When my dad was a school kid, he caught a salamander. Over the course of an afternoon, he became intensely enamored with the slick, black little creature. And he took his role as caretaker very seriously. (I prefer to imagine the following scene in black and white, which lends a halo of 1950’s innocence to the whole vignette.) As his family sat down to dinner, my dad sensed his own duty to the salamander, who must also be hungry. So, he removed a carton of milk from the fridge, trotted to the make-shift terrarium, and very carefully lifted the salamander by the jaw, a technique which conveniently held his little mouth open. With the intense, furrowed focus of a little kid, my dad filled his salamander with whole milk, and then gently set him down, satisfied that he was well attended.
Comedy, tragedy, love, loss, murder. I like this story because my dad, who is a very smart grown-up, is so pitiably wrong-headed in his tenderness. Sometimes the way you’d like to be treated has absolutely nothing to do with the way you ought to treat others. Do unto others, well, as they’d like to be done unto.
In a few weeks, I’ll be flying to South Africa to attend my best friend’s wedding. The front sections of travel books (Exports, State Seal, Square Mileage) generally don’t hold my attention too long—I’m more of a Budget Accommodation kind of girl. But a section called Melting pot—Or divided society, stopped me. It first warned against conceptualizing South Africa as divided into “two basic groups of black and white.” Okay, no problem, I’m a Montessori kid, I get it. But to expound on the racial diversity of the country, a sidebar explained:
“The term ‘coloureds’ refers to those of mixed descent, most of whom speak Afrikaans as a first language.”
A quick flip to the copyright page confirmed that the book in hand was printed in 2011. But, like most people under the age of 80 who live in Minneapolis, “coloured” strikes me as grossly dated, vaguely imperial, and fraught with racist connotations. No matter what the intentions of the speaker, it is a word that would dive bomb a conversation. Anyone with any common sense shuns it. (And that extra ‘u’ of the British spelling, so obviously a colonial vestige, makes the whole thing that much worse.)
To learn that ‘coloureds’ is preferred in South Africa (at least according to the travel books), prompted a bit of reflection on how far afield intuition can steer us in cross-cultural exchanges. I’m going to have to be ready to say that word comfortably--unless I’m willing to avoid any discussion of race for the entirety of my visit (during which I will be celebrating the marriage of my Lebanese friend to her South African groom). But man, it just feels wrong.
I’ve done enough traveling to have offended or confused a lot of people. I’ve eaten with the wrong hand; walked on the wrong side of my companion [implying that he was prostituting me]; asked to use the women’s restroom in a gay bar; and, in attempt to adhere to India’s modest standards of dress, inadvertently costumed myself in an outfit traditionally worn by prepubescent boys.
But my point here isn't really about race or culture. To me, the issue of interest is the inadequacy of common sense. Common sense and intuition can be really lousy guides for complicated problems, particularly those that involve people who are significantly different from us. Intuition, which we’ve honed and practiced in our native society, often doesn’t prove so steadfast when carted into new territory. And given that our experiences can be wildly different, we don’t always have all that much ‘sense’ in common.
Still, all sorts of big, important public debates hinge on simple appeals to common sense. Obama did so a few days ago on gun control. Romney did it on immigration reform. No matter what side you take, both of those issues involve some complex contentions. They both ask a decision-maker to strike a careful balance between competing interests. And when we’re asked to look to our intuition for answers to these complex questions, we look away from facts that might better inform our beliefs. Essentially, common sense appeals can often suppress empirical, evidence-based arguments (like, say, the correlation between gun access and gun violence or the economic consequences of immigration regulation). That’s a drag. Sometimes new evidence can prove our intuition wrong, and can reeducate our common sense. To pull an example from the hat: there is nothing common-sense about using rotting fruit to cure disease. That seems like a bad, not-at-all-intuitive idea. Except that penicillin works. And despite our common perception of sunrise and sunset, it’s us who’s revolving. And "coloured" is okay to say in some places. And in New Dehli only male schoolchildren wear brown pants with long white tunics. And no matter how much you love the little thing, salamanders eat bugs. Or leaves. (I guess I’m not totally sure what salamanders eat, but I love you, Dad.)