The Ubiquitous--and Erroneous--"They"
A friend told me the other day she'd started a new British mystery and found it had tons of swearwords and name-calling. Her question to me was "Do you think they really talk that way over there?"
Talk of "they" bothers me. Yes, "they" had different beliefs than ours in 15th century Europe, but I don't for a moment think everyone believed they'd go to hell if they had sex on Sunday. If those people believed everything the Church said they shouldn't do, there wouldn't have been any sinfulness, but murder, theft, fornication, and other sins went on, as they do now. It simply paid to keep quiet about what you did, what with the Inquisition and all.
I once hosted a teacher from Moscow who was disappointed by our small town. In Russia, she'd been told that in America "they" go shopping every day and night-clubbing every weekend. Spending a year in a county with no mall and not even a stoplight wasn't what she'd pictured when signing up to visit.
The question in all of this is who is 'they'? Of course there are British people who swear a lot. There were once pious Spaniards who believed every word their priest said. And we know there are Americans for whom a Saturday night without being "out" is unthinkable. But every society has a range, and while "they" might represent the majority, they probably do not.
Impressions we have of historical groups often come from sources that are either biased or uninformed. History was written by scholars, since they could write, but most scholars were monks, with definite views on sin and sinfulness. History often became more a moral lesson than a factual account. Scholars also had to worry about pleasing their masters (unless they didn't care if their heads remained between their shoulders). And new stories were built on older stories without any attempt to confirm the truth of the original. Consequently, there might be hardly any truth in a "history" at all.
My characterization of Macbeth in Macbeth's Niece for example, is historically incorrect. Shakespeare needed a villain to represent unbridled ambition, so he chose a rather ordinary Scottish king and turned him into a murderer. While I added notes at the end of my book to explain the truth of Macbeth's character, I'm afraid his name will always be associated with evil.
In current times, we get impressions from TV and form conclusions based on them, often wrongly. We see bands of screaming zealots and conclude, "The **s hate Americans." It's been proven, over and over, that the vast majority of people on this earth have no impression of Americans at all. We don't matter to them or their daily lives. Those who do hate us probably have their reasons, but they're based on the very practice I'm writing about: forming impressions with insufficient information.
When we see news reports, TV shows, and movies that reveal slices of life in other places, we should keep in mind that's what they are. The people you see aren't "they." Motives differ, and heaven knows we tend to become a little nicer when there's a camera filming. The reporter went there for a story, and he or she chose whom to interview based on ideas of how that story would go. If the neighbor next door had been chosen, the result might be completely different. Creators of content choose what interests them, and what they think will interest you.
Before I actually visited an Arab nation, my impressions were mostly wrong. Once there, I saw people going about their lives, shopping, having coffee with friends, trying to keep up with their kids, all the things I see here at home. The clothing and customs were different, yes, but the bottom line wasn't.
What I'm saying is that people are people, no matter the time or the place. There are crooks who cheat, and honest types who never would. There are saints who'd die for you and sinners who'd steal your last dime. There are braggarts and truth-tellers. Distrustful types and friendly sorts. Silly asses and wise folk. People who'd talk your arm off and people of few words.
Don't base your conclusions on what "they" say about what "they" do. Figure it out for yourself.