Asymmetrical relations are not always unequal

In a few recent articles, I have written about ‘unequal relations’, with reference to a book by Lisa Halliday, who the media and literacy critics in USA have said is a ‘literary phenomenon’ after her first novel, ‘Asymmetry’ was released a year ago. She writes about individuals and politics. The relations she focuses on are often unequal. She says that few relationships are really equal. Yet, there must be some equality, too, over time and in various fields, so that all can be good at something and share and exchange. That is also why I have written about multiculturalism, which has many similar dimensions, psychological, social, cultural, and more; people travel and share.

At political levels, we are all aware of inequalities, for example between towns, regions and states, indeed between the superpower USA and Iraq, which Halliday writes about, and she is not much in favour of the way the superpower behaves in spite of she being an American by birth herself, now living in Italy, though.

When differences are big between rich and poor within a country, such relationships are undesirable. We have seen a lot of that over the millennia, even in our time, when social scientists and politicians ought to have learnt how to curb poverty and other differences. For development and peace in the world to succeed, there must be more equality than today, between the West and East, North and South, and within countries. Alas, many of these inequalities are growing. If we really want to, we can reduce differences. Alas, we seem to behave against better knowledge and judgement.

When I have written about multiculturalism, I have written about the advantages of it and the benefits it gives to all, notably that people of different backgrounds who live in the same space will enrich the common environment. I am welcoming newcomers to Europe, and I believe they will invigorate the lands – unfortunately, they also drain the countries they leave. Countries with few immigrants from outside, and low internal migration and social class travels, will lag behind. Static societies stagnate, become self-sufficient and arrogant.

Let me admit today that last time I stayed for a quite some time in my hometown of Bergen, Norway’s second largest city, which is both cultural and tourist capital, I discovered more self-sufficiency than I could remember from earlier, although there was always self-confidence, nothing wrong with that if we don’t step on others. When I hinted that they needed more foreigners with different perspectives, they did not like that. They didn’t think they needed them. Sad, because if you think you are best and have it all, then you are already in decline.

Inequality in relationships can be many things, in age and education, in wealth and property, in experience from travelling or just having lived in the hometown, even the same street all the life. Inequality can be in number of books we have read, and more unnoticeably, the time we have given to think and reflect about what we read, or the thought we have given to issues even without many books under our colour. Was Jesus literate or not? It doesn’t really matter. What matters is his thoughts, and those of the people around him – and they have lived for 2000 years and will live forever. The same goes for the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH); it has been part of Muslim belief and tradition that he was illiterate. Many other prophets, religious leaders, military and other leaders, thinkers, including writers, teachers and so on, may themselves have had little formal education. Besides, it is not only those who have comprehensive sets of thoughts that are valuable; even those who have just seen some fractions can be great.

Olav H. Hauge (1908-1994) was one of the celebrated writers at the Frankfurt Book Fair, held last months. In one of his poems he wrote: “Don’t come to me the entire truth. Don’t bring the ocean if I feel thirst, nor heaven if I ask for light. But bring a hint, some dew, a particle – as birds carry drops away from a lake, and the wind a grain of salt.”

Olav H. Hauge lived all his life on his little orchard farm in Ulvik, West Norway, on the slopes up from the magnificent Hardanger Fjord. He had little formal education, but he was an autodidact who could read many languages and borrowed thoughts and ideas from far away cultures, such as the Japanese. Some of his short poems resemble the Haiku form used in Japanese poetry. By the way, they are also similar to Pathan sayings.

I have a Pakistani friend who I think is illiterate. He is a wise and kind man. He doesn’t want me to know that he may be illiterate, so I never ask. It would be rude of me to do so. His English is also limited. Both things make life more difficult when living in the big cities of Pakistan. Today, it is important to know how to read and write and be able to speak (some) English. But one shouldn’t be ashamed of not having had the opportunity to learn either. The rest of us, we must never even hint that there is anything lesser about a person whose formal educational skills are low.

Let me end my column today about inequality and asymmetry by drawing attention to something in the unique work by Swedish children’s writer Astrid Lindgren (1907-2002) – and some unlikely and unequal relationships. Emil is a boy of seven or eight, clever, full of ideas, intelligence, naughtiness and fun, often running into trouble with his father. His greatest fan is his younger sister, Ida, and his best friend the adult farm worker, Alfred. On the farm, there is also a maid, who has set her eyes on Alfred for her future husband. Alfred is in no hurry to nit the knot, and Emil is happy about that, just finding her a silly and fussy young girl. The relationship between Emil and Alfred is beautifully described by Astrid Lindgren. In another book series, she writes about the close relationship between the young boy Rasmus and the vagabond. The boy runs away from the orphanage because of an incident with the matron. The one who takes care of him is the vagabond, and stories about their days and months together are indeed moving. No, there are no hints about abuse; let us not always think of that, yet, without being naive either. And then, Astrid Lindgren’s female characters, such as Pippi Longstocking, are usually stronger and more independent than the boys, who seem to need to be cared more for – by adults and siblings.

I began my article today by writing about politics, and now I end by ‘just’ writing about children’s stories. I didn’t reveal the entire truth, but I gave some hints. Besides, you don’t want me to draw your conclusions – in politics, psychology, philosophy and the rest; you are best at that yourself.

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