In My Own Write: Why context is crucial

Context: the interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs – Webster’s Dictionary.

November 9, 2010 21:45
Chinese food

Chinese food 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Though it happened over four decades ago, I vividly remember my shock the day I witnessed our respected and much-admired English teacher, Mrs. Rowlands, steal a girl’s wallet.

We 14-year-old pupils at Brondesbury and Kilburn High School for Girls in London were milling about prior to the lesson. As one classmate passed under the teacher’s desk, which stood on a dais, I saw Mrs. Rowlands lean forward and deftly pluck the wallet from the back pocket of the girl’s skirt.

“You won’t believe this...” I stammered, pulling at my friend’s sleeve while I told her about the astonishing theft I had just witnessed. My mind was in turmoil.

Once the class had settled down, our teacher asked, quietly: “Rosemary, have you lost anything?” and held up the wallet. Abashed, Rosemary walked up to reclaim her property.

We then received a short lecture on keeping money in a sensible place to prevent it being stolen or lost.

What our teacher had done – albeit in a dramatic way, befitting the actress she had once been – was to put her behavior in context. She had made us understand the motive behind her action, so dumbfounding on the face of it, taken against the backdrop of school life, in which valuable things do go missing.

But had I witnessed only her action and missed the context, my image of her would have been shattered forever.

IN an October 28 Post item headlined “MKs will learn some manners to avoid blunders abroad,” Gil Hoffman detailed an initiative by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon to offer MKs a course in diplomatic etiquette.

Some of the “don’ts” the MKs would learn are really an eye-opening lesson about other cultural contexts, in which behaviors Westerners consider unremarkable can elicit a negative reaction.

For example: “Don’t put your hands in your pockets in Mexico.” Mexicans consider this rude.

More serious, perhaps, is the gaffe of giving your Chinese host a watch as a gift because for the Chinese, “the tick-tock symbolizes how long they have to live.” Equally, beware of crossing the chopsticks on your plate in Japan since “the Japanese consider an X to be a symbol of death.”

Planning a trip to Taiwan some years ago, I was advised to take along a stack of visiting cards and present them to everyone I could as a sign of respect. If I received a card, I should not slight the giver by just stowing it away, as in the West, but first lay it down and contemplate it.

In parts of Africa and Asia, there is a taboo against using the left hand for eating or other social activity because it is considered “the dirty hand,” used for bathroom functions.

That’s something for lefties like me to remember.

‘CONTEXT,’ declared a thoughtful friend, going to the heart of the matter, “is the keystone of communication.”

“Go on,” I said.

“Without context,” she continued, “communication is reduced to an exchange of literal images. Context gives us a frame of reference. Without it, human interaction is rendered largely meaningless.

“You’re right,” I said. “Without context, one is left sailing on a sea of superficiality.”

THE importance of context was very much on the minds of those, including myself, who attended an event in Jerusalem organized by the British Israel Group in 2004.

BIG had invited the London-based international lawyer Trevor Asserson to face off, as it were, against the BBC, which he had accused in a number of harsh and extensively documented reports of failing to live up to its charter because of “continuous partiality in favor of the Palestinian narrative.”

Seated on the platform next to him was Andrew Steele, who had recently been appointed senior editor of the BBC’s Middle East Bureau.

Steele’s position – this was before “disproportionate force” became a widespread anti-Israel charge – was that Israel, much the stronger side, was taking advantage of the weaker one. He denied repeatedly that the BBC had colluded with Palestinians to create a biased account of the conflict, and emphatically asserted that its journalists were “united by a love of truth” and a search for balance.

These noble protestations notwithstanding, Steele’s grasp of “the situation” felt tenuous; which led me, when question time came around, to go up to the microphone and say: “Mr. Steele, you have only recently taken up your present position. Would you share with us the scope of the research you have done into Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, going back over the past 50 – or, even better, the past 100 years?” The BBC’s Mideast Bureau editor seemed bewildered, even stupefied, by my request. He floundered for a bit, and then said, “Well, I’ve read one or two books, and talked to some people.”

“He had no background knowledge to speak of,“ one of the event’s organizers told me later. This cavalier attitude to context, I commented, is what makes so many news reports about Israel superficial.

Another media-watcher said recently that he thought the BBC’s Israel reporting had become somewhat fairer.

PERHAPS it is wrong to single out the BBC when a general disdain for context seems to be growing, partly as a reaction to the unstoppable flood of information pouring out of the Internet. Demanding context – which is, above all, history – needs an investment in time, and who has the time? Not, sad to say, the majority of news and opinion purveyors and consumers.

I was disheartened to hear a Knesset member on a popular current affairs radio program prefacing his response to a question with: “First, we need a little history...” and the interviewer cutting him off with “Never mind the history....”

Did he, I wonder, realize that he was saying, “Never mind the context”? PALESTINIAN officialdom blames Palestinian ills on “the Israeli occupation,” a charge swallowed whole by most of the international community.

But if they cared about context, wouldn’t they say: “Hey, before 1967 and the Six Day War, there was no occupation. So what was Yasser Arafat intent on liberating in 1964, when he founded the Palestine Liberation Organization? Other much-cited evil Israeli machinations are “the (apartheid) wall” and those scandalous Israeli checkpoints, which make it so tough for ordinary Palestinians to go about their business. And let’s not forget Israel’s “siege of Gaza” which prompts all that international sailing activity.

Those who insist on context know that the purpose of these Israeli measures is to block the relentless, ongoing terrorism directed at our small country, whether it takes the form of would-be infiltrators sworn to committing mayhem among our population, or rockets raining down from Gaza onto our southern communities.

In a Post article by Benjamin Weinthal and Jonny Paul earlier this month, human rights scholar and activist Anne Bayefsky cited German law professor Christian Tomuschat, whose committee has been appointed to implement the findings of the UN’s Goldstone Report:

“The Tomuschat Committee has now produced a report which never once mentions the word ‘Hamas,’ claims ‘the de-facto Gaza authorities have made a series of unilateral declarations of respect for human rights,’ and decides it is reasonable to limit their consideration of events to ‘on or after 18 December 2009...’ “Mysteriously,” Bayefsky went on, “Tomuschat never produced Hamas’s human-rights-respecting declarations, nor did he mention the organization’s charter and its actual commitment to Jew-hatred and genocide.

“Instead, he decided that almost a decade of Hamas rocket attacks in pursuit of such goals were outside his jurisdiction, which was apparently to examine a war Israel launched in a vacuum.”

WHEN the context in which Israel exists and functions is dismissed, it leaves a vacuum, and a vacuity, that is tragic on an international scale. In understanding any conflict – or, indeed, any form of human interaction at all – context is crucial.

Context might not be everything; but in the end, it’s the only thing that makes sense of people’s lives.

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