Andrew and Gaia Grant, directors of Tirian International, were interviewed recently by journalist Eric Ellis for the Bulletin Magazine on international relations. As an Australian business couple living in Indonesia, Eric was interested to hear their perspective on the Shappelle Corby drug trafficking case, and how reactions to it reflected the ongoing sensitivities between the two countries. In the article below, Andrew reflects on what this interview revealed, and discusses some of the deeper issues the Corby case has brought to light…
WHEN ASSUMPTIONS BECOME FACTS
Gaia had the opportunity to spend some time this month on a project in the Australian outback. On hearing that she had just flown down from Bali, everyone she met – from the taxi driver to the hotel receptionist – was keen to let her know what their opinion of Shappelle Corby was. Drawing on countless examples of evidence gained from saturated media exposure, most people had woven together a case that they were convinced was watertight, and most people had decided that she was innocent.
Although people from other countries may have missed the whole drama (Shappelle who?), and in fact many Indonesians – who are simply too busy focusing on day-to-day survival – cannot comprehend why there is such a furore over the conviction of yet another foreign drug trafficker, it did become a huge issue for Australia.
In reaction to the Corby case, and before the judge had even made a ruling, the media chose to make the issue ‘news’, and public opinion and media attention then fuelled each other to create a major storm: Travel agents boycotting Bali, people demanding refunds for their tsunami aid donations, national protest rallies, death threats – and even a bio-terrorist threat against the Indonesian embassy in Australia. This only left the rest of the world wondering what had happened down under, and what could have led to such prejudice.
In the same way that polio has never really been effectively eradicated in the way that doctors had hoped it would be, it is clear that discrimination will be difficult to erase. In recent years it had become so politically incorrect to show discrimination that all but the most insensitive people took pains to appear fair-minded, at least in public. But it took a 27 year old tourist travelling to Bali alleged to be carrying drugs and a frenzied media looking for a good story to expose a deeper issue that we all must face, the fact that many of our assumptions are leading to dangerous assumptions and unreasonable prejudices …
WE ARE WHAT WE FOCUS ON
Put simply: what we choose to focus on becomes important in our minds as we give emphasis to it. Inferences and rumours all too easily morph into unquestionable facts, which are then used to validate ideas and opinions. Once emotions are added to the equation, a potent mix is created.
Within companies, rumours, gossip and hearsay can bring down individuals and teams. The implications of the comments made in conversations around the coffee machine and in the corridors at work need to be thought out before they casually slip off the tongue. It is too easy to build a culture of negativity when we are busy feeding on the titbits of information (that may have no factual base) expressed through a subjective emotional filter.
Peter Senge addresses the dangers of hearing fragments of information and jumping to conclusions in his "ladder of inferences” tool. In this ladder, he explains, it is unfortunately human nature to move quickly from perceiving, to assuming, to acting (having a strong unquestionable factual opinion). If left unchecked, these inferences quickly turn to fact in an individual’s mind, judgement can follow, and soon after there can be unnecessary conflict.
CREATING A POSITIVE CULTURE
We live in a world of self-generating beliefs that can remain largely untested. We adopt those beliefs because they are based on conclusions, which are inferred from what we observe, as well as on our past experience.
If terrorism is defined as people who, on the basis of their interpretation of the facts, take harmful actions against innocent people (whose only association with the issue may be race or belief) for political gain, then there are many more amongst us than the radicals we see on the nightly news.
In the 1940s, a famous anti Klu Klux Klan journalist Stetson Kennedy started a campaign called “Frown Power". His campaign, which simply encouraged people to pointedly frown when they heard bigoted speech, ended up being the greatest single contributor to the weakening of the KKK. This is where each of us can do something about stopping terrorism. If we are serious about dealing with the prejudices that bring harm to innocent people, we will all do all we can to stamp out the pernicious belief systems that fuel bigoted opinions and actions at work and at home. It is time to deal with the sorts of assumptions that can become unquestionable facts, and ultimately lead to emotive and destructive consequences.
This is worth fighting for.
by Andrew Grant ©2005
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