Monday, July 16, 2007

Concept shock

Travelers who visit the Antipodes, in one or the other direction, are familiar with the feeling of disorientation known as culture shock, brought about by the simple fact that people do many things differently at the opposite extremities of the globe. However, once you're accustomed to visiting foreign lands, there's usually no longer any real shock, merely a mild bewilderment upon discovering that familiar activities—such as eating, for example, or talking to strangers—are not performed in the same way as back home.

Concept shock, on the other hand, is a far more serious rupture, since it concerns, not so much the way that Antipodeans act, but the way they think. Let me give you an authentic personal example of concept shock that affected me when I was out in Australia for a few weeks, a year ago. One evening, on television, I saw an Australian news documentary concerning a young woman [let's call her Mary] who had become the victim of an allegedly wicked female cousin [Betty, say], who appeared to be a fraudster. The gist of the story was that Betty had apparently stolen [or at least acquired illicitly] certain identity documents and banking data that belonged to Mary, and the evil woman was now exploiting this stuff to steal money from her innocent cousin.

Now, my first reaction to this tale was that it sounded complicated and far-fetched, if not dubious. As they say metaphorically in French, the affair seemed to be tied together crudely with string that was simply too thick to be kept out of sight, but too coarse to hold. Much more would need to be known about the relationship between Mary and Betty before we outsiders could be certain that one was definitely a goody and the other a baddy. Fair enough, I said to myself. It's obviously an affair that needs to be handled by society's competent authorities: police, lawyers and finally judges. But I was in for a shock: a concept shock! Instead of culminating in an appeal to such authorities, the TV producers decided that they would take the case into their own hands. And, to maximize the reality of the show, they called upon Mary, Betty and their respective friends to participate in the performance, playing what they thought of as their authentic personal roles... but not necessarily with adequate acting skills.

Watching this fiasco with relatives, I complained that the notion of a TV channel taking justice into its own hands was utterly shocking. I tried to point out that a concept was at stake here: the time-honored concept of old-fashioned Justice with a capital J. But I had the impression that my relatives didn't understand what I was raving on about. They seemed to think that it was bloody good reality TV. And it was, too. But it was hardly an instance of the concept of Justice.

Today, I find myself confronted with a jolting case of concept shock when I discover the way in which the Australian minister of Immigration, Kevin Andrews, has just overturned a court order to free the Indian doctor Mohamed Haneef. The most ridiculous aspect of the minister's disregard for the basic legal principles of the nation (in this case, the respect of a court decision) is the antiquated concept brought forward to justify his outrageous decision: Haneef's failure to pass a so-called "character test"...

I'm profoundly shocked. That's all I can say. Concept shocked.

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