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.