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Hands up!

What is it about the human race that makes it so hard for us to admit that we were wrong? Why do we go to the ends of the Earth to justify our behaviour and to avoid taking responsibility for our actions? When will we learn that putting our hands up and publicly owning our mistakes – admittedly the road less travelled – is by far the easiest path forward? As eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope is said to have said: ‘A man should never be ashamed to own he has been wrong, which is but saying in other words, that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.’

 Taking a perverse pleasure in prevaricating

Many of us are experts at ferreting out the mistakes that others make. We’re quite capable of criticizing their errors and, to our shame, quite often take delight in it all. (Remember that old saying: gossip is when we hear something we like about someone we don’t?). We become armchair experts, convincing ourselves that if we were on that putting green, or facing that goalpost, or in front of that particular press cabal, we’d not have made the same mistake. In our own minds, we make better golfers, better footballers, and better politicians than those who are paid for their talent (or lack thereof). And yet, when it comes to engaging in some self-reflection and being honest with ourselves and those around us, we have a litany of excuses to draw from which explain what we did wrong, and why.

Academics and scientists have a label for it: cognitive dissonance. Behaviourists believe that we mainly do things for reward; economists believe that we are capable of making calculated and rational decisions. But the theory of cognitive dissonance upsets both.  As we mere mortals find it incredibly uncomfortable to have two opposing opinions at the same time, we often resolve this sorry state by digging our heels in and refusing to admit that we are wrong, despite evidence to the contrary.

 Sorry … a step in the right direction

Former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli is on record as stating that ‘one of the hardest things in this world is to admit you are wrong. And nothing is more helpful in resolving a situation than its frank admission.’ Here in Budapest in the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen plenty of examples of excuses begetting excuses. Instead of fessing up and taking responsibility and apologising for returning  convicted murderer Ramil Safarov to Baku, Azerbaijan, where he received a full pardon, pay rise, and promotion for killing Armenian Gurgen Margarjan with an axe in Budapest in 2004, our elected leaders are trotting out one excuse after the other – we had assurances, we believed, we never thought… Admittedly, an apology littered with excuses would do little to right the wrong, but it would be a start.

When the now famous audio recording surfaced in September of 2006, then newly elected Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány apparently admitted to his party: Nyilvánvalóan végig hazudtuk az utolsó másfél, két évet [we have obviously been lying for the last one and a half to two years]. Again, little consolation for the damage done by two years of lying, but it was (in my mind) a step in the right direction. Admission. Ownership. Accountability.

How does it feel to be wrong?

The list of descriptors that come to mind to describe how we feel when we are wrong is practically endless: annoyed, brainless, chastised, disappointed, embarrassed, foolish, gullible, half-witted, idiotic…  Is it any wonder that we see being wrong as something to be avoided at all costs. Who among us would voluntarily choose to lumber ourselves with any of these tags? While few of us will admit to always being right, fewer still would be able to remember ten examples of when we were, in fact, wrong. We don’t want to remember. We want to forget. We want to move on. Get over it. Get past it. And yet if we’d only own up to it, life would be so much easier.

If we detonate our detractors’ thunder, then what have we left to fear? By admitting we were wrong, that we made a mistake, we effectively disarm those who desperately want to rain on our parade. We leave them with little to beat us with. And while our friends and supporters (being the imperfect human souls that they are) might take a little private pleasure from our discomfort, it will be private. It is our imperfect selves that we need to learn to live with. And our politicians need to resign their Napoleonic stance of never retreating, retracting, or admitting a mistake and instead, be the first ones to put their hands up and fess up. Perhaps then, to avoid such public confessions, they will put more thought into the consequences of their actions. Way too simplistic, I hear you say… but then, in my little world, life is a lot less complicated.

First published in the Budapest Times 14 September 2012

Grateful 17

I’m beside myself this week at what has happened with the Armenia/Azerbaijan/Hungary fiasco. For those of you who haven’t been following it, let me give my rather simple synopsis. Azeri kills Armenian in Hungary with an axe. Azeri tried and sentence to life imprisonment. After some years served, Hungary ships Azeri back to Baku on the understanding that he will serve at least 25 years before being paroled. Instead, he is given a hero’s welcome, eight years back pay, a new flat, and a promotion – all for killing an Armenian.

In the meantime, the Hungarian government, having failed to secure funding from China and Saudi Arabia, and not wanting to be any more indebted to the IMF or the EU, is considering a bond buy from Azerbaijan to the tune of 2-3 billion euro. Coincidence? Perhaps.

I visited Baku last year around the anniversary of the 1992 massacre and was horrified to find that school kids are being taught, in school and at home, to hate Armenians. They write essays about growing up and killing Armenians. What hope do both countries have of ever settling their differences if this is the legacy that’s being handed down generation after generation.

I don’t for a minute profess to fully understand the situation. I’m eons away from being able to talk about it with any degree of insight. But surely there comes a time when we need to move on. This is not about the past – and I don’t know enough to take sides anyway. This is right now. I can’t for the life of me see how any government, in this day and age, could so publicly reward a cold-blooded murderer and still expect to participate in global politics and policy-making.

The Internet Governance Forum is scheduled for Baku in November this year. Apparently Armenia will follow remotely but will not come to Baku for the proceedings. I’m wondering how many other countries will do the same?

This week, I’m really grateful that I can still get upset about what is going on around me. I’m grateful that I can still recognise an injustice when I see one. And I’m particularly grateful that I’m not one of the apathetic masses,  divorced  from what is happening in the world to the point that voting in elections has become an inconvenience and protesting a wrong has become someone else’s job.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

Don’t confuse Armani with Armenia

Shopping, like most things I’ve found in Baku, comes in two extremes: very cheap or very expensive; Turkish tat (a change, albeit not a marked one, from Chinese tat) or designer labels. And it’s mostly very expensive. Every designer worth his or her salt has a shop, or two, in Baku. From Armani to Vuitton; from Tom Ford to Yves Rocher. And interestingly, these shops are not concentrated in one area – as they are in Budapest on either Andrassy or Fashion Street. Nope, they’re all over the place. On main streets, back streets, and high streets. And there are even designer shops for children.

Oil money is big money and translates in to fancy cars (did you know that Lexus makes a very posh-looking SUV?), fur coats, and fashion. The guide map lists a part of town that’s home to the oil millionaires’ mansions. I’ve yet to come across it but am half-thinking that it might be  a good day to see how the other half live. For your average Azeri, though, the good news is that the monthly gas bill will be just a couple of manats – less than €2. Electricity, of course, is another matter entirely.

I walked along Park Bulvar, along the coast of the Caspian Sea. No expense has been spared. It’s beautifully finished; every detail from the heavy ornate rubbish bins to the bronze sculptures and landscaped footpaths has been carefully accounted for. It was empty on Saturday, partly because of the day that was in it: the nineteenth anniversary of a particularly bloody massacre in Azerbaijan’s history – the massacre at Khojali.

No matter how you look at it, what happened in 1992 was bad. Very bad. Six hundred Azerbaijani innocents – men, women, and children – brutally murdered byArmenians.  It will probably never be known with any degree of certainty what instigated the massacre or what individuals were responsible for it. (I found an interesting site offering a view of both sides.) It would be practically impossible to forget about it, no matter how hard you tried. It was brutal. And it shouldn’t be forgotten.

What discomfits me though, is the perpetuation of xenophobia; rearing children to believe that all Armenians are evil. I’m not proposing a simplistic forgive and forget – that would be humanly impossible, given the brutality of what happened. But what is accomplished by fomenting hatred, I wonder? What do we accomplish anywhere in the world by passing our hatred and our prejudice from generation to generation without allowing them to make up their own minds?

I’m reading the famous Azeri book – Ali and Nino – written under the psuedonym Kurban Said in 1937. In the early chapters, Ali’s father counsels him: Do not forgive your enemies; we are not Christians. While I’m as far away as ever from understanding how Bakuvians think or how the Azeri people as a whole see life, I’m considerably closer to realising that there isn’t a simple explanation.

The juxtaposition of East and West; the gaping divide between rich and poor; the tug of war between Asia and Europe are underscored by a complicated past and an even more complicated future. On the edge of Fountain Square stands a beautiful old Armenian church. It’s boarded up, no longer in use. A daily reminder of what once was and what is looking less and likely to ever be again.

Invisible

A couple of months ago, I thought Azerbaijan was a country on the other side of Serbia. Geography was never one of my strong subjects. I’m quite famous for my appalling sense of direction, so my faux pas is quite understandable, at least given my peculiar logic.

It was only last week that I realised exactly where it is – nestled close to Georgia and Armenia on the edge of the Caspian Sea. Steeped in history, religions, and rulers, and a former member of the USSR, Azerbaijan is now one of those fascinating places that seem to hover on the brink of that imaginary line between east and west. Fuelled by oil money, the capital, Baku, is undergoing a major facelift. Health and safety is non-existent. At best, you might have a lookout on the scaffolding that checks for pedestrians before his mate empties shards of brick and glass down on to the street, presumably to be swept up later.

Kerbstones are nearly a foot high – you literally climb on and off the footpath – those you can find, because they’re few and far between once you come off the main streets. Walking along the sides of the roads, competing with the traffic for space, is quite the battle, one I’m losing badly. I remember being in Bangalore some years ago and being terrified of the traffic. Lakshminaryana made me walk back and forth across a very wide and busy road six times without running. He told me that no-one would run me over. Pedestrians ruled. Not so in Baku. It’s a constant game of chicken. Quite the adrenalin rush. Current score: Vehicles 27. Mary 1. And that particular showdown left me reeling!

The Lonely Planet has this to say about Azeri mindset: Muslim yet beer-loving, Turkic yet Eurocentric, overwhelmingly hospitable yet plagued by a strong vein of Soviet-era suspicion. mmm…I can only assume that it was written by a man, or else the pendulum has swung towards suspicion rather than hospitality since that particular book was published. The minute I enter a shop, an assistant approaches and sticks to me like velcro. Hovering at my elbow, just looking. Always beside me. My smiles and ‘I’m just looking’ have no effect. I’m obviously not to be trusted or else customer service has been taken just a little too far along the attentive line.

While walking around the city yesterday, I was struck by how many men there are in Baku. And more peculiarly again, the women I did see all seemed to be carbon copies of each other. Ok – it’s bloody cold here and it could well have been that they all shopped in the same place, but there was an unsettling similarity between these heavily made-up, hennaed, long-coated women – a hardness that I’ve not come across before.

I keep thinking of Bangalore… walking down Mahatma Gandhi street one night, I commented to Lakshminaryana about men urinating on the side of the street. He told me that only foreigners notice because no man, while in the act, will make eye contact with anyone, and no self-respecting Indian will look his way, either. So, in effect, the peeing man is invisible. This is how I felt yesterday afternoon. Invisible. I had to pinch myself a couple of times to make sure I was awake and stopped longer than usual looking at my reflection in shop windows to make sure I was actually there. It was most peculiar. No-one made eye contact with me and I soon stopped trying to make eye contact with them. It was quite surreal. In the underground malls, those shop-lined passageways beneath the roads, people walked straight at me. I don’t think I’ve walked a straight line since I arrived in Baku.  This weaving and dodging at least keeps the blood flowing.  Did I mention how cold it is?