Ismail carefully unearths the Jordanian Zarb delicacy, prepared from a makeshift underground oven, brushing the orange Wadi Rum sands gently aside. Traditionally dressed in a salwar kameez and an extended keffiyeh drawn to protect his bearded face from the desert’s elements, he begins to chant Bedouin tribal songs. His moonlit image cut against the backdrop of one of Earth’s greatest wildernesses symbolizes the stark contrast between Western stigma and his endearing hospitality.
In an increasingly interconnected, kinetic and information rich ‘google society’ making quick judgements has become integral part of our daily experience. ‘Thin-slicing’ in psycho-philosophical study is used to describe our supposed ability to make decisions in certain scenarios using only fragments of information. If we can achieve this then our judgements about the people, places and situations we encounter, based on snap perception, can be liable to the media, our upbringing and social circles-and therefore biased.
In 2002 George Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ speech refocused the West’s supposed enemy, and the ‘war on terror’ realigned our behaviours towards different faiths through passive reinforcement. Often our media had an underlying tone, offering a sense of unilateralism, or an ‘us against them’ connotation which became harmonised with Ismail’s image.
Whilst we may subconsciously just be more cautious around someone of Ismail’s appearance, sometimes the subconscious has taken on a dangerous reality. Almost exactly 11 years after the 9/11 attacks 7 Sikhs were shot dead at a temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, USA by a ‘white supremacist’. ‘I was born and raised in this country. I played little league baseball. My mom was a soccer mom. I’m a diehard Yankees fan. I’m an American,’ Amardeep Singh, a co-founder of the Sikh Coalition, lamented in an August 2012 Guardian report on the atrocity. It illustrates how powerful the glut of media images actually were-injecting a stigma into peoples’ minds.
Our upbringing also shapes our view of the world, and therefore our choices. Joining a local family in Wadi Rum, a few kilometres from the ancient city of Petra, for a traditional Jordanian Mansaf feast- exemplified how our values and disciplines can be inbuilt from childhood. The son, Malik passionately recited a famous Islamic idiom, ‘sharpen the mind, harden the body, soften the heart, and be of service to others.’ The daughter, Sairah, mirrors her mother’s generosity, offering hot sage teas. Hospitality and munificence is part of Jordanian identity, and is perpetuated by parents passing on these values.
However we are also exposed to our parents’ dispositions. Not only can we be born into a religion, we can be born into a certain way of thinking, or on a certain side of a conflict. Following the announcement of a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel in late November this year, images of boys as young as six were shown wielding automatic weapons, AK47 assault rifles and handguns in celebration in the West bank city of Hebron. The graphics illustrate the cycle of violence in the region, but highlights more widely how we can be biased and indoctrinated by our upbringing.
Adherence to social convention is an innate part of human nature. Ideas and beliefs can replicate as they gather wider social acceptance. From 2008 to 2010, the spate of violence against Indian students in Australia, dubbed ‘curry-bashings’ by the Indian media, raised questions about xenophobia in Australian society. According to The Age, a Melbourne newspaper, there was a 46% drop in Indians applying for student visas for Australia from July to 31 October 2009 compared to the same period in 2008. The growing Indian student presence may have sown the seeds of xenophobic beliefs and then spilled over into violence amongst a small sect of Australian society.
Similarly, there were questions over the global media reaction to the events-including claims that the Indian government had embellished the issue. This view has steamrolled in Indian society, with the reduction in Indian student visa applications, and with Bollywood star, Amitabh Bachan’s rebuttal of an honorary doctorate from Queensland University of Technology. Acceptance of the prevalent view can cause situations like this to perpetuate, and stereotypes to formulate-until they become self-reinforcing.
With the volumes of different messages around us, we have a tendency to accept those most useful to us, to enable us to function within society. We can begin to discard auxiliary thought which challenges these conventions. A recent study by psychologists Sparrow, Liu and Wegner ‘Google effects on memory’ contains findings illustrating that when people have access to readily available information sources, they remember fewer fact and less information because they can rely on ‘searches’ to acquire it. The internet effectively becomes our ‘transactive’ memory where we store our information.
Thin-slicing has become both more integral and pivotal in our lifestyles without us noticing. It is often easier to ‘search’ on the mass of consolidated information at our fingertips, revert to our upbringing or what our social circles believe to inform us rather than reaching for the new.
Ismail reappears from the desert darkness holding woollen blankets and covers the tired desert travellers, who lay asleep facing the glowing stars by the fire. We must engage in the information age without impeding our sense of self-discovery, so that we can continue to embrace various perspectives and see people like Ismail in a different light.