What are we truly able to understand?
Recently I read a very important and thought-provoking book by the German journalist and author Charlotte Wiedemann; "Vom Versuch nicht Weiss zu schreiben". If I’d translate the book’s title word by word into English it would probably be “on the attempt of not writing white”. It is a book about how our media, the industry (and the journalists themselves) form, affect and influence our world view. It particularly tries to emancipate from the tight sight of eurocentrism, from the “white western view” on countries across Asia and Africa. It is a very personal book. Charlotte Wiedemann takes the reader with her through several journeys, e.g. to Iran, Africa, Indonesia and Papua Neuguinea. As a journalist herself she writes about what it means being a journalist in a very critical, profound way and with a lot of respect towards the local people. With her careful and distinctive ability to observe she provides the reader with some very interesting insights. She writes very disillusioned, very frank, very raw and very sad sometimes. I like the book that much because it nails a topic I often get sad and angry about; mass media can produce such a wrong, sometimes superficial, and often “white/western-centered” view.
But she also involves the reader in the very honest, critical questions of how much a reporter, a journalist, a traveller, a “stranger” is actually able to truly understand and absorb from a world, so different to them, from "us" and with a 'backpack' of opinions, sights, experiences and yes, judgments, with them/us already. Everyone who has travelled to less touristy places most likely has at least once experienced being totally overwhelmed by something she / he could – by all means of tolerance and openness- not understand or even absorb. And with this the question remains:
How much foreignness can we understand?
There isn’t one simple answer on this. Neither does the book give you one.
What Charlotte Wiedemann consistently tries to bring in is empathy and to question your existing views.
What does true empathy mean?
First of all real empathy requires stepping out of your comfort zone. You need to be able to fully concentrate on the outside world, on the opposite, on the other, away from yourself. Away from what we think “someone or something has to be”. Away from what we have learnt at school, away from what we have heard at the regular’s table, away from the “news” to being there, being fully there. Putting our full attention to our vis-à-vis. Trying to understand their view, their feelings, their needs, their desires, their world. Apart from the actual topic and travelling there is a good interview with Alan Alda. In which he says "Last night I interviewed someone on stage, and at first my mind was filled with things like “What am I going to ask him?” and “What’s his book about again?” Even though I was concentrating, I was distracted. I wasn’t paying attention to him. So I started to really see him—the hairs in his eyebrows, the different colors in his cheeks—and as soon as I did that, I calmed down. My tone of voice changed. I was thinking about what he was feeling, not about how I was doing. That’s the basic advantage of the improve thing: You think about the other person."
In my last blog post I wrote about how important it is to stay within ourselves when someone is demanding, angry or rude with us to not get overthrown by their negativity. However, this should not be mixed up with not being compassionate. In interacting with others, especially when we are “the visitor”, it requires exactly the opposite; taking our focuses away from us; the center is the other culture, the other person; watch their breathe, study their face, merge with their feelings, their desires, their hopes, their situation, their life.
But at the same time Charlotte Wiedemann also questioned it. Are we ever able to put ourselves in the position of someone else? Will we ever know enough?
I don’t know it. I don’t have an answer on this. I think there may always remain a border. I come back to one of my favourite quotes from the great philosopher Socrates "The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing".
And with this I’m constantly reminding myself that ones foreignness is someone else normality.