Sunday, May 8, 2011

Don't Listen to Mama! Be an Iconoclast!

In what seems like a pleasant coincidence, I recently stumbled upon a rare remark made by Edward Said on the American culture, where he laments its "moralization of reductiveness".

And while Said's particular concerns revolve around a certain manifestation of this American penchant, namely what he calls "formulas of what not to do and read and what to consider culture and what not", I will be using it as a starting point for voicing another more general concern, in which the American society is but another society, albeit a one in which the symptoms are more apparent: the human tendency to seek an understanding of what is going on around.

One might be wondering, understandably, what can be of concern here. That will be got into in a bit, but at this point it is most appropriate to introduce the two concepts of Confirmation Bias (which belongs to a larger family of biases termed Cognitive Biases) and Cognitive Dissonance. The former describes the human tendency to seek what affirms one's narratives and views on life, and to ignore what does not, while the latter refers to a feeling of pain caused by holding contradicting ideas in the mind at the same moment.

By the mere act of evocation, a connection between the two phenomena is established, which is best viewed within an evolutionary framework. The human brain, it has been frequently shown, is more of a haphazard collection of heuristics and biases selected for optimal operation in a Savannah like environment, than a centralized logical inference machine designed to deal with the contemporary sweeping pour of data and information insulting its sensory receptors. From this chaotic brain constitution, what had been previously called a natural affinity for narrative construction arises.

The brain handles this aforementioned besiegement by the flux of information through constructing narratives (generalizations and chains of causality, which are not necessarily true), assessing these information against its own narratives, neglecting what do not get along (Confirmation Bias), but if the contradiction was intractable by means of ignoring, then Cognitive Dissonance ensues until the narrative is amended to accommodate or resolve the conflict.

This is a very simplified explanation of how a human brain perceives the world around it, but a one from which serious consequences flow. Most of the time what we perceive as reality is nothing more than a way for our brains to sift through and retain select parts of the world external to the senses.

That said, it does not mean that our understanding of the globe is flawed beyond redemption, but rather that we should always be critical of our own views and narratives as much as we can, challenging them on every possible occasion presented, reviewing our collective and personal pasts constantly and never committing ourselves to any idea or ideology, let alone venerating them.

Failing to do so, history has taught us by countless examples, is a menace, and no where this menace is capable of reaching devastating potentials than through the political agency and its sphere, both of which, alas, have been resting on nonsensical commitments and the emotional mobilization of masses ever since the first polis was formed!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Sowing the Seeds of Pluralism in Jordan

Among the various voices I came across about the preparedness, or lack of it, of Jordan to join the league of democratic nations, there was this one somewhat valid opinion, which claims that Jordanians should first learn how to be democratic before asking for democracy.

Propounding a solution in such an abstract and condescending form is not good enough; one can expect more, and I find the use of “learn” unsuitable, if not absurd, in such a context. It can spur a lengthy debate over the nature of democracy:

How can a person learn to be democratic? Is the idea of teachable democracy principles valid and compatible with the notion of freedom? If yes, does the awareness of such principles lead, inevitably, to practicing democracy? If these principles exist, are they particular or universal?...

We can ask many more questions, but let’s stop here. The point is that the idea of teaching democracy needs to address some serious shortcomings and caveats in its logical structure before it can be taken seriously as a solution for its supporters’ initial concern about Jordan. Nevertheless, I reckon that the idea of satisfying certain prerequisites before democracy can sprout in Jordan, was failed and buried deep down within this view by an improper use of words.

I will take this idea one step further, add to it a bit and say that the appreciation for pluralism is what matters, and not democracy, for the latter is a mere application of the former to the political realm, or at least, to some extent. But the road to appreciating the plural can be quite tricky, especially in a region where demonizing the other has been sanctioned and practiced for centenaries, and is still being, though at escalated rates.

There is something else that worries me in this regard. We have a lot of work to do in order to catch up with the rest of the world on too many levels (e.g. economic, technological…etc), and I am afraid that this will somehow lead us to downplay the importance of other human endeavors (e.g. arts) noncontributing to this materialistic growth, but which are nevertheless needed for a proper social change and growth.

One also have to consider the Jordanian system of education which segregates science, literature and arts, feeding in the process an already existing tendency in the society to stigmatize anyone with a literary bent, and producing graduates holding degrees in philistinism and parochial thinking! A setback, if you consider the high quality education provided by the schools of the Levant during the late nineteenth century.

There are reasons to show some optimism, still. Any keen observer of the Ammani scene must have noticed the recent increase in the number of organized forums and events springing around (or may be their presence was brought to our awareness through the “power” of social media?) which target the layman in a multitude of topics. Technology related events attract the largest audience, even though I doubt the heterogeneity of the attendees’ backgrounds. Science, philosophy and arts events, on the other hand, attract meager audiences, who are highly homogeneous in their interests as well.

Hence a logical next step would be holding forums and events with pluralistic themes, where art intermingles with science, and philosophers perplex technologists with their impenetrable questions. If this could not provide a good starting point for nurturing and sustaining an appreciation for pluralism within the society, it might attract more tourists, at least!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Review of Bookshops in Amman

I reckon that guides or reviews are swayed by the biases and preferences of those who write them, and this one is no exception. However, you have my word that I tried the best I could to keep the subjectivity to a minimum.

The review will be exclusive to the bookshops I frequent the most (once every 2 or 3 weeks), which means that my assessment is based on first hand experience, and nothing that I heard of or a friend told me.

The scale of assessment will be relative; that is the order is descending from the one that measures the highest (leftmost) in any given category. Inside brackets, the quality is comparable regardless of the order. If I drop the name of a bookshop in a certain comparison category, then simply it means I don't have adequate experience to judge it in that regard. So here goes nothing:

Topics [Diversity]: (Virgin Megastore, Readers), (Books@cafe, Prime), The Good Bookshop, Titles
Topics [Classics]: Virgin, (Readers, Prime), Books@cafe, The Good Bookshop, Titles
Topics [Controversiality]: Virgin, (Books@cafe, Prime), Readers, (The Good Bookshop, Titles)

Staff [Amicability]: Titles, Virgin, (Books@cafe, The Good Bookshop, Prime), Readers

Staff [Helpfulness]: Titles, Virgin, (Prime, Books@cafe, The Good Bookshop, Readers)
Search-ability: Books@cafe* (Readers, Prime, Virgin), Titles, The Good Bookshop
Shelves Renewal Rate: Virgin,... (Readers, Prime), (The Good Bookshop, Titles)

*Using their online catalogue, on the premise that it is always up-to-date, a thing I can't tell for granted.

[Update: in case you were wondering about the contact details of any of these bookshops see this link]
[Update 2: Prime is defunct]
[Update 3: Virgin Megastore sells French books, albeit in scant quantities]