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GET REAL: What do you believe?


ADRIAN GREEN

GET REAL: What do you believe?

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THE GOOD NEWS about the Charlie Charlie Challenge saga is that no one was burnt at the stake. If this had been the 17th century, some of us would be extra crispy shish kebabs. If we used to think like European American settlers, we would be hunting down obeah men all now. This is progress from the days of the Salem witch trials.

In 1692, Salem, Massachusetts, three primary school-aged girls began exhibiting strange behaviours. Doctors at the time could find no medical cause. Naturally the assumption was that the cause was supernatural. Three women were accused of attacking the girls with witchcraft. Other children in the village of Salem started exhibiting similar behaviours and the search for witches intensified. By the time the whole episode was over, 20 people had been executed as witches without any real proof. Sounds like the Charlie Charlie saga, except for the killing-witches part.

Slaying demons is a lot more acceptable than slaying your neighbours. If I have to choose, I guess a society that casts blame on demons is preferable to one that blames witches. Every society chooses its boogieman.

The boogieman is often a tool used to control small children and impressionable adults, through fear. He comes in whatever form people are most likely to be afraid of at the time. Nowadays he is more likely to be represented as a minority group: Muslims, immigrants etc. than as a witch or a demon.

As we grow, we learn, and we change the way we think and operate. We are supposed to outgrow our fear of the boogieman. Growth is seldom easy. Change is often hard. We peel the skin off of our fingers grabbing for old ways. We prefer the security of familiar lies to the vulnerability of alien truths. We often lack the skills to recognise the difference. I might not even know enough to realise how little I know.  “The more I know, the more I realise how much I don’t know,” said Albert Einstein.

Knowledge can cause us to pause and question before jumping to conclusions.  When we think we know, we are less mindful. British philosopher Bertrand Russell argued, “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are so cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” Let’s use ignorant instead of stupid. Ignorance is a state that can be improved with study and experience. Stupid is a more permanent state, or at least harder to treat.

We are all ignorant in some way. Ignorance is simply not knowing.

What you don’t know can hurt you. In 19th century Hungary, it was common for mothers to die from a disease called childbed fever soon after giving birth. Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis had an idea that was novel in Europe at the time. He believed that if doctors washed their hands, fewer new mothers would die from infection.

This could be seen as a triumph of science and knowledge over superstition and ignorance; except, doctors and the scientists of his time considered Semmelweis crazy and a quack. Uneducated midwives of this period were far more successful at delivering babies than doctors were. Semmelweis was eventually committed to a mental asylum, where he died. It was not until after his death that hand washing became an accepted practice.   

The kind of arrogance that prevented doctors from adopting hand washing is still an issue. It is the curse of a little knowledge. When you think you know it all, you are less likely to learn anything new. Arrogance leads to ignorance. The arrogance and ignorance of those who think they have it all figured out, whether they be scientists or priests, has plagued humanity throughout history. And now we have the Internet, you can’t tell nobody nutten!

Egyptians were using soap and water thousands of years before Western Europeans stopped scraping dirt off of their skins to get clean. Less scientifically advanced people literally turned up their noses when the European colonisers came looking down on the people they conquered.

Washing with water was long out of style in Europe. During the plagues that ravaged Europe in the 14th century, doctors concluded that persons who opened their pores with warm baths were more likely to get sick and die. European Christians of that time were seen by Africans, Asians, and others across the world as filthy. Most Christians saw cleanliness as vanity and an indulgence like fine food and sex. 

According to author Katherine Ashenburg, “Christianity turns out to be the only great world religion – great in the sense of widespread and influential – that had no teaching or interest in hygiene.” There is much to learn from everybody.

Western Christians eventually learned from experience and the example of other people the importance of cleanliness. Doctors could have learned from the traditional practices of midwives if they had not been so arrogant about the superiority of their own science. Scientific knowledge and religion evolved and are evolving just like everything else. Nothing stays the same. It only seems that way to eyes that can’t see past the horizon of their own time.

They say seeing is believing. Believing is also seeing. Sometimes we see things, horizons and limits not because they are there, but because we believe in them.  The belief in the work of witches caused the citizens of Salem to see them when they were not there. Those who refused to acknowledge the witchcraft were thought to be either blind or witches themselves.

Do you believe in Charlie because you see him, or do you see him because you believe in him? Could exorcising Charlie be as simple as washing your hands?  What if you washed your mind of the belief in Charlie’s power?

Adrian Green is a communication specialist who believes in learning from history.

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