Here’s a story that I’ve always rather enjoyed; it comes from Tracy Kidder’s book, Mountains Beyond Mountains. The book recounts Paul Farmer’s attempt to create an alternative treatment regimen for tuberculosis.
So he got some people together to find out why the current treatment wasn’t working. One group of people (perhaps unsurprisingly, the relatively poor villagers that were typical of his patients) put their finger on the real problem: giving people Tuberculosis medicine when they don’t have food to eat isn’t all that great. Using this insight, Farmer went on to develop a treatment programme that ensured that all the Tuberculosis patients received food money and extra attention.
What interests me, though, is the other perspective. The other group of people — typically more affluent doctors — felt that the problem was related to the superstitiousness of the patients. According to them, the patients didn’t really believe that microbes caused Tuberculosis: instead, they believed that Tuberculosis happened because of sorcery, and therefore they didn’t stick to the medication regimen.
After talking to a lot of his patients, Farmer learned that although a lot of his patients actually believed this, the belief didn’t make much difference to their recovery rate.
Dr. Farmer found himself talking to one of his recovered patients, an older woman. Ultimately, she told him that she believed that sorcery was involved in her sickness, and she was pretty sure that she knew who sent the sickness at her.
Finally Farmer asked: “But if you believed that, why did you take your medicines?”
And she rolled her eyes and replied: “Cheri, eske-w pa ka konprann bagay ki pa senp?” In English, she was asking, “Can’t you understand something unless it’s really simple?”
I’ve always really enjoyed this story; at some level, I think that it really speaks to the part of me that’s wary of simplistic arguments. That wariness, I think, leaks out in almost all aspects of my life. One big area in which it manifests has to do with my attitudes about gender and, specifically, my gender: to my ears, anything that seems like binary thinking feels too “senp” and, hey, gender is one of the most central organizing binaries of our society. To me, though, it tastes like burning.
Which, I suppose, has something to do with why I’m so drawn to theories of thirdness.
And all of these thoughts were really brought to the surface for me the other night, when I was doing a bit of work on the THAC web site. I consolidated the THAC web site on to my main web service provider — I’ve been managing and paying for the THAC site for a few years now, but I’ve let it get a bit out-of-date over the last few years. It was time for some refreshification. I threw in a new WordPress instance, fiddled a bit with themes, and started putting some of our content in place. In the course of all that, I found myself looking for YouTube videos, and stumbled upon an Al Jazeera piece about MINUSTAH. And I did not love it.
So I spent some time blogging about why I didn’t love the Al Jazeera piece . And mostly, I think, that comes back to me disliking simplistic arguments. And binary thinking. The whole part at the end of the video talks about the “apparent contradiction” in Haiti that many feel like MINUSTAH should leave, that they’re an invading force, and they’re doing a lot of real harm in the country. And yet, the video seems astonished to discover, some people think that they do some good. Um. Hm. Y’know, if MINUSTAH were a bunch of mustache-twirling villains, there wouldn’t be much debate about whether or not they should leave. It’s not shocking to me that they manage to accomplish small amounts of good in and amongst the harm that they’re causing. But I still think that they’re closer to the mustache-twirling end of the spectrum.
And I’m really disappointed that this is Al Jazeera’s assessment: I’ve come to expect so much more from them. But as I say in my response, I think that the debate about whether or not MINUSTAH should remain in Haiti suffers from binary thinking.
One of the reasons that I’m attracted to the positions of Lavalas activists and Aristide is that they have a pretty nuanced position on things. In the blog entry I made, above, I quoted Aristide’s book, Eyes of the Heart; here’s a longer quotation from the book:
On weekends we invite kids from the neighbourhood to spend time with us at home. One day, Florence, a beautiful little girl four years old, who has no mother and no father, was visiting. As the kids were preparing to go to swim, I asked Florence where she was going to swim. Florence, who had never seen a pool before, pointed to the pool, and said, “In that big bucket.” I asked her if the pool was big or small. And she answered, “It is beautiful.” Later as we served the kids cola, I teased her, telling her not to taste it because it was rum.” She said, “No, it is cola.” I said, “No, Florence, be careful — it is rum.” She insisted, “It is cola.” I asked her which she preferred — cola or rum? She responded firmly, “I prefer juice.” You can imagine how we laughed.
When I presented two options, big or small, she created a third one. When I asked which she preferred, rum or cola, again Florence created a third choice. Florence is a child responding in a spontaneous way. But we adults thinking rationally — can’t we do the same? When presented with only two options, we can create a third way.
The poor have long experience in creating a third way. They face death and death every day. They survive. In Haiti we have survived for hundreds of years this way. This may be a jarring notion for those who believe that the poor are poor because they are stupid. If one believes this, one will always feel that the solution to poverty will not come from those who are poor. But in fact, if we are alive at all it is not because of aid or help from other countries, rather despite it. We are alive because of our tremendous capacity for survival.
Perhaps you can understand why this story charms me. I confess that I’m guilty of the kind of simplification that I was complaining about if I feel like Aristide’s talk about a third way resembles, at all, the theories of thirdness that I was alluding to earlier. But for me, thirdness is about creating a space of possibility, and I think that’s what Aristide is talking about also.