A world of difference

I suppose hate is too strong a word, but there are times when it seems the only word that conveys the intensity that I will occasionally feel towards my fellow beings.

But it’s not what you think: it’s not for acts of irreparable evil or supremely callous negligence. No, it’s for . . . the little things, things like green nail polish, clip-on ponytails for balding men, Hawaiian shirts made in China, face-lifts, tanning lotions, laser treatments for hair where hair should be—and the attitudes that go along with them, which include the not-so-secret conviction borne by each human being that he or she really IS the paragon of animals, while everyone else is just another beast.

I suppose that the Lord High Executioner’s wickedly wonderfully funny song in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, “As Some Day It May Happen”, sums it all up:

But it really doesn’t matter whom you put upon the list,
For they’d none of ‘em be missed—they’d none of ‘em be missed!

The great kernel of truth in the aria is that anyone we perceive to be different from ourselves arouses animosity. It’s a feature of the human psyche that some evolutionists might explain as having conferred a competitive advantage when the species was in its infancy. Now, however, the advantages are very difficult to discern, although this aspect of our primeval heritage seems to be as powerful and alive as ever and constitutes the foundation for racism, exceptionalism, exclusivity, classism, factionalism—you name it.

It is only in differences, however, that we sense and reach beyond ourselves. In fact, it is the ability to tolerate differences that allows for pacific cohabitation; and it is the ability to celebrate differences that leads to an appreciation of the wonderful joy of the world around us.

In the political sphere I have been deeply dismayed by the lack of any serious forum where differences might be civilly explored. The presidential election debates, for example, were exercises in simple-minded exhibitionism. A real ‘debate’ requires time—time for a particular viewpoint to be elaborated sufficiently, for responses to be formulated and for thought, real thinking, to ensue. Instead we receive abbreviated shout-downs that key into our most primitive emotional reactions.

As a young man many years ago I used to frequent the Victor Café in South Philadelphia, where a vast collection of recorded operatic music was stored and played, and often, on any given night, the kind-souled John Ruggeri, custodian of this treasure, would pull out a dozen or two different versions of a single aria. We listened, we argued, we had our favourites, and we’d go back and listen again, to all of the glorious differences, over and over. You might say that we were united by our divergences of taste and preference.

The political process that characterized the recent presidential election highlights, underscores, emphasizes and incontrovertibly demonstrates what is fundamentally wrong with our system. There was never any room for a serious and searching exposition of the issues that will affect our lives most profoundly. We had instead a carnival of superficiality that served as cover for matters of substance and that stoked the glowing embers of divisiveness, ignorance and enmity—the primordial fear of difference.

Where, I ask myself, are those public arenas where an appropriately informed exchange of ideas, however different, may occur? For without them we will only get more, unfortunately, of the same.

Dr. Garcia is an American-born poet, novelist and physician who resides in New Zealand.

6 Responses to A world of difference

  1. “Where, I ask myself, are those public arenas where an appropriately informed exchange of ideas, however different, may occur? For without them we will only get more, unfortunately, of the same.”

    AND, sadly, the likes of CHRIS MATTHEWS, Chuck Todd, Wolf Blitzer, Jake tapper, Brian Williams, and so many other talking heads were just happy to go along for the ride of darkness and lies.
    Do any of them regret it today? Their normalizing of Trump and his elevation to power does not seem to indicate that they are.

    Perhaps tomorrow they may want to change or stop the ride–but by then it will be too late. And, actually it is already too late.

  2. Ah, the Victor Cafe – I never knew it, though I’ve known others. This fine essay evokes a lost world that we may never see again. Hawaiian shirts made in China, tanning lotion, facelifts – so well said – they seem to be here to stay. Horrible! But Emmanuel Garcia’s writing redeems even them

  3. Bruce S. Zahn, Ed.D. ABPP

    The science of psychology is clear in its lessons: in order to reduce fears, we have to expose ourselves to that which we fear most, and resist the temptation to avoid such exposure. Our fears and imagination about the unknown are most often not based in reality, or as I tell my patients using the vernacular of the day, they are Fake News. All organisms seek homeostasis and have a biologically programmed mechanism to resist change, in order to perpetuate the species and reduce the threat of extinction. At the same time, there is a competing drive to reach out to different stimuli, absorb and accommodate them in order to reach the same instinctual goal of survival.

    One of the beautiful things about the evolution of humans and our ability to use symbolic thought, is that we can actually conceptualize and think about these competing drives, and make choices that may be temporarily uncomfortable, but in the long run, essential to our ability to adapt to a changing environment. When we shut down thought and revert to basic instincts for preservation of sameness, we give in to the temporary yet illusory comfort of thinking that we are safe. But in the long run, this mitigates against our ability to continue to evolve and flourish.

    Dr. Garcia’s article brings to mind a musical experience that I had six years ago. As a subscriber to concerts at the Philadelphia Orchestra for most of my adult life, I have heard many performances of classical greats brought to life by astounding talents from across the globe. But one relatively recent concert springs to mind.

    It was November, 2010, and we were scheduled to hear a performance of the Chinese composer, Tan Dun’s “The Map.” I recall saying to my wife, in typical provincial Philadelphian style, “I’m not sure I want to go to this concert. It’s probably something weird, and I’d rather just stay home and have dinner or maybe go to a movie.” Yet we also recognized that it is important to expose oneself to something new, something to shake the tree and rattle the cage, and we decided to go to the performance, reassuring ourselves that if it was just too unpalatable, we could always leave at intermission and go home or go out for a drink.

    I am so grateful that we did not choose the latter, because this performance left an indelible mark on me in terms of not only musical beauty that I had not anticipated, but the value of diversity and our ability to build bridges across great differences and divides. What we found upon entering Verizon Hall, which is where the orchestra now plays, was the full complement of musicians seated on stage with their Western instruments, yet interspersed throughout, were video screens of varying sizes in a puzzling array. What was going on? We soon found out, with startling and exhilarating consequences.

    In essence, composer Dun had videotaped indigenous Chinese people, ordinary folks in the countryside, making sounds with natural elements, such as banging stones together, blowing on blades of grass, etc, in rhythmic patterns and discordant sounds that were woven into a tapestry of “music.” These brief films were what were being shown on the different video screens around the stage. Then the orchestra on stage began to use their Western instruments to first mimic the sounds and “music” being played by these Chinese peoples. But the lesson went much further than this. By interspersing video clips with live orchestra performance, a musical “conversation” emerged, with these musicians engaging in non-verbal dialogue between live orchestra musicians onstage and videotape of these Chinese performers, that was incredibly expressive of thoughts, emotions, originality, exploration, and humanity. I have thought about this performance often, and one can purchase the DVD performance with the composer conducting, if the reader wants to check it out.

    This experience once again opened my eyes to the incredible value and beauty of diversity, taking us out of our comfort zone, in order to enrich our higher being. Was it initially uncomfortable to leave home on a cold November day to hear who knows what? Of course! Was it worth it to embark on this adventure in order to in rich ones brain, heart, and soul? Without a doubt!

    As humans, we have the ability to make choices if we want to “play it safe” and “reinforce the base,” or challenge ourselves and our fellow human beings to seek something more, something on a higher order, that can reveal more fully the human potential to reach across differences and to engage in conversations, despite all barriers. To me, this is the beauty of music, and it is also the promise of our humanity that we cannot abandon without terrible consequences.

  4. Bruce S Zahn, Ed.D., ABPP

    As a rejoinder to the above, I confess that I was one of Dr. Garcia’s comrades in Philadelphia who spent many fond evenings at Victors. The fitting conclusion on some of those occassions was to return to Manny’s place to have an Irish coffee with a few other friends and listen to his own collection of Caruso, Gigli and other recordings on his Victrola Talking Machine. The highlight was listening to how the music bloomed when he gleefully opened up those little doors at the bottom of the machine to set the music free. Fond memories indeed!

  5. Well written, Dr. Garcia

    Compassion is not a synonym for stupidity.

  6. Noticing differences is also necessary for self-preservation.

    When I catch myself being critical of someone or something, I ask myself is this really my business?