Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Asking Questions ...and Returning the Favor

The best writers always write what they know. How many times has this line been parroted to aspiring journalists and novelists, even high school seniors trying to compose college essays? While this may be true for writing, I don't think it should be extrapolated to our thinking -- especially to the point where we become afraid to form opinions about novel places/ideas. In the past 2 weeks, we've seen/heard a lot and then we have been asked (as we are still processing all the information) to respond -- What do you guys think about this? And more often than not, we do have thoughts -- it's not that our minds are blank, but rather that we don't know how to connect all the thoughts in a logical manner. It's the same way I feel about voting: I shouldn't do it unless I have all the information. Making a well-informed decision is admirable, but you can’t always get ALL the information. When we use generalizations excessively, we kindle a laziness of mind – we stop looking at the world around us critically. Our perspectives can then degenerate until we are ruled by what psychologists call a confirmation bias – where we extract and retain only the information that supports our preexisting schemata (paradigms of people, places, concepts, etc). Essentially, there is a happy medium where we can supplement all the available information with our own relevant past conversations and experiences.

Okay, now I can hear you pleading, “Lindsay, will you stop philosophizing about knowledge, ignorance, and confirmation biases!”
So, here are a few things I think and/or know:

1. People in Northern Ireland (Belfast specifically) are exceptionally kind and good-humored, despite the sarcastic and sometimes brusque nature of their humor. Living in our hostel (Farset) where we connect to the internet in the lobby has supplied many interesting conversations with various people who are passing through. Everyone is genuinely interested in where we are from, what we are doing. Some ask why we came to Belfast of all places, but others understand. Perhaps what I appreciate about Northern Irish people is that they don’t do small talk. Whether I agree completely, am completely shocked, or somewhere in between, people never fail to give their honest stories, thoughts and opinions.

2. Many women are young mothers and don’t (continue to) work full- or even part-time. (I need to briefly qualify this statement by reflecting that I have been immersed in predominantly working-class areas of Belfast and Lisburn and so this sample may not be completely representative of the city and country.) Today I went with a group of about 60 women to visit the site of the Maze Prison (which housed the majority of political prisoners during the Troubles). During lunch, a couple women next to me agreed that the visit had been interesting, adding that if they hadn’t come they would just be sitting in their houses watching TV. About a week ago, I asked my officemate Joanne (the manager of the community centre where I’ve been working) what she thought about the situation for women in N. Ireland. She explained that in order to get benefits (for housing, food, etc), women have to be working less than 16 hours/week. If they work more than that, they receive fewer benefits. Essentially, this system discourages people (women especially) from working. Why would they choose to work x amount of hours if they could just stay at home with the kids and receive the same amount of money? When current Sinn Fein Councillor Tom Hartley (former Lord Mayor of Belfast) came over for dinner, we discussed this issue, which he termed the “benefit trap.” I must confess that I’m a bit baffled by the intricacies of the welfare system in America – there seem to be similar issues and problems, but if anyone would like to comment/respond, I’d really like to understand it better.

3. Many people in the community are part of an active peace process (in Belfast and beyond), but there is still marked division and resentment runs deep. As Cllr. Hartley pointed out, war is not hard to make, but peace is. The generation who lived through the height of the conflict (‘70s-‘90s) is now helping the country heal and regenerate in so many ways, but they also pass along some of their anger and prejudice to the new generation (people who are my age). Heading to Scotland for a match, Protestants who support the Rangers travel on a different boat than Catholics who support the Celtics (two Glasgow football teams). This rivalry represents much more than a sports team preference – it is culture and identity. (Someone explained it as UNC / Duke, USC / UCLA, or Red Sox / Yankees, but with violent sectarianism. Fans from opposite sides have even killed each other…)
During our trip to Derry/Londonderry (termed “Stroke City” because of its attempt to placate both Catholics and Protestants with the city’s name), a Republican ex-prisoner gave us a tour of the murals in the Bogside. Near the end of the tour, he mentioned a Protestant figure, who is now in her 80s and suffering from a neurodegenerative disease and confessed without guilt or apology that he is disappointed because he wanted to see her die a slow, painful death. While I can’t imagine a more painful way to die than slowly losing memories and eventually the ability to function, I was more shaken by this man's blatant hatred. When is it acceptable (to society, to you?) to hate someone? When they’ve killed your mother or father? Your child? Your wife or husband? All of the above? These are completely relevant and crucial questions if there is any desire to foster reconciliation. Robin (director of the N. Ireland DE program) explained that on an interface, like where we are living on Springfield Rd, somebody might see on a regular basis the person who killed one of their family members. Is it unreasonable that the people in these communities don’t want the 40-foot peace walls removed?

I’ve just given you a taste of some thoughts running through my mind. But now, it’s your turn! Please write back/comment with questions about anything – something you’ve heard, read here or somewhere else, or anything you’re curious about. I will do my best to respond promptly and find the answers, if I can’t answer them myself.


  1. Lindsay,

    Thanks for the interesting post, esp. your thoughts about the vicissitudes of the active peace process. In conversations with the people you've met and volunteered with in Belfast, what's been the impact of the anticipated (and now released) Saville report on the peace process at the grassroots level?

  2. Hi Elaine -- The reaction, especially within the Catholic community in Derry, has been positive. The biggest criticism has been the inordinate amount of time and money that it took the British government to finally get it right. So much frustration and distrust was created by the Widgery report, which barely even looked at evidence from eyewitnesses and was thrown together almost as a cover-up. There was a poignant moment during the broadcast yesterday when two people tore the Widgery Report into several pieces.

    It seems that the release ("setting the truth free") is providing acknowledgment as well as closure that will help many families move forward. Justice may not be served in each individual case -- to expect this would be unrealistic. But it means a lot to people who have been living without any answers. I think it can only help the peace process.

    Here's a really good news article, which outlines the major findings (unless you want to read the 500-page document): http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1286798/Bloody-Sunday--Saville-Inquiry-Cameron-apologises-shootings-report-blames-British-soldiers-unjustifiable-killings.html

  3. Hey Lindsay! All of this stuff is so interesting and complex!

    I was wondering if it was just the young mothers who don't work, or is there a welfare(esque) system in place for young females in general, regardless of whether or not they have children? Is it just the males who work in that area? (at least the area you've seen?)

    LOVING your blog and pictures :)

  4. Erica, So glad you're following along! To answer your question, I would need to get clarification about the "benefits system" as it's called, but the trend seems to be that young women live with their parents until they get married or have kids, meaning that there are few to no indepedent, childless women. The system is based on how many kids you have and also how many incomes are supporting the household. So women with multiple children and with no partner receive the most support/benefits.

    In order to work, mothers would need to find childcare, which is quite expensive in N. Ireland, so all of her wages would basically go towards paying for childcare. There doesn't seem to be much incentive to work -- won't provide an extra disposable income, less time spent with children. Obviously there are other reasons to work that are incredibly important, such as having a sense of purpose independent of the role of mother/wife (though some would argue not every woman thinks this is necessary), having a social outlet, etc.

    This sounds judgmental, but at first I thought, "They must not want to work -- maybe they don't get as bored as I would." However, just this past week, I was in a women's group course where we were talking about feminism, women in politics, and women's roles in N. Ireland. One of the younger women said that she and most of her friends would like to be full-time working moms, but they just can't -- because where would the kids go? After their kids have grown up, some women start working more or at least volunteering.

    This trap seems foreign and unrelated to our own issues as college-attending women, but this epidemic is not limited to Belfast & N. Ireland. I think it is more of a class issue, than a culture issue.

    Thanks for your comments! I really want this blog to be a forum for discussion, instead of sitting down in the fall and trying to find a way to sum EVERYTHING up when people ask, "How was Northern Ireland?" =)

  5. Hi Lindsay - I am (insanely) taking a moment to read your blog. Your dad sent an email with the links and though I should be madly getting ready to fly to the U.S. on Saturday, I wanted to read about your time in N. Ireland. I'm reading from the newest to the oldest, so haven't gotten very far, but it's really great stuff and fascinating. I have two comments on this particular entry: 1) I personally believe that for any peace process to work, it has to begin with forgiveness (in whatever form that might take). When you father, mother, brother, sister, wife, husband, lover, best friends - whomever - is killed, maimed or injured, it is a natural response to want to get back at the person(s) who did that. And it will never stop, if we respond "naturally" - because we kill, maim, or injure someone who has a mother, father, etc. Someone has to be brave enough and care enough to say, "Enough, I forgive this person/these people, and I will move on with my life without trying to get justice." The problem, of course, is this - for every one person, or a hundred people who make this choice, there are perhaps another hundred or thousand who won't, and the violence continues. But nothing has ever changed in society by people saying, "My decision won't change anything, so I'll do what everyone else does..." I remember a song by Sting, written many years ago, called, "If The Russians Love Their Children Too". I always thought he caught the essence of this type of conflict in that song. 2) regarding the "mothers at home" question - I don't know how it is in N. Ireland exactly, but here in the Czech Republic, when a woman has a child, she gets 3 years (it may be 2 years now) maternity leave. The original/fundamental reason for this is based in the concept that babies and small children need to be with their mother. Women often time their second and third babies (if they want more kiddos) so that they can string 3 years + 3 years + 3 years of maternity leave, allowing them to be with their children for several years. Of course, what a mom does with her days is up to her - so if she chooses to sit around and watch TV all day, she isn't going to get much out of being with the children. However, my observation here is that most Czech moms are more active than that - part of traditional culture here is to take babies for a walk 2 or 3 times a day, for example (even in the rain or snow). There are always those in any society who take advantage of the system, but at least here, the system was set up with family and keeping family values in mind. That's it for now! Lots of love, Aunt Barb