...another serendipitous step between ancient and new paradigms, and one more flat earth story.
I've been following a blog by Ethan Zuckerman called ...My heart's in Acra, where he writes about international development and using the disruptive quality of the web in global activism. Zuckerman just posted a link yesterday to Amy Gahran's Contentious blog, where she picks up on an interview Zuckerman did where he brought up the notion of homophily.
Wikipedia defines homophily as "the tendency of individuals to associate and bond with similar others." These similarities could be based on ethnic identity, socioeconomic status, political views or religious beliefs. Whatever the bond, the result is easier communication between like individuals, and more difficult communication between unlike individuals. As Zuckerman says, "homophily makes you stupid."
Gahran's post Breaking out of the echo chamber does an excellent job of bringing together Zuckerman's and her own ideas, along with some other resources on the topic. What's on my mind, though, is how to check whether I am homophily positive.
I just did a quick check and saw that, of nearly 120 feeds in my aggregator, about one-third are about education, and half of those are about ed tech. Several, but not many, are about politics, and an equal number are about underdevelopment and changing the world. I gravitate toward one Turkish newspaper, two English language cable news channels, and generally choose the documentaries and books that reinforce what I already believe and know. In previous jobs and in previous places I experienced more --sometimes continuous-- challenges to my "knowledge." "Knowing more" now has possibly resulted in learning less.
The photo here shows don Benjamín Ortiz, one of a select group of people who taught me how my "knowledge" had shielded me from the truth. Benjamín is Guatemalan, a native speaker of the Mayan language Takaneko, and a coworker during the three years we did ethnolinguistic research and assessed the viability of mother tongue literacy.
Family and national circumstances being against him, Benjamín attended school for only two years before going to work. As an adult, he was recruited into a rural health promoter program, which inspired him to finish primary school by correspondence. During our first year together he successfully finished 6th grade. Sometimes we went through his textbooks together, and one day we looked at a geography lesson that explained that the earth is round.
This concept was completely outside his experience and reasoning. "If the world is round," he said, "then why are all pictures of the world flat?" Challenged, I tried to draw the continents on an orange, but at that scale Guatemala was just a speck. It was outrageous that this rugged, mountainous country, where 200 miles makes for a 12-hour journey, counted for nothing.
I wrote about this conversation in a letter to a friend in the US, who kindly sent back a beach ball globe. Benjamín and I spent a lot of time studying it, playing with a flashlight to figure out night and day, pondering imponderables such as why were my in-laws in Morocco going to bed when we in Guatemala were just having breakfast.
Benjamín's willingness to let me challenge such a commonly held belief stood in sharp contrast to my own inflexibility. I had dual degrees in Spanish language and Latin American studies, trained for ethnolinguistic fieldwork, and armed with the weapon that laid all knowledge captive at my feet: literacy. I showed up on the scene equipped with an understanding of the geographic, economic, and historical reasons for poverty, and ready to use demographics and dialectology to decide the fate of a language.
I was ashamed that these tools did not prepare me for life with no electricity, no bathroom, and nearly no water. Hamlets wiped out by measles. Legitimate crops destroyed instead of poppies in the US' war on drugs. Aching, crushing poverty that forced families to pull children from school because they couldn't afford pencils. The arrogance of the government doctor who showed up for two days every two weeks and let Benjamín's sister die without treatment. An entire society that functioned without the printed word. The truth was, all my learning did not prepare me for knowing people whose lives were so different from my own.
The only way out then, as now, was to start over, discarding the assumptions that kept me from seeing what I needed to see. I still need to accept that I might be wrong, or at least that others can be right, suppress the arguments in my head, and learn things over.