| 21 December 2016
I was born in Libya to a family of European and Middle Eastern backgrounds. I spent my childhood in Libya. My formative years were spent in England. I then returned to Libya. After that, I lived in Canada. Now, I reside in the United States. I speak various languages fluently. My ideas cannot be easily anchored to one country or to one culture. My entire history, thinking, and character overflow with cosmopolitanism. Throughout my life, I have been a keen observer of people’s mentalities, inclinations, and cultural influences. I have seen traits that human beings have in common, but I have also detected huge differences: One of those, subject of this article, constitutes a massive gap between my way of thinking and American culture.
When I was growing up, I noticed that what many people said was more often than not untrue. Much of that had to do with rumours going around and people accepting them unquestioningly. As a result, I remember always feeling averse to hearsay; proof for me was what was credible. People would swear to me that something was true, but I would shut my ears: “Unless you have evidence, I will not accept your claim,” I would say. Libyan culture helped shape this attitude of mine: In one of Libya’s folkloric parables, Juha (a comical figure of fiction in Middle Eastern culture) is asked how he learned to be a liar; “I repeat whatever I hear,” was his reply. The moral of the story is clear: By failing to investigate allegations, one in fact ends up promoting falsehood. Libyan culture has another famous saying: “He who has no evidence is a liar.” Aside from my own sceptical disposition, those two pieces of Libyan wisdom in particular have played a very important role in influencing my approach to knowledge. This characteristic of mine stands in stark contrast to how I have seen Americans in general approach knowledge.
It is no great secret that there are many, mostly negative, stereotypes of Americans in various parts of the world: ignorant, dishonest, insincere, superficial, fake, selfish, materialistic, greedy, brash, volatile, and so on. Having mixed with many Americans throughout my life, and given that I have been residing in the United States since 2014, I cannot easily say that those stereotypes are unfair in respect of the majority of Americans. Nevertheless, there is a particular characteristic that most Americans possess, but to which not many non-Americans have made much reference, namely their proclivity for hearsay and their offhand dismissal of any evidence to the contrary. This attitude can be found in relation to any topic, from popular culture to politics to religion. Let’s look at some interesting examples:
Unlike lovers of music in other countries, such as the United Kingdom, there are many Americans who strongly believe that Elvis Presley “stole” black music. This is something that so many (mostly white) Americans assert, with all the confidence in the world. And yet, whenever I asked them for evidence to support their claim, they unfailingly failed to produce any. They do not seem to understand that when Elvis did cover versions of original songs sung by Afro-Americans, he paid their record companies the required fees, and the singers themselves received royalties; he never “stole” anything. In fact, he performed a unique service for black music in America because he made it more acceptable to America’s white audiences, so much so that Little Richard, probably the best black Rock and Roll singer in the United States in the 1950s, once stated: “He was an integrator, Elvis was a blessing. They wouldn’t let black music through. He opened the door for black music.”
The American public’s facile opinions become more disturbing when they enter the realm of politics: In 2003, the vast majority (approximately three quarters) of Americans supported the Iraq War. They did so largely because they believed that Iraq was behind the events of 9/11. Moreover, goaded by the Bush Administration, the American public was convinced that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that he was friends with Al-Qaeda. The corollary of this was plain for all to see: The United States was in imminent danger of experiencing another 9/11, only this time with weapons of mass destruction. The bulk of the American population did not know, and probably did not want to know, that Iraq had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11; that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction any longer; and that Iraq was not in bed with Al-Qaeda. It is patently clear that Americans back then could not have been persuaded of those allegations based on evidence simply because no such evidence existed; only hearsay. Nowadays, following the embarrassing failure of the Iraq War on all fronts, Americans almost always fall silent when that particular topic is brought up in conversation; in fact, the mere memory of someone’s support for the Iraq War or- politically- of voting for its authorization in 2003 has now become such an albatross that an individual’s credibility may easily suffer if his or her adversaries bring that to light.
To be continued.