Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The truth beneath the truth

So much of our time here in Sri Lanka we are trying to figure out what makes people tick. The impassive faces, the quietened eyes, the hidden hostilities. None of these presents us with very much evidence at all. Neither do the occasional smiles, the warm handshakes, or empty promises of following up on a visit or conversation. As Sri Lankans would say, "what to do?"

So it came as a bit of a surprise to us yesterday, actually quite a surprise, to hear our hostess reflecting on how hard it is to get people accustomed to work. It's not just work ethic or related cultural attitudes about work, it is, in her opinion, people's "capacity" for work. What a strange but perhaps apt term, one that bears further exploration. When our hostess says, "you actually have to measure people's performance for better or for worse based on their capacity for work," she is making a statement laden with hidden meanings and value judgement. When she describes exactly the kinds of behaviors we see in the United States, absenteeism, slowing down so you're not given more work, letting the "other person" do what you don't want to do, she is putting these behaviors in a different cultural context. 

Not averse to mentioning that the girls may not be able to perform because they are of "low caste," our very hardworking hostess is not above labeling her workers as "lazy," an epithet I think we would be hard pressed to utter in our world. Or maybe not. But questions of caste and capacity seem to have a sort of 19th century ring that is every bit part of the Sri Lanka's social reality too. How to fathom that?

There are many more questions than answers of course, as Janet pointed out in conversation this morning. But the best questions I think, strive to dig below the surface of "truisms" like caste or capacity. How do these states of being, "truisms" as it were, play out in the real world? How to you judge or measure "capacity?" Is there an inevitability about "caste?" If I had a methodology for generating such questions I think it would be an admirable thing but alas, it's hit and miss. But among all people I've met here whatever their station in life, their occupation, their gender, or their favorite color, it seems there are "truisms" stated for the listeners benefit that hide (or obfuscate) an awful lot of good information. 

We are here with the gift of time and patience. Also the Fulbright does not require any formal publication of one's findings. This can be seen as much as a challenge as it is an open-ended invitation for inquiry. But what about our friend Kim who is garnering information for a projected PhD project? How can she delve beneath the pat truisms of her informants? Embedded among them and with increasing fluency in Tamil, Kim has reflected on many subtleties of communication that provide her with sparks of insight. But like all sparks these moments are bright but temporary, hard or impossible to replicate. One is left wondering whether she heard correctly or misunderstood. But isn't that the gist of communication anyway? It's alive, dynamic, open to interpretation. 

It seems to me that these moments of uncertainty are worth more than all the many hours of "truth" that are poured into you as an endless vessel of truth-holding. Instead, I think we have to depend upon our gut reactions and value the unknown places these reactions take us. It's a freewheeling sort of pursuit and it takes time. Moreover it's hard to defend it as a "methodology." But it's preferable to having "scientifically" gathered data that build an edifice of lies. 

So, how do we get beneath the truth? I think a lot of it has to do with keeping our senses open, bring receptive to surprises, and remaining strongly skeptical of testimony anyone gives. In a way I suppose it puts us on a slippery slope of subjectivity. But as I try to teach my science students, even "objective" science is predicated on subjective ways of observing, of decision making, and solving problems. 

I think a good first step is for us to have our ears open. As we discern patterns of speech, specially chosen words, plausible explanations for phenomena, we may mentally catalogue these as clues rather than "truths." We may be able to use these clues later not necessarily as non-truths but as signals for deeper inquiry. 

As luck would have it we may not be able to dig deeper underneath all these items. In a given social setting like where Kim is working in Kattankudy there are social constructs that may not permit digression or dissension. But these airtight places are exactly the kinds of shiny surfaces we want to examine further. 

When I get back to teaching in September, something I have to admit I don't totally relish at this point (TMI?), I am preparing a preliminary exercise for my non-majors who are taking a required science course. I want them to spend time outside examining shadows. I want them to do this in an organized way, a way that I hope will make them mindful of their powers of observation. I also want to make them aware of questions such as subjectivity vs. objectivity and permanent vs. temporary. These have a strong bearing on scientific inquiry! I want my students to observe shadows at various scales. Minute shadows in the crack of a sidewalk or wall. Temporary shadows cast by a plant or a parked vehicle. Larger shadows and their movement, as produced by buildings and bridges. It's not just seeing and photographing the shadows. It's a matter of analyzing what the shadows do. Do they create a breeze, a cool spot, a habitat?

As intangibles go I guess shadows kind of take the cake. Yet shadows are real and they affect the world around them in tangible ways. If we can start by observing shadows I think we may start to value close observation. Observing shadows may also help students see "below" the truth. Where once we perceived a surface or a structure now we perceive a new dimension from which may arise a whole new set of questions. Rather than "how big is this building" we may ask, "how does this shadow move?" Instead of "how is this wall a barrier" we may ask, "what kind of ecosystems are supported here?" Instead of hard and fast truths that we accept without question we see new dimensions of inquiry that may take us closer to the truths beneath the "truth."

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