our own.
I hardly ever read movie reviews – I go see the film for myself, because to me it is quite obvious that someone else will have an opinion that may well differ from mine. In all areas of our lives, we should at least try to be courageous enough to see for ourselves or to keep our traps shut and our ears and hearts open.