Tuesday, August 22, 2006

On Lebanon, Bias, and Opinionated Chicks

I wondered about this way back when the idea of a blog was but a spark in my frontal lobes (I don’t want any brainacky science people calling me on my possibly inaccurate use of the term ‘frontal lobe’ okay?)

‘This’ being how much of yourself do you put out there given that we are (most of us anyway) writers and/or readers of humorous fiction aimed at young or young-at-heart women. I decided that, really, no one needs to know how I feel about certain political topics, seeing as many consider chick lit escapist literature and who wants a political debate when you know people would rather read about finding your calling in life/the perfect shoes-and-handbag combo/soulmate who also happens to be a major stud and who you can bring home to your mother…

But then I though about what chick lit means to me, why it struck such a deep chord, and why I continue to seek out quality chick lit even though the genre abounds with less-than-sparkling offerings (given, of course, that what rocks my boat may not do so for the next girl…).

I dig chick lit so much because it’s real. I don’t believe it’s all escapist… just hopeful. Optimistic as opposed to downtrodden. And easy to relate to. On some level, I am Bridget, Becky Bloomwood, or Rachel Walsh even though I’m not British (or thirty), have never sent pleading letters to my banker, nor have I ever ended up in rehab. I’m also not Latina, but Dirty Girls’ Social Club by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez had just the same effect on me with the added bonus that I learned so much about the nuances of a culture that surrounds us and yet, somehow still eludes many of us. With her groundbreaking novel, Alisa put that culture within our reach and she did this by exploring a topic close to her heart and mind, one she was in a good position to write about. Her blog is a perfect reflection of that voice that made Dirty Girls’ climb the bestseller charts. Alisa is in-your-face and not necessarily nice about telling you just how wrong you are, but she’s smart and relevant, and ultimately, how do you broaden your mind, develop your critical thinking and find out just a little more about the different people who populate the world around you if you don’t listen to writers like Alisa? You don’t have to agree with her, but she speaks out about real issues that affect not only chicas but chicks as well and it behooves us to listen.

Now, this still wasn’t enough to motivate me to put myself out there, subject to every vitriolic stalker (check out Alisa’s Miami stalker who has a whole website dedicated to his hatred of her) who might take offense to my Arab-ness

However, recent world developments conspired against my desire to keep politics out of what is really a blog about writing (or how I’m not writing… oh the shame).

Many of you know I was born in Lebanon. Some of you know that I have family still living in my ancestral home in Beirut, that my Canadian family was on their annual vacation there when the bombs started dropping, after a decade-long hiatus and the kind of rebuilding that would lead a normal, thinking person to believe that the war was indeed over. Some of you might even know that I had considered joining my family in Beirut just weeks before Israel invaded, and that I chose to go to Europe instead.

In reality, I was too cheap to fork over the $2,000 for a high-season ticket, and that I didn’t feel like flying for 18 hours. I figured Beirut would still be there in the spring, when airfare would dip to a more manageable $1000.

To quote a line from the article I’ve linked to, it’s amazing that you can go to sleep in peace and wake up in war.

Most people have been pretty sensitive to the fact that I’m from this area and so directly affected by the events. I haven’t had nearly as many questions about the politics behind the invasion as I have about my family and if they managed to escape unharmed (they did, though only just). Still, I would be shortchanging all my friends in the writing community if I didn’t give them the chance to ask someone who knows something about this conflict whatever they’ve been wondering about. It’s been said that the more news you watch, the more confused you are likely to get, especially if you rely on the same news networks to give some background on the issues. This is largely due to media bias, (and I’m not going to get into exactly which side the media is tilted to…) but since I do happen to be from this area and I do happen to hold an opinion on the subject, I think we should clarify the word ‘bias’ before we go any further.

Everybody’s biased. You know that. Everyone knows that. But if we left it at that, then there’d be no point in debating anything because both sides would be biased and therefore probably molding the truth to suit their arguments. So what we do? There is bias that is born of ignorance, and bias born of experience. It’s incumbent on us, the audience, not on the person making the argument, to try and figure out what kind of bias we’re listening to. It’s easier said than done, I’ll give you that, but unfortunately most of us are too lazy to make any effort to try to understand what’s really going on.

Gone are the days when I would snatch up any opportunity to educate people around me on topics that left them baffled… I would get the standard blank, sometimes skeptical look, followed by a ‘you’re biased’ and a shrug. I think people felt that by asking me my take on things, they’d pretty much done their duty in trying to understand ‘the other side’ and if what I said conflicted with whatever preexisting opinions they held in their heads, then my arguments were automatically relegated to the ‘biased’ bin.

It made me feel like a circus monkey whose purpose was to entertain when I thought I was being asked to educate. I also got tired of having to defend notions that could have been settled had we had an encyclopedia Britannica or access to Google handy.

I’ll say it again: there’s bias born out of ignorance, and bias born out of education. Just ask CNN anchorwoman Christiane Amanpour who, in her interview with Oprah, confessed to feeling guilty for the news media’s attempt to remain neutral when it was clear one side was right and the other was wrong.

Got an opinion? Good. Just make sure you can defend it and defend it well. I don’t care what that opinion is. And if you’re someone listening to this opinion, challenge it. Don’t just take it. You have the tools and the critical thinking needed to decide if this is an opinion worthy enough to add to your arsenal of knowledge, or if you should just listen politely and then empty your mind of that nonsense. Sound tough? Of course. But nothing worthwhile comes easily, including the quest for the truth.

…okay… sloooowly stepping off the soapbox here. But before I go, I’ll leave you with a couple of things: a link to a newspaper article that was printed here in the Cayman Islands about a girl who, like so many other people who flood Lebanon in the summer to visit relatives, went to bed in peace and woke up in war. Her story is that of the tens and tens of thousands who had to find a way out somehow.

Now you’re probably wondering just what my opinions are given this entire lengthy lecture on how much of yourself to put out there. Here’s an amazing clip which has been sending shock waves over the internet for its brutal and unwavering honesty for a few weeks now. Watch it and remember what we talked about…

… and finally, what do you think about chick lit heroines and the world that they inhabit? Do you enjoy reading about characters like those of Alisa VR, unapologetically opinionated and who call attention to racial, political and economic holes in our society (while still maintaining the voice and ‘now’ feel of classic chick lit greats of yore), or do you prefer your protagonists to err more on the side of political correctness?


Maureen McGowan said...

I'm not a fan of political correctness... I'm also not a fan of purposefully hurting people and I guess sometimes those two things can get confused...

But I'm all for books that delve into real issues.

Great post Nadine. I had no idea you had family in Beirut when the war broke out. I'm so sorry for the stress that must have caused you and am glad to hear they, at least, are okay.

I haven't read your links yet but will. I blogged on the power of the press to influence opinions just last week -- albeit on a very different subject... It's so easy these days to voice opinions without doing the research or realizing that your sources are biased...

Thought provoking post. Thanks!

Nadine Dajani said...

I aim to provoke thought, so great!

I think political correctness is great - I wasn't trying to dis it. It's a testament to how far we've come as a society that we've collectively decided that racial slurs and any kind of speech/behavior that purposefully offends the people around us is unacceptable.

BUT, I think that if it's stifling real debate, the kind of debate that delves as deep as possible into the heart of an issue, then it's either gone too far or we're not using it correctly.

Alisa VR is SO NOT PC. Maybe it doesn't bother me because I agree with a lot of what she says, but there are plenty of people out there who say seriously offensive things that I'm exposed to all the time (Ann Coulter anyone? My favorite was right after 9/11 when she said all Arabs/Muslims should be killed and converted. Not killed OR converted, killed AND converted - this isn't something she said in a moment of extreme emotion... this was in print, in her column). No matter how many racial slurs I hear, how much disinformation and media bias I'm subject to, I would still rather have that if it means I get a chance to defend my point of view. I can't let myself get sensitive or whiny about that kind of stuff... because having people step on eggshells around me won't help their education, it won't help challenge their minds and their view of the world. I'd rather they threw whatever they were thinking at me and then listened, really listened (and did their homework if I said something was 'fact' and they weren't sure about it), and maybe we'd manage to really understand where the other is coming from, instead of merely hiding behind PCness and thinking everything is okay.

Nadine Dajani said...

I love your artsy profile photo, btw Maureen!

Marley Gibson said...

Great post, Nadine. Very thought-provoking and appreciated in terms of getting more information out. The video was interesting to watch and you definitely don't get that kind of reporting in the states. Not at all. I'm glad your family got out safe and I'm glad you were cheap and weren't there when this happened. Hugs!!