Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Alexander Question

Plutarch, a famous Greek historian, cites an encounter that probably occurred by 336 B.C., when Alexander visited Craneion:

Thereupon many statesmen and philosophers came to Alexander with their congratulations, and he expected that Diogenes of Sinope also, who was tarrying in Corinth, would do likewise. But since that philosopher took not the slightest notice of Alexander, and continued to enjoy his leisure in the suburb Craneion, Alexander went in person to see him; and he found him lying in the sun.” Alexander then asked Diogenes “Diogenes, I have heard a great deal about you. Is there anything I can do for you?” Diogenes raised himself up a little when he saw so many people coming towards him, and fixed his eyes upon Alexander. And when that monarch addressed him with greetings, and asked if he wanted anything, "Yes," said Diogenes, "Stand a little out of my sun." It is said that Alexander was so struck by this…."

This anecdote became one of the most celebrated ones in Greek history. Triumph of dignity over pride. The romantic confrontation between philosopher and tyrant. David slew Goliath. The affirmation of Socrates’s notion: ‘He is richest who is content with the least, for content is the wealth of nature.’ If you visit Wikipedia’s page of the anecdote, you’d find various interpretations by various philosophers.

I have been reflecting a lot upon the anecdote, for I had a similar encounter too. A previous manager of mine invited me to his office. After small, insincere, pleasantries he confided to me that he has a vision for my future. In two years, he foresaw, I could occupy his role. His offer rather than delighting me, infuriated me. Unfortunately I wasn’t quick witted or courageous as Diogenes was, so I only maintained a stoic composure. A stream of thoughts cascaded upon me: how dare he assumes knowing what I aspire to? How dare he assumes that he’s a role model to me? What sort of audacity he possessed with which he measured my abilities and skills, and based on that computed that I need two years to be at his role?

Some of you might think my emotions were exaggerated, and maybe ungrateful; that this was such a nice gesture of the man. But my manager, just like Alexander, spoke from a lofty, dominating stand. They didn’t familiarize themselves with their assumed beneficiaries. This is however not a strange phenomenon. Dominance exists as long as hierarchy exists. Hierarchy implies vertical distance and positional difference; and this vice has oozed into our metaphors language: high horse, pedestal, soap box, and ivory tower.

The literature of psychology undertook the study of such symptoms since the 1960s, and its scientific name is Narcissistic Personality Disorder. What follows is the symptoms that accompany this psychological impairment:
  • Expects to be recognized as superior and special, without superior accomplishments,
  • Expects constant attention, admiration and positive reinforcement from others
  • Envies others and believes others envy him/her,
  • Is preoccupied with thoughts and fantasies of great success, enormous attractiveness, power, and intelligence,
  • Lacks the ability to empathize with the feelings or desires of others,
  • Is arrogant in attitudes and behavior, 
  • Has expectations of special treatment that are unrealistic,
There is a prescript to the name of the syndrome: Narcissistic; the name is derived from the young Narcissus who fell in love with his own image reflected in a pool of water. He fell into the water and drown. His self-admiration caused in his demise. The analogy of the story is quite accurate. Study an array of professions where one’s excellence developed into Narcissism, it usually results to failure: military leaders, artists, athletes, media personalities, scientists… the list is quite endless. 
Let us borrow the story of Narcissus and the consequences of Narcissism and apply its lessons to one unexpected field: charity work.

In a public speech, Ernesto Sirolli, an Italian who spent 7 years of his youth in Africa volunteering shares a riveting tale. Of his first project there, he says: “…a project where we Italians decided to teach Zambian people how to grow food…and we taught the local people how to grow Italian tomatoes and zucchini and ... And of course the local people had absolutely no interest in doing that, so we paid them to come and work, and sometimes they would show up. And we were amazed that the local people, in such a fertile valley, would not have any agriculture. But instead of asking them how come they were not growing anything, we simply said, "Thank God we're here." … We had these magnificent tomatoes…we were telling the Zambians, "Look how easy agriculture is." When the tomatoes were nice and ripe and red, overnight, some 200 hippos came out from the river and they ate everything.

Sirolli and his people shouted: "My God, the hippos!" to which the Zambians said, "Yes, that's why we have no agriculture here."  The Italians, baffled, asked them "Why didn't you tell us?" to which the Zambians said "You never asked."

Obviously, there are commonalities amongst the stories of Alexander and Diogenes, the Manager and myself, and the Italians and the Zambians: questions were asked. And the responses might seem a bit strange: hostile and indifferent. But the problems weren’t that the questions were asked, rather, the attitude with which they were asked. And what was wrong them? The questions, at least in the eyes of the supposed beneficiaries, were insincere. While they appeared sympathetic and philanthropic, they courted arrogance and condescension. They weren’t about fulfilling the need of the supposed beneficiaries, but rather to fulfill something less straight forward: the egotism of the asker (just imagine someone approaching you randomly and suggesting: ‘I can help you lose weight’ or ‘You look pale, I can give you tips to prettier!’ wouldn’t you be insulted?)

There is a postscript to Sirolli story: “We Western people are imperialist, colonialist missionaries, and there are only two ways we deal with people: We either patronize them, or we are paternalistic. The two words come from the Latin root "pater," which means "father." But they mean two different things. Paternalistic, I treat anybody from a different culture as if they were my children… Patronizing, I treat everybody from another culture as if they were my servants.”

That is the Alexander error: his question stemmed from an imperialist and colonialist mindset; a vertical, hierarchical view that seeks to fulfill one’s ego, but losing the respect and interest of the recipient. And the mindset creates the right and wrong questions.

What was the title of Ernesto Sirolli’s speech? Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!

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