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Selves and Others

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Ekman had tracked down a hundred thousand feet of film that had been shot by the virologist Carleton Gajdusekin in the remote jungles of Papua New Guinea. Some of the footage was of the tribe called the South Fore, who were a peaceful and friendly people. The rest was of the Kukukuku, a hostile and murderous tribe…

(From Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink)

This excerpt reeks of the sort of old fashioned cultural imperialism popularised by the writings of Livingstone and Stanley and reworked today by the likes of Asne Seierstad. ‘Peaceful and friendly and hostile and murderous’- Are these people being described here or a whole other species of beings? When we look at people different to us must the first thing to be communicated be their threat or lack thereof to us?

Gladwell here is illustrating the facial expression reading prowess of a psychology researcher but in doing so he merely regurgitates someone else’s othering of African people. I realise that these people are not his subject, they are merely accessory to a broader thesis. So too, my own point, if I succeed at all in making it here, is not to reflect on the accuracy of this description but rather to question its framing.I was fascinated by Blink. I am now enthralled by the idea of training myself to make better split-second judgments. Gladwell is that rare writer whose immense talent is commensurate with his staggering populatiy. I’m not consistently snobbish enough to turn my nose up at bestsellers. The gentry then as now must read to understand the ire of the multitude said Fay Weldon. My place is with the multitudes and so long as I am not expected to read of an agsty teenager’s necrophilic tendencies to prove it I will gladly read Gladwell. He certainly is an astute contributor to the contemporary textuality.

This excerpt is a timely reminder of cultural hegemony that continues to dog our perspective of the world. For too long we have sought to reaffirm our wholesomeness at the expense of a people seen and not heard.

I wonder if we were to subject the contemporary to such an analysis on the basis of some do-gooder’s roll of film, how would we describe the Barmy Army, Egyptian police, New Year’s eve revellers in Hillbrow, Saudis in Tahliya street, the American armed forces?

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