Sunday, March 30, 2008

Prejudiced and proud of it

A few weeks back, I wrote an article that highlighted some of the findings of the ‘Human Beliefs and Values Survey Northern Ireland’. According to this survey, Northern Ireland was found to have the highest proportion of bigoted people in the western world. Following the recent release of the South African edition of the ‘World Values Survey’, it seems that South Africans are as bad as their northern counterparts.

On the positive side, the survey found that over 95% of South Africans of all races are now proud of their country. But the survey also found high levels of intolerance. Although racism, which remains a problem, could be expected to be high, given the history of South Africa, the findings about other groups, such as homosexuals and those who are HIV positive, were also alarming.

Gay neighbours were seen as unacceptable by 48% of black South African respondents, 39% of Indian respondents, 37% of coloured respondents and 26% of white respondents. Having a neighbour suffering from Aids was considered problematic by 21% of Indians, 13% of whites, 9% of coloureds and 6% of blacks.

In the Human Beliefs and Values Survey, nearly 36% of people from Northern Ireland said they would not like a homosexual living next door. Across Europe, about 20% of people had this view. So South Africans, when it comes to the minority groups mentioned above, are equally intolerant, if not slightly more intolerant than the people of Northern Ireland.

Clearly, therefore, the people of Northern Ireland and South Africa share some problems. At the risk of conflating the experiences of two very different societies, this leaves one asking: Is a consequence of political conflict a legacy of intolerance and a lack of respect for other people’s human rights? And does this generally extend beyond groups to which you differ politically to other groups?

Both societies, for example, suffer from fairly high levels of xenophobia against new immigrants. This could be a result of an increase in the number of people coming into the societies after peace. However, the rise in violence against foreigners in both societies generally outstrips the proportional increase in new arrivals, suggesting a more sinister conclusion. It would seem logical, if not disturbing, that, if a society has for several decades used violence and exclusion as a way of dealing with problems, some residue of this will remain after peace.

There are many different theories about why minority groups are targeted in this situation. One argument is that aggression is a common feature of social and political conflict, a survival mechanism and a means to achieving power. In postconflict societies, when power relations are rewritten, a displacement of aggression takes place because old channels are no longer there. New avenues for reasserting power are found. The victims of this violence are those with seemingly less power in the new dispensation, such as foreigners and gays, not to mention women.

This means society has to protect the rights of minority groups vigorously. Minority groups have to have not only equal rights, which they largely do in South Africa and Northern Ireland, at least on paper, but also access to social, political and economic power. Put simply, minority groups are bullied because they can be. They are the weak kid on the playground, which is generally exacerbated by their social and economic position.

So, although some of you reading this might not like my saying this, minority groups, essentially, need a more proportional and equitable share of the economic pie. This confronts the fear that foreigners are taking local jobs head-on and pushes the situation to the extreme. But, if we truly believe in equality and a free and fair society, then access to jobs and opportunities should not be constrained by borders, nationality, gender or sexual orientation. Sadly, I suspect this is still the case.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, September 2007. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 21 September 2007.

Monday, March 17, 2008

How to talk about books you haven't read

In this article, I would like to talk about a book I have never read. Strangely, though, I feel justified in doing so, since the book is entitled How to Talk About Books That You Haven’t Read – it was written by French academic Pierre Bayard.

The book, which I have read about second-hand, is a bestseller in France. In the book, the author, apparently, admits that there are many books he talks about that he has not read. In fact, he says he has given lectures on books he has skimmed.

Bayard’s book is, allegedly, filled with invaluable advice. To talk about a book you have not read, Bayard reckons, you should avoid precise details, put rational thought aside and let your subconscious express your personal relationship with the work.

Bayard claims his coming clean is part of an attempt to break down the pretension that surrounds reading and makes nonreaders feel less guilty. It would seem that Bayard has a point, or has at least hit on something, given the sales of his book.

Then again, perhaps, people are buying Bayard’s book, not in support of his general thesis, but because they would like to join the pompous book-loving sect. They see Bayard’s book as a self-help guide to faking erudite literacy.

Either way, this tells us something – for some reason, books have become mystical. They represent something beyond what they themselves are – mediums for transmitting information. They are rated higher than film, documentary or a good lecture. They are seen as a cornerstone of civilisation.

It is largely true that knowledge, so-called progress and the written word are entwined. But is it not possible that the veneration we attach to books is the exact reason children are put off reading? Is bookish snobbery not one of the reasons those who struggle with reading often end up in a declining self-esteem cycle, which results in their avoiding books rather than trying to overcome their difficulties?

About one-million new books are published each year, and a book is published every 30 seconds, according to Gabriel Zaid, author of So Many Books. This suggests that it is not possible to read all books and that many are rubbish. This links to one explanation for the pretension about books. The well read take it upon themselves to distinguish the good from the bad. Sadly, however, reviewing books has become an elitist sport.

Bayard suggests that, when it comes to reviewing a book, put the book in front of you, close your eyes and try to perceive what may interest you about it. Then write about yourself.

His advice is frivolous, but I like the idea of using books as a platform for imagination and to learn more about one another. Because there are so many books in the world, reading is, by its nature, selective. So we should celebrate the fact that we have not all read the same books. We should spend less time seeking the ‘must read’ book of the year and eulogising about it, and more time in imaginative conversation with one another, learning about what we have not read and what else tickles our respective fancies. As Bayard notes, “To be able to talk with finesse about something one does not know is worth more than the universe of books.”

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, August 2007. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 31 August 2007.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Hotels, life and everything else

I have not had a good rant for ages. The sad thing about this is that, when I had this realisation, I was sitting in one of those places where complaining seems just about inane. I was in a hotel.

I have a love-hate relationship with hotels. This is caused by the fact that I have stayed in too many. I feel uncomfortable about this because it is a privilege to stay in a hotel. I feel compelled to say that the reason for my excessive frequenting of hotels is almost exclusively due to work, and paid for by other people’s money. That said, I do embarrassingly consider myself something of an expert on hotels.

Hotels can be charming places. It is wonderful to have someone to make your bed, clean your bathroom, let you borrow a bathrobe and give you free pens and stationery at will. However, there is also something deeply disturbing about them.

The hotel myth rests on buying into the pretence that you are an important person. You must convince yourself that you are the first person to sleep in the crisp clean bed, not the thousandth, and that when you are called ‘Sir’, people mean it. In turn, one pays an inflated amount of money for participalting in this illusion.

To make the delusion real, the hotel staff engage in mind games that trick you into an alternative reality. They fold the end of your toilet roll into a triangle. They fold down your bedcovers just before you go to bed, and leave you a wafer-thin little mint for your delectation. These activities are pointless, but serve to confirm that something special is, indeed, going on. In any other context, an obsession with triangles and folding of this kind, not to mention stalking a stranger with sweeties just before bedtime, would be considered a committable offence.

But it does not end there. The first time you turn on your TV, it welcomes you personally with a message. The TV ‘remote’ has too many buttons and works sporadically. The plugs in the bathroom are never – well, how can I put this? – plugs. Rather, they are those odd modern metal things that take days to master. The shower is too hot or too cold, and the shower curtain has a life of its own and a fervent desire to cling to one’s body.

Put another way, if you landed in a hotel from outer space, you would think civilisation is downright weird. Alternatively, aliens might feel at home. If you have watched Star Trek, the entire spaceship is like a hotel – nothing is out of place and everything works perfectly.

But enough of this frivolity. What I mean to say is this: a realisation which came to me the other night in a hotel after my third bag of overpriced bar fridge peanuts is that, despite my tetchiness about hotels, they have something to teach us. Hotels are like life (and, perhaps, politics). You spend all the time you can over the course of your life trying to make it just right, struggling each day for an ideal existence in a box that you call your home with a climate-controlled atmosphere. Everything should be painstakingly tidied away.

However, when it all comes to an end, you realise that all the time spent on getting the conditions right was time wasted. After all, when you stay in a hotel, it is not the room that matters, or the politeness of the service staff, or how amorous that shower curtain is, but the reason why you are there in the first place.

Remember, it is what you do with your time that counts, not the variety of snacks in your bar fridge, the warmth of your complementary slippers or if people speak to you courteously. So stop fiddling with the TV remote control and get on it with it.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 14 March 2008 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The art of outsourcing frustration

In the UK and Ireland, almost all telephone queries, helplines, and even booking some domestic services, such as flights, are outsourced. Seemingly, it is cheaper to hire people in the developing world than to carry out such tasks locally. Last week, however, I reached the end of the road with the infamous call centre.

After struggling for a week with a terminally slow Internet connection, I made the dreaded call to the so-called help desk. I was greeted by a cheery voice, presumably in Bangalore. I explained the problem and was passed from person to person for 30 minutes, repeating my story. Eventually, I was told someone would call back within 48 hours. Someone phoned two days later with the joyous news that an engineer would visit between 8:00 and 13:00 the following day.

The next day no one arrived. I called at 13:00 to enquire and was told to call back at 14:00 because they could only investigate the matter from 14:00 because then it could be conclusively established that no one had arrived. I called back at 14:00, armed with the irrefutable knowledge there was no engineer at my house. I was shunted for 45 minutes between different departments, as they endeavoured to verify that indeed someone had not arrived. I was told to call back at 18:00 to check if someone could come the following day.

During the 18:00 call, which lasted a mere 20 minutes, it was established that someone might appear the next day. I was told to call at 9:00 the following day to confirm. I called at 9:00 and, after 25 minutes, was told an engineer was not available. As I wrote this article, it was still unclear whether the connection would be repaired.

Having said all this, I do not like to complain about call centres. Complaints in the UK and Ireland about call centres often have protectionist undertones that border on racism. Cursing foreigners for stealing Western jobs is a national pastime, even though only 5,5% of all jobs lost across Europe in the first quarter of 2007 were because of work being sent abroad, according to the Work Foundation.

That said, there clearly is a problem with call-centre outsourcing. How anyone can call the debacle I have been through ‘efficient’ is beyond me. It does, however, suggest that Indian workers are being paid so poorly that using 45 minutes to establish someone is not going to make an appointment is value for money for the employer.

This highlights the real issue, which is the exploitation of call-centre workers by multinationals and the brazen neglect of customers who, they know, have no option but to call repeatedly to resolve their issue.

This is not to say I oppose outsourcing – it has benefits. The West is naive to think the help desk is the flailing pinnacle of the outsourcing revolution. Outsourcing other services, such as software development, is big business. India’s high-tech sector is growing at 30% a year, largely because of outsourcing. It is not just cheap labour that is attracting business to the developing world, but the brain power in countries such as India and China. There are lessons in this for South Africa.

That said, as much as I like to see the developing world winning business from the West, we have to be aware of its price. I shudder to think of the mental impact on call-centre workers who spend each day getting an earful from people like me millions of miles away. Surely, there is a better way that could benefit worker and customer alike. If you want me to explain how this could be done, then call me between 9:00 and 21:00 during weekdays, press 1 to hear more about option 2, or press 2 to hear more about option 1, and when the frustration really sets in, press the hash key.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, August 2007. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 17 August 2007. To comment on this article click here.