An Angry Man Called Me Out of Bed This Morning

This morning, barely eight o’clock, the phone rang. The gentleman on the other end asked to speak to Doctor Mirjam Maclean.

Even though I am not a doctor, I said, “speaking” and asked who was calling.

He said his name and repeated that he wished to speak to Mister Mirjam Maclean.

I repeated that was who he was speaking to and asked what this was about.

He became indignant and asked why “he” was refusing to speak to him.

I repeated once more that I was speaking to him and he hung up the phone.

So why this little anecdote?

Because it is a perfect demonstration of people only noticing what they already expect – of our observations being coloured by our expectations.

The back story:

On Saturday the feature article in the newspaper dealt with the ADHD diagnoses of children in schools – a topic close to my heart – and I had written a letter to the editor. Previously, I had on occasion written such a letter, but they were never published. After emailing the letter, a message came up stating the requirements for letters and that the word limit was 200 words. I had believed it to be 300, so convinced that my letter was too long, I had already dismissed the idea that it could appear in the paper.

But apparently it did and apparently, some people start their day a lot earlier than I do.

So this gentleman called and I expected the man on the other side to be asking for my husband, who works from home and is always on the phone with customers. Maybe the request for “doctor” should have alerted me, but I responded only to my name. I am not a doctor and never made a claim of that sort. Had I known about the paper, I would have put two and two together, but as it was, he confused me, so I kept repeating who I was and he kept demanding to speak to a male, no doubt based in his expectations – although the request to speak to a doctor may have been intended sarcastically, because he introduced himself by that title.

Nevertheless, he could not hear me saying “speaking”, because he expected a man and in his anger – he probably did not agree with my letter to the editor – did not listen.

So he disconnected, leaving me wondering who could have known my name and phone number. I only clicked when another gentleman called shortly after and referred to my letter in the paper.

This elderly gentleman was very polite and thanked me for my letter. He explained that in the past, school teachers dealt with bullying in a most effective way – they’d blow their whistle and so draw the attention of every child to the negative behaviour of the bully, which caused them embarrassment.

He also mentioned that schools used to have rules and kids were expected to obey those and if not they were punished for behaving wrongly and not be sent to a doctor to have their brain checked.

This gentleman clearly understood the problem very well, because today children are not attacked for their behaviour, but for their person if they behave in a manner that goes against the expectations of the school. And that was also the topic of the original article in the paper: that children are labelled and medicated for acting differently, so that the message is that they are faulty.

For those who are interested. The original article and my response to it.

The final battle is not always between good and evil.

Of a Note in a Cosmic Song – response to the reader

Several people have commented on the “shocking outcome of the last trial” with the request I explain to them why this is justice done.

In response to that, I decided to write this post, because it is too complex for a simple yes or no answer.

First of all, it is not the objective of fiction to tell the reader what to think or to give them “the truth”. That is the objective of non-fiction, in which the text reflects the opinion of the writer. A fiction writer tends to have multiple point of view characters, each with a different opinion, because they represent the different personalities of real people. The writer does not necessarily share those opinions, but asks the reader to think about issues.

Of a Note in a Cosmic Song has nine regular point of view characters, each of which will appeal to some readers and not to others, depending on their own personality.

What the book asks the reader to think about, is whether the ideas about democracy (otacy) and justice – ideas most people today take for granted – are really justifiable and in order to present this question from as many angles as possible, the changes are addressed very slowly throughout the books.

The question whether justice was done in the last trial, is therefore left open, to be pondered over by the reader. Depending on your own personality and the cultural background you come from, you may have felt shocked or frustrated, along with Wilam and Aryan – the change too big or too alien. Or you may have slowly changed your viewpoint during the story and, like Jema and Nini, feel more satisfied with the outcome.

As Benjamar said, it took a whole council to convince him – he also struggled until the very end – but since the goal of the new justice was not retribution or teaching a lesson, but consensus for peace, in the end he conceded that justice was done.

Some people argue that, since the council was supposed to make sure that no force was used in getting an agreement, that it wasn’t really consensual because excessive pressure was used.

I can see that point, but she had the option of saying “no”. Had she outright refused, nobody would have forced it. Honour would have been lost, but not dignity.

That brings me to another aspect of works of fiction. We are all familiar with the story that has a good guy who has to be brave to defeat the bad guy. The stories tend to end in a battle between good and evil and the main character has to choose between doing the right thing and being afraid. These stories appeal to people who have a strict view of what is moral. So the inner struggle of the main character reflects the two aspects those personality types value highest: duty and courage – to do one’s duty in the face of danger.

But different personalities have different values and therefore write and read different stories. This is why people have preferences for certain genres.

In Of a Note in a Cosmic Song, the different characters each have their own struggle. Wilam, being of the personality type described above, must therefore choose between fear and doing the right thing. But Aryan’s issue isn’t about physical courage. It is about overcoming his inner self – the demons of his past – and duty has nothing to do with that. And Benjamar’s struggle is not about courage or duty either; it is between honour and truth, while Jema’s is between honour and dignity.

So the last trial, despite appearing to deal with the facts and motivations of the problems caused by the elections, is actually a different trial for each character, because they each have to make a different choice.

Therefore, whether justice is done, is not answerable as an objective question. It depends on who you are and what you consider justice.