Friday, July 27, 2012

Problem-solving: a skill we desperately need

I've had the good fortune to live and work with people who have devoted themselves to solving problems. They are really the unsung heroes of our communities. They are the ones who fix the things that are broken in our systems or carve out new paths to bypass the old, dysfunctional ones. These people work in a variety of fields. I'm not just talking about those who work in healthcare, law, social work, or pastoral care. I'm talking about people in almost any field out there. Heck, I could even be talking about you.

I've come to realize over time that people in general spend a lot of time and energy making much ado over nothing. We invest so much capital in symbolic battles against those whom we perceive as our enemies, and we do this in big ways and small ways. People who spend much of their free time gossiping about and undermining personal enemies do it. So do political parties and other large entities that thrive on creating controversy and provoking outrage. And these actions come at a cost. What they add up to, at the end of the day, are symbolic victories, but the real foundational problems remain in our communities.

You want some examples? Look at the state of contemporary American politics. More specifically, look at the kinds of legislation that American conservatives have been pushing for all over the nation in the past few years. I'm talking about those laws that focus on issues that conservatives consider to be key to the nation's moral fabric: abortion, contraception, gay marriage and civil unions.

If you happen to be conservative, you may consider these nationwide legislative victories to be a great accomplishment for your side. But there's one thing you should be worried about vis-à-vis this kind of legislation: It's the fact that the legislators making it happen are doing it as part of a cynical calculation. The idea is this: By achieving these symbolic legislative victories, they signal to the people who voted for them that they have done what they were put in office to do. They subsequently win the loyalty of their constituents, but they have absolutely no incentive to work on legislation that actually solves the biggest problems facing their communities (e.g. unemployment, the failing health care system, malnutrition).

Today, American communities battling poverty, health crises, and other long-term problems are not actually dealing with these problems. Not in terms of policy, anyway. The problems are not even on the agenda. And the not-so-funny thing is this: When problems are ignored, they do not vanish. In fact, they have this knack of growing bigger and bigger. An apt illustration of this is Mississippi, one of the poorest states in the U.S., where conservative legislative efforts have been focused on making the one abortion clinic in the state next to impossible to operate. In the meantime, the average Mississippian is struggling to make it from day to day, living in the margins.

If you're on the ground in these communities, the situation is very frightening. To use a Kenyanism, things are elephant (there's a huge catastrophe impending). You watch as the existing problems are compounded; perhaps you even know what is broken in the system and how to fix it. But you also know that any proposals you make for policy changes will come to nought. Only if your proposal stands to make somebody somewhere a fat load of cash will it see the light of day.

In Kenya, I see pretty much the same kind of inertia about solving problems. The symbolic battles fought in the media are often flimsily disguised battles about ethnic supremacy. Occasionally, they're about religious supremacy and morality. Many Kenyan politicians and religious leaders alike are highly vocal about these kinds of issues. They know that they are effective in rallying support, and 'consolidating the base.' And they are successful: For some reason, people gain tremendous satisfaction from boisterously supporting or opposing some cause or another, and don't seem to mind that their shouts and rallies do nothing to ease their lives. When all is said and done, the old problems persist in the community: poverty, chronic health issues, food insecurity, environmental degradation, and others.

The people I consider heroes in this anti-pragmatic climate are the ones who live in our communities, recognize our problems, and put in the hard work necessary to solve them in their own small way. If they have private capital, they use it to put their ideas into practice. If they don't, they reach out to others in the community with similar interests and they leverage their resources to craft solutions. When they face obstacles due to political obstructionism, corruption, etc, they don't give up. They simply look for a way to bypass them. Their main aim is to solve the identified problem, not to get fame for it, and not to profit materially from it. So they labor on quietly, achieving little victories and making a big difference in the lives of some.

Their victories do not lie in reaching large numbers of people. Even if only a few people's lives are improved, the problem-solvers' achievements remain meaningful. They form a template that the rest of us can borrow from. We can learn from them: We can learn about the techniques they used and adopt their attitiudes. Hopefully, by adopting their active approach to life, we can solve some of our larger problems.

These thoughts didn't come to me out of the blue. I've been pondering on them for a long time. Part of my motivation has to do with the work I have done as a volunteer, and my exposure to others who have volunteered in other contexts. Part of my inspiration actually comes from observing those religious and ideological communities that place a high premium on self-sufficiency (sometimes due to a history of persecution). Even in those cases where I disagree with their core teachings, I find that they have valuable attitudes and practices that have helped them to thrive. Some of the groups (broadly-defined) that come to mind include the American nucleus of the Church of Latter Day Saints and the survivalist movement in the United States.

One of my more recent inspirations was Dylan Ratigan, who until recently hosted a show that was part of MSNBC's daily line-up. It seemed to me that he placed a high premium on getting beyond partisan squabbles to discuss real problems and solutions. I don't know how successful a recipe that was for TV. Addressing real issues is hardly ever sensational enough to attract consistently high ratings. But I did take away from his show the urgency of pulling our heads out of the ground and getting to work. In the last installment of his show, he emphasized this philosophy and described his intention to continue working with those who were committed to developing solutions to the problems in their communities. He also wrote briefly about the same in one of his Huffington Post articles.

Another huge inspiration comes from Iran, via Mississippi: A description of a community health project that is intended to reach the rural poor. I've already linked to the relevant article above, but here it is again: These folks are working with very little institutional support, but their ideas are clearly solid. I can't help wishing that they could rally the support of local communities, especially churches, and mobilize the public to raise funds for their endeavors.

Working together to build the community is a learned skill. Some people are fortunate enough to be born in communities where this skill is taught. Others are born in communities where it is underemphasized. For those living in communities of the latter type, learning how to organize to solve practical problems is a godsend.

Reading about these kinds of communities makes me realize just how important effective community organizing is. We tend to think of community organizing as facilitating civic protest. But it can help communities achieve much more than that. Surely, it can help communities develop solutions to their healthcare problems. It can also help them educate families about healthy nutritional practices and sustainable living.

One of the fundamental lessons I have learnt from my experiences and from others is that one's capacity to be an effective problem solver is drastically diminished if he/ she is an outsider to the community. How can one propose practical long-term solutions when he/ she hasn't lived in a community and doesn't know in precise detail what kinds of complications govern the community members' lives? This seems obvious. It also explains why the best solutions for community problems are homegrown solutions. One can't simply translate solutions wholesale from another community. They have to be tried out locally and modified to suit local circumstances. And for them to gain any currency in the community, they have to be seen to work for locals.

This is why I'm increasingly inclined to support the idea of people everywhere being more proactive in crafting solutions for their unique local problems using whatever resources they have at their disposal. Governments may help in some ways, but they can't do everything. In some cases, they don't do anything, not even the bare minimum that we have come to expect from them. As I write these words, I'm thinking about the annual floods and droughts in certain parts of Kenya (for example), and wondering at the fact that, even when these catastrophic events happen predictably, we still get caught unprepared. What can we realistically do in local communities to be better prepared for these kinds of crises?

To answer these kinds of questions, we need to take a close look at the social infrastructure we have. We need to look at the ways in which our communities are structured, see what kinds of social nets we have for people in times of crisis, and determine how to strengthen them. If the social net is the extended family, what can we (as individuals and families) do? If it is a local religious community, then let's work with that: what can we do? I'm interested in seeing religious activists spending less time burning boxes of condoms at rallies and more time building structures to support teen mothers who choose to keep their children, or to help AIDS patients who are stigmatized by their communities.

I'm also interested in seeing so-called tribal organizations investing their energy in mentoring young unemployed men and women and giving them internship opportunities, not indoctrinating them to hate others. How about villages? There's so much we can do, especially those of us whose communities have lost their most productive men and women to diseases such as HIV/ AIDS, TB, cancer etc. There is much more we can do to support the struggling families among us. We come equipped with active minds and bodies, so let's not wait for help from on high.

In the spirit of practicing what I preach, I intend to continue blogging about this subject. It strikes me that problem-solving is undermined when one has little or no access to information. So I'm going to make it a point to share any information I come across that has the capacity to inspire and empower others. Feel free to communicate with us if you have any ideas that you'd like to share.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Some lessons about writing and criticism

I've learnt a few important things about writing over the years. They follow below:

  1. Writing anything of good quality, whether a short story, novel, poem, academic paper, or web copy is hard work.
  2. Writing constructive criticism about another person's work is challenging.
  3. Writing destructive criticism about another person's work is easy.
  4. Keeping an open mind as others critique your work is difficult.
My point of entry into this subject is my cumulative experience as a teacher, a student, an editor, and a writer. So I have had occasion to experience both sides of the coin: I have been the writer, and I have also been the critic.

I know how challenging it is to gather one's thoughts into one coherent stream and to set them down in black and white. I do it every single week on this blog and elsewhere. The final product is rarely what I envisioned when I first set out to write. On a good day, that is fine, because I am still satisfied with what I've written. On a not-so-good day, the flaws in my writing are apparent to me, and it takes numerous rereads and drafts to finally get it right. By the time such a piece is done, I have invested my heart and soul into it. I may have spent a significant amount of time on research, and may have considered and discarded countless possible angles.

Then come the second pair of eyes and the criticism. Sometimes I am fortunate: The person who is critiquing  my writing may send it back to me all marked up in red, but the comments make it evident that he or she actually read my piece, took my ideas seriously, and engaged with them as I had presented them. This is the biggest compliment that anybody can pay a writer.

When a critic reads my writing and takes it on its own terms, he or she is respecting me as a writer. The critic may ultimately disagree with my major premises and present me with the reasons for this disagreement in detail. But that is fine. It gives me a taste of what my potential audience may perceive when they read my writing, and may help me identify and fix the flaws in my poem, story, or article.

On the other hand, I may disagree with what the critic says. Perhaps he or she misunderstood something fundamental in my writing. Even in this situation, reading his or her critique will help me determine whether I need to rewrite some of my work so that its meaning is more apparent to readers. The criticism is still constructive: Something good will come out of it.

For the critic, writing this kind of critique takes effort. First of all, he or she actually has to read the text. The critic has to immerse himself or herself in the world conjured up by the text to decide whether the narrative is true to the rules of that particular world. If there are problems within the narrative, then it is only by reading it closely and pointing to these specific problems that the critic can write a proper critique.

For criticism to be constructive it should also be true to the original intent of the writing. In other words, it should seek to improve the writing to the point that it achieves what the original writer set out to do. Destructive criticism does the exact opposite. It seeks to impose an alien purpose on the narrative: typically the purpose that the critic subscribes to in his or her own writing.

So, for instance, a destructive critique would fault a text for not being politically engaged, even if the writer had made it evident that he was not interested in writing overtly political texts. Such a critique would typically express the critic's sentiment that "This is what I would have done if I were the one writing this piece." Critiques of this form are never about the text or the writer of the text. They are more about the critic. And that is a problem. The critic's job is to engage with the writer's work, not with his or her own literary legacy.

This brings me to the question of the writer's reception of criticism: How should the writer respond to destructive critiques of his or her work? Well, the answer to that question really depends on the context. In an academic context, for instance, it may be in a scholar's best interest to defend his or her article if a fellow scholar misrepresents it in a review or analysis.

Another situation comes to mind: one where a writer is commissioned to write an article by somebody else. If the article doesn't meet the person's expectations, the writer will not get paid. So the writer has an incentive to respond positively to the criticism, even when it is not constructive.

A colleague recently found himself in that situation. He was hired to write a seemingly straightforward article. His client gave him instructions about the length, content, and tone of the article. For the amount of pay she was offering for the final product, the terms seemed reasonable.

Once he started to work on the article, however, he realized that there was some ambiguity in the subject she had asked him to write about. It turned out that the subject could be addressed in two drastically different ways, and she had not been clear about which one she preferred.

The writer sought clarification from his client. In her response, his client cleared the confusion up. Later, when the writer had completed the article and sent it to her for review, it turned out that there were other unspoken expectations she wanted him to meet. She outlined them at length, asking him to rewrite the piece accordingly.

The irony of the situation was not lost on the writer. He recognized that if his client had presented all this information clearly in her original request, he would have written a good piece the first time. He would also have asked for more money, because, as it turned out, the article she wanted was more complicated than the one she had initially described to him.

It was not the writer's fault that his client had initially failed to give him sufficiently detailed instructions. However, if he wanted to get paid, he would have to take her criticism to heart and rewrite the piece to meet her new specifications. In truth, her criticism was not constructive. Rather than giving him tips for improving his first piece, which was consistent with her initial request, she was essentially asking him to write a completely different piece.

In the business context, the customer is always right, even when she is wrong. So while her criticism of his article was unfair, there was little he could do about it. If he wanted to be paid, he would have to rewrite the piece and face the possibility that she would request yet another rewrite, and another one, and another one, ad infinitum. Not surprisingly, he chose not to rewrite the piece and ended up foregoing the payment.

My colleague's description of his experience struck a chord with me. It got me thinking about how separating a piece of writing from the context of its production and from its intended meaning is the easiest way to rubbish it. It also brought home to me the fact that some critics (whether they are literary critics or clients) have no idea how much work goes into writing. I happen to think it is fairly easy to be dismissive of somebody's work if one has never walked in that person's shoes and faced similar challenges.

I like to believe that my cumulative experiences as a writer and critic have helped me bring a balanced approach to these roles. Because I have worked as a teacher and editor, I am learning to take a step back from my own writing and to recognize the flaws within. This makes it easier to be receptive to other people's critiques and to see the merit in them.

At the same time, my experiences as a writer and student, subject to other people's judgments, help me to be more sympathetic when I am reviewing others' writing. Because I know how much barbed critiques can hurt a writer and undermine his or her courageous attempts to be creative, I try to keep my critiques constructive. Of course, this is a work in progress: Each new day brings new experiences and encourages me to grow as a writer, a teacher, and an editor.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Can one discuss responsibility without being labelled a victim blamer?

I just read this article about victim blaming. I like the fact that young men are stepping out and condemning rape in unambiguous terms. But there is one thing about the article that I find troubling. It's the second paragraph:

Women staying out late in foreign places dressed in tight, skimpy clothes with some alcohol in their systems are often warned to be smart and aware of their surroundings. These type of warnings stem from the idea that if women look or act a certain way, they must be asking for it … right?

Really? Telling a woman to be smart and aware of her surroundings in a foreign country, to pay attention to her alcohol consumption and her clothing is victim blaming? What exactly is the suggested alternative? If you're in charge of a bunch of kids studying abroad in a conservative nation, are you actually going to tell them to dress in a fashion calculated to rile the locals? Are you going to tell them to go out and drink to their heart's content?

Realistically, drinking until one is out of control is a stupid idea, whatever the circumstances, and whoever is doing it. In an ideal world, people wouldn't do it. But we don't live in an ideal world. Many people drink excessively, to the point that their capacity to make wise decisions is impaired. A responsible adult should be concerned about this, and should be able to advice them about the risks that come with irresponsible drinking.

As for clothing, whether or not we like it, what we wear tells a story about us. It may be an inaccurate story: People's assumptions about us on the basis of our clothing may be completely wrong. But it is important to know what assumptions they have in order to interpret their behavior and to be better prepared to respond to it.

Let me give you an example. Wearing pants (as Americans call them) or trousers (as Kenyans call them) in some rural communities is considered to violate some unwritten principle about the proper place of women. Apparently, women who wear trousers in such communities are perceived to be rebelling against the social order. It doesn't matter how modest the pants/ trousers actually are. People judge first and ask questions later.

A woman going into such a community without prior knowledge of these conventions would likely encounter some resentment or hostility without understanding why. A woman with some understanding of these conventions would be in a position to decide whether or not to wear pants/ trousers while living in the said community. If she chose to wear them, she would understand where the hostility was coming from and have the capacity to respond to it effectively.

Mind you, this is not just about women. It is about men too. Communities all over the world have dress codes for men and women, depending on their age and station in society. The dress codes may or may not be set down in the legislation, but they exist all the same. If you're planning on living and working in such a community and want to build good will among the people, then you should show some respect for their conventions. That typically includes dressing in ways that they will find acceptable.

While we're on the subject, we should expand the discussion to include political awareness. If one is planning to go to a foreign country, then he or she should have some idea of what is going on in that country. Otherwise, he or she may waltz right into the heart of some political upheaval.

In this light, sending young men and women out into the world with the idea that they can and should do whatever they want, whenever they want without any regard for context is not responsible. There are actually places right here in the United States where wearing clothing of the "wrong" color will get you shot.

I think that it is important to recognize that a rape victim does not ask to be raped. Nobody asks to be attacked and subjected to violence by another. When violence like this occurs, the sole responsible party is the perpetrator. But recognizing that does not mean that we should send our young men and women out into the world with a naive sense about how human society works.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Friday, July 6, 2012

On Miri Regev and racism and xenophobia in Israel

I wrote this piece one month ago, in early June. It has since been overtaken by events such as the deportation of a group of Africans living in Israel.

The recent racist comments by Israeli MK, Miri Regev, about Africans living in Israel have spawned much passionate debate online and offline. They have certainly got me thinking about the unique place of the state of Israel in modern history, and about racism and xenophonia in broader terms.

To me, racism, xenophobia, and other forms of hatred directed at those who are different must be condemned. At the same time, I think it is important to understand why exactly it is that people hate others. Hatred, like all other things human, does not just spring into existence fully-formed. It develops over time, and is reinforced by certain ways of thinking and of remembering the past. I am not naive enough to think that we will someday be able to eliminate all forms of hatred. But I do think that understanding the motivations that prod us to hate and to hurt others will go a long way towards defusing the violent potential of our actions.

I want to clarify that, to me, Israel is a modern state, not the ancient kingdom whose glorious past has been chronicled in the Bible. I don’t subscribe to the notion that the Jewish people were chosen by God to fulfill a unique part of His plan for the earth. Regardless, I was raised in a Christian context, so I am very much aware of this mythology surrounding Jewish people, and the hold that it has on Christians worldwide.

A chosen people

To me, the belief that the Jewish people are a “chosen people” contradicts the very idea that the God of Christianity is a universal God. Furthermore, it reminds me of the history lessons I sat through during my primary school years, when I learnt about the myths of origin of various Kenyan ethnic groups. The one constant in every group’s beliefs about its origins was the idea that it was a special group, God’s favored.

The Maasai believed that they had a special place in their God’s plan that made them superior to members of other ethnic groups, as did the Kikuyu, the Luo and others. In other words, it was the norm for any people’s religion to claim that that particular ethnic group was superior to other groups. The ancient teachings that came down to us in the Bible have never been unique in this.

A universal God or a tribal God?

The rise and spread of Christianity rearranged things. Over time, Judaism was no longer just the religion of Jewish people. A version of Judaism expanded to become the religion of Jews and non-Jews alike. That version of Judaism was the precursor for what we call Christianity today.

The development of Christianity involved the wholesale adoption of certain chunks of Jewish thought and philosophy by an ethnically heterogeneous audience, and a simultaneous failure to historicize them. Thus, Christians through the ages have had to wrestle with the uncomfortable thought that their God, in whose eyes all humans are supposed to be equal, has put Jewish people on a pedestal.

The 2 extremes in Christian thought

The efforts of some Christian thinkers to fight the inherent contradiction between a universal God and a tribal God has given rise to some of the extremes within Christian thought. On the one hand, there are anti-Semitic ideals, developed to undermine the special place granted to Jewish people in the Christian worldview. These have been adopted in different times and places to justify the violence directed at Jews living in Europe over the centuries: the Spanish Inquisition, pogroms, the Holocaust.

On the other hand, there is the tendency to elevate Jewish people to some superhuman status: The idea is that they can do no wrong because every action on their part is consistent with God’s plan for the universe. This is the tendency that has informed many Christians’ blind idealism on all matters concerning modern Zionism and the actions of the state of Israel.

Systemic racism

Earlier this week, as I read the controversial remarks made by Miri Regev, I couldn’t help thinking about these historical complications and the role they had played in shaping the national Israeli psyche. To me, it was heartbreaking, but not surprising, that systemic racism was part and parcel of the Israeli experience. The rationale for the creation of modern Israel was largely based on the systematic violence that Jewish people were subjected to in Europe by their fellow Europeans, violence that began even before Hitler appeared on the horizon.

The Jewish individuals who first popularized the idea of modern Zionism had in mind a secular nation, based on Communist or Socialist ideals. They had no intention of recreating the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah, or of fulfilling some apocalyptic prophecy. On the other hand, the European Christians (nominal or devout) who, in one way or another, facilitated the formation of Israel were, to some extent, inspired by perceptions of Jews as superhuman beings or sub-human beings who had been shaped by religion.

Drawing parallels

Jewish people have been granted a special place in modern history and geopolitics thanks in large part to Christianity. However, this does not change the fact that Jewish experiences are human experiences. We can learn some valuable lessons about trauma, racism, and xenophobia  by thinking of Israelis and Jewish people, more broadly speaking, as human beings. This means we need to stop adopting different standards from the ones we generally use to discuss our own societies when we speak of Israel. Israel is a modern state, peopled by human beings. To even begin to understand it, we have to be able to see parallels between the Israeli context and other contexts globally.

A cursory glance at history makes it clear that any group of people that has endured systematic, large-scale violence does not just "get over" that violence in a matter of decades. In fact, perhaps they never do.  Think about all the peoples who have been victimized by states and empires in recent centuries. Australian aborigines, Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, First Nations people, African Americans, indigenous South Africans, Palestinians, and European Jews are among these groups.

Every single one of these groups has struggled with historical and contemporary trauma. In some cases, this struggle has resulted in generations of poverty, disenfranchisement, addiction, and epidemic levels of intra-communal violence. In those cases where political autonomy and certain degrees of enfranchisement have resulted, hatred and violence towards inside groups and outside groups alike are present.  Cases in point include South Africa and Israel, where various forms of hatred remain alive in the forms of racism and xenophobia. 

A lot more must be said about South Africa, Israel and the other societies I've named above to do the subject justice. However, it is not possible to do so within one article. So I intend to write more on the subject in the future. This piece is meant to simply get the ball rolling.

Before I sign off, I want to return to the thoughts with which I opened this article: I think it is important to think about racist and xenophobic policies and actions within context. It allows us to condemn the violence and dehumanization that result from them and, hopefully, to develop strategies for keeping them in check.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.