Simple truths vs. A nuanced argument
In politics and in life, people like simple truths don’t they? It’s far more satisfying to hear someone ‘tell it like it is’ than it is to endure the lily-livered vacillations of a nuanced argument. Just look at what’s going on in the US right now if you’re in any doubt about that. The problem with simple truths is that while they are always simple they are rarely true.
I’ve been thinking over the subject of today’s post for a while and I expect many of you will partly, or entirely, disagree with my thoughts and conclusions. Other opinions are available and if you disagree with mine then fair enough, I’d be interested to hear your views in the comments section (you might even succeed in changing my mind).
The object of my pondering is “An Open Letter to Brazil” that did the rounds a few weeks back. The author is a “writer, thinker and life-enthusiast [who] writes personal development advice that doesn’t suck” (his words). He writes articles with titles like “How to attract women” and “Shut up and kiss her”. Quite the intellectual then…
I know that quite a few of you will already be familiar with the article – it was posted on Facebook by a lot of people, including some good friends of mine, and was even forwarded to me via email by a very smart guy who I respect greatly. I found several aspects of the article quite troubling and wanted a share a few of my thoughts.
The Open Letter format
Oooh! It’s an open letter. Open letters are exciting aren’t they? The reader thinks: “Oh man! This guy is blowing the lid off this scandal! He’s sticking it to ‘The Man’ and simultaneously sharing these home truths with the world”. Alternatively it could be seen as rather pompous gimmick – the author is saying “I have something to say that’s important and insightful – the world needs to hear this.”
The distinction between these two interpretations of the open letter rests on how heavyweight you judge the contents of the letter to be. Do you respect the author? Do you believe that he/she is saying something serious, intelligent and well-judged? Well here’s an excerpt from one of the early paragraphs:
Like most gringos, I originally came to Brazil for the parties, the beaches, and the girls.
Hmmm, let’s move on shall we?
Answering the question: “Why is Brazil so screwed up?”
Our ‘life enthusiast’ goes on to tell us that many, apparently confused, Brazilians have sought his wise thoughts on why their country is “so screwed up”. After glossing over (and rejecting) explanations such as systems of government and colonial history, he comes to the conclusion that the problem is actually the people of Brazil – the classic “It’s not me, it’s you” argument.
Let’s take a look at the key conclusions of his in-depth analysis – in each case an element of truth in what he says distracts from the essential fallacy of his conclusion:
- Everyday Brazilians are corrupt: It’s not just the politicians, we are told. Everyday Brazilians cheat and lie in situations where a gringo’s powerful sense of right and wrong would compel him to tell the truth. Verdict: Bullshit. Is cheating in everyday situations common in Brazil? Sure. But cheating is common everywhere when people think they can get away with it. This is a consequence of Brazil’s problems, not a cause.
- Brazilians are selfish: Strong Brazilian family ties drive a selfishness which in turn drives (and is used to justify) corruption. Verdict: Says who? Where is the evidence for this? Again, the grain of truth here is that many gringos (including me) find the close-knit nature of the Brazilian family a bit overbearing at times. But it’s a massive leap to say that this has anything to do with corruption.
- Brazilians are vain: Unlike gringos, Brazilians do not see vanity as a failing. The ‘vanity problem’ is stronger in Brazil than almost anywhere else and it prompts Brazilians to live beyond their means. Verdict: Social media and ‘selfie culture’ were not invented in Brazil. Sure, Brazilians are encouraged to buy things by paying in installments, but that is simply the consumer society combined with a sales technique aimed at people on low incomes. People are successfully tempted into living beyond their means all over the world.
None of these phenomena are unique to Brazil.
A little perspective
I’m not denying for a moment that Brazil needs change. The culture of being late (which, by the way, is common across vast stretches of the world) does the country no favours. The bloated state and bureaucracy, jeitinho, short-termism – these things do make aspects of life and work in Brazil a massive pain in the arse.
But let’s take a step back for a moment shall we? As Mrs Eat Rio remarked while reading his article, “This guy needs to read a book. ”
Are Brazil’s problems really explained by a weak-willed or morally bankrupt population? You can’t analyse Brazil’s present without considering its past. Ignoring the effects of colonial history and a 20 year military dictatorship (actively supported by the CIA) just isn’t on – especially when the person in question is a US citizen. Sorry if that elicits groans, but there’s no statute of limitations on history. If I wrote a character assassination of India without acknowledging the huge part the UK played in the country’s past I would expect to be called out on it.
Brazil the victim?
Am I condescendingly characterising Brazilians as helpless victims of the evil, all-powerful US? Am I suggesting that Brazilians can sit back and blame all their present and future woes on outside forces without taking any responsibility? No. My point is that substituting the complex historical and socio-economic explanations for Brazil’s current situation with “It’s you. You are the problem” is bullshit.
The way forward
There is one part of the letter with which I agree: it’s hard to feel optimistic about Brazil’s short- and medium-term future right now. I’m not advocating communism here, but seriously, the gap between rich and poor here is insane and needs to be addressed (#VaiPraCuba!). When many rich Brazilians in this country take no account of the advantages that their privilege has brought them (education, health, security – in short: opportunity) and instead blame the problems of the poor on some kind of moral weakness, how can you feel optimistic?
When a sizeable section of any population has little opportunity and even less to lose, crime happens. Of course humans aren’t robots so it’s not a black-and-white cause and effect scenario. The poor who work their way out of poverty (or simply live an honest life) are often the harshest critics of those from disadvantaged backgrounds who fall into crime. “I made it out of this situation without turning to crime. Don’t use it as an excuse for your laziness.”
But taking a macro view of the population (as governments must) we know that low living standards and a lack of opportunities make for high crime rates and associated problems. At the individual level it might be a moral issue, but when dealing with a city or country as a whole, it is up to the people in power to provide sufficient viable alternatives to crime.
Beyond that I have to admit I’m not really sure how you turn around a situation that is so ingrained. Complex problems rarely have simple solutions that actually work. Telling an entire nation that they should simply ‘be better people’ is neither insightful nor helpful.