Some of you will know immediately what I mean when I say that. Others may bristle. But have the advantage of having traveled the world quite a bit and I’ve seen the truth of it everywhere I go and everywhere I have lived.
The world is a complex place. Filled with uncertainties and variations and surprises that can twist things unexpectedly. So depending upon the breadth of experience one has in living in various locations, cultures, subcultures, etc., one tends to come to see the world through a particular lens. The boundaries of this lens are a sort of box. Anything that falls within our box is what we tend to expect and understand as normal. Anything outside of it is an aberration.
Yes, I’m oversimplifying a bit. But I hope you all understand the concept now.
In the internet age, coming into contact with people whose box conflicts with or at least seems to hardly overlap one’s own is becoming common and more and more leads to conflict. So when writing characters, I think writers need to consider this aspect of human world views to write more realistic characters and conflicts. In truth, most writers have been doing this all along, because the conflicts between characters always arise out of their different Points of View—needs, wants, desires, goals, and so on. But nuance and depth can come from deeper understanding of how the basis of these conflicts arises out of ways of seeing the world through different lenses.
For example, in Ghana, West Africa, it is considered rude for servants—even those temporarily assuming such duties like tour guides, drivers, or assistants to visiting dignitaries—to eat meals in public alongside their betters. When we ate out in Ghana, our young aide refused to eat with my team and one time some team members got very irritated with me for not inviting him. I told them I had been there before and that even if I asked, he would refuse, but they insisted, so I walked outside and asked him. I should have had one of them do it. But when I came back, as expected, with his declination, they were convinced I was some kind of bigot. I later explained this to the young aide, who is a good friend even today, and he tried to set them straight but it did no good. So stuck were they in their concept of what the world should look like that they couldn’t even consider, let alone respecting, his point of view or my regard for it.
This is just one example of many such I could give but things like this happen every day. Another time, I was surprised to hear the Ghanaians once express resentment toward the African American “homelanders”— who came back and acted like they had returned to their home when they knew nothing about it, had no concept of its culture, beliefs, or customs. They said that was arrogant and disrespectful. Those people were no Africans. This is the culture clash of different boxes. Do all Ghanaians feel this way? No, but even within Ghana with all the tribes and subcultures there are different boxes just as there are in the U.S. with all our cultures, subcultures, etc. This is not exclusive to international culture clashes. It is local, too.
Your characters will have boxes and the worlds they inhabit, to be realistic, will have cultures, subcultures, and divisions wherein people have different views of the world that come into conflict with each other, so it would behoove you to write and carefully consider how these cultural differences create conflict and nuance in your worldbuilding and story. Your stories will be richer and more realistic for the effort. And you will in turn gain valuable perspective to perhaps look at those around you with new eyes. Things that maybe once bugged you might be worth a second look or a few sensitively phrased questions to determine their cause. Perhaps you will be able to reach new understandings with others that enrich your own life in the process.
Our boxes only define us if we allow them too. It is possible—I have done it and it was hard work—to inhabit the world with respect for others and sensitivity to control emotional or knee jerk reactions in these kinds of moments so that you can not only better see and respond to the conflicts arising from the different boxes of those around you but widen your own box in the process. Your world, life, and writing will be much richer for it, and you will gain deeper respect and friendships as well.
Just a few simple thoughts on a very complex problem. For what it’s worth…
The United States was founded on common principles: above all, was a respect for freedom of ideas and ideologies, the desire for a place where people could be who they are, practice what they believe and live in peace with others who didn’t always share those views. 10 years after a day which shook our ideologies and changed our nation’s future forever, when I look around me at our country, I see a place which all too often fails to resemble that ideal, and I find myself wondering where we went wrong. In a society torn apart by ideological warfare, where political parties demand tolerance while being intolerant of anyone who disagrees with them, I often find my mind drifting back to the time I spent in West Africa. My four trips to Ghana from Summer 2000 through January 2004 had a profound impact on me. And above all else, what sticks in my mind is the amazing sense of community I witnessed there.
Although the continent of Africa is home to more cultures and diverse tribes of peoples than any other place on Earth, in studying those traditions, a few common themes come out, and one of them centers around a traditional concept of community. Many African tribes share a concept of community in which all community members are one–living, yet to be born and dead (aka the ancestors). Each of the three is a valuable member of the community and must be taken into consideration in regard to daily life and activities. Libations are often made to the ancestors during difficult times to ask for their favor or appease their disappointment. When someone commits adultery with another person’s spouse, the offense is not just against the spurned spouse but against the entire community, and amends must be made to the whole community, not just the spurned mate. By committing a crime or sin (call it what you will), the offender has broken the unity of the community and peace and oneness must be restored.
Consideration is also given to the unborn in making decisions. After all, they are future members of the community and decisions made now will affect them. Mistakes made by the elders today could become the responsibility of unborn community members of the future. How often do we hear environmentalists argue that bad stewardship of our environment is a crime against our children and their children? How often do we take it seriously and listen? For Africans with this sense of community, it is very serious indeed. And what would such an idea do to the concept of abortion as choice?
In looking at our own divisive society, I wonder how much better off we’d be if we shared these Africans’ sense of connectedness. How much better off would we be if we considered how the poor spending habits of our governments will affect future generations? How poor environmental policies will destroy nature they might have enjoyed and perhaps even lower their quality of life? How much better off would we be if we seriously considered how our actions might shame our forefathers and the yet to be born and acted accordingly in decision making? I don’t know about you, but I suspect we’d be doing a lot of things differently.
Wherever there are human beings, disagreement will result. There are always those who take different views of morality, religion, economics, etc. For many societies, the solution was monarchy or even dictatorship. Centralized control in many forms left no need for time wasted debating or considering the diverse opinions and/or feelings of the masses. But the United States was founded by people who found such practices abhorrent. After all, human beings are intelligent (well, most of us) and capable of rationalization and careful consideration. They are capable of dialogue, study, learning from mistakes, and most of all, compromise. Watching Washington, D.C. these days, however, it seems like the humans running our asylum are incapable of any of these things. Compromise least of all. It’s all about one ideology winning over the other–one group being a winner of the minds and hearts of everyone else. Is that even realistic? Think about it. How often have you been with a group of people where everyone was in total agreement about everything?
It’s been a while since I’ve had the chance to visit my friends in Africa, but I often wonder what they’d think of our current situation. For the younger African generations, heavily influenced by Western culture as they are, it would be just as abhorrent as for the older traditional Africans. After all, both groups aspire to ideals: both, to the ideal of free society with diverse people living in harmony; and the former, especially, to a society wherein respect for each other is a driving force in everything. It’s not that African communities don’t have arguments and disagreements. Those are unavoidable amongst humans. But the way decisions are handled and the regard in which the community is held, influence greatly the way people respond during such conflicts–the actions they take, the things they say, etc. And the mitigating attitude drives them toward one another rather than away from one other, unlike our modern society.
If you ask me, we could use a little unity in American society today. We could use a little harmony. We could use some compromise. We could use a sense of legacy and respect for our elders and the yet to be born. For me, what’s missing is the sense of community these Africans knows so well and the ensuing sense of responsibility to the whole community. Do we really care what consequences our actions bring to anyone around us? Do we really seriously consider that? If you’re happily married or a parent, you probably do, at least sometimes. But given present divorce rates, that’s still a smaller percentage of the population than we need it to be if we hope to live in the harmony and respect our nation’s Founders envisioned.
People whose only glimpses of Africa come from images in National Geographic or tv news programs tend to regard Africans as primitive peoples who live in mud huts, run around half naked and have little or no education, not to mention little or no food. But those of us who’ve spent time there have seen them as far more. In traditional African societies, the people take care of each other. When one family is starving, the community comes together to make sure they’re fed. If one person has extra, he shares with the community so that all may benefit. It actually resembles the descriptions in The Bible from Acts 2 of the early Christian church. When disputes arrive, they resolve them by sitting down together and talking. They seek compromise where it’s possible. They seek restitution where it’s necessary. And in every case, they restore unity and community above all. Those who refuse to accept that must leave the community.
I wonder if our leaders in Washington ever really think about the “for the people” they are supposed to be governing for. Can a body of people who make their own salaries and determine their own raises, who live prestigious lives of privilege really consider life for a person on unemployment or a homeless child on the street? Do they really consider how the decisions they’re making affect those people’s lives at their very core? Do they even care? It’s obvious that lately the idea of Washington folks sitting down and working out their issues is practically a fairy tale. How much better would our country and world be if they could just manage that? How much better would it be if they went a step beyond and actually considered the entire community? Instead the leaders of Right and Left spend time keeping us so focused on our differences that we fail to remember we have more in common than we do different. And it tears us apart.
The Africans’ ideas of community seem less primitive to me, in many cases, than our own, at least in this regard. I think we could benefit a lot by modeling our community after them. After all, restoring a sense of togetherness and unity would go a long way to reunite a country being torn apart at the seems by competing ideologies unwilling to compromise. And how can we hope to stay one nation if we can’t find ways to live in harmony despite our differences? It seems to me the consideration of others we’ve lost is a major factor in our present difficulties. Perhaps a little “African community” would go along way toward restore the core values of our country and our sense of its greatness again.
Reflecting back on the terrible events of a decade ago on this very day in New York, I remember how that tragedy brought us together. Looking now at how ideological forces are working so hard to tear us apart, has me reflecting on what we’ve lost. More than one kind of innocence has gone from us in the past decade, and I, for one, want the second kind back. Because 9/11/01 above all was a day that reminded us what it meant to be Americans. We cannot live in ignorant self-assurance that we are not threatened by terrorists, yes, but I hope we can stop living with the internal threat of ideological terrorism. Do we remember that anymore? If so, let’s start living it. That’s just one man’s opinion, of course. But I think my African friends might like it. For what it’s worth…
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novelThe Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.