One of the lessons I learned relatively late in life is that we should keep our words soft and sweet. You never know when you have to eat them. All of us Caribbean people, maybe because of our history of slavery and indentureship, tend to be negative instead of positive, dishing out blame and criticism instead of praise and encouragement.
Worse, when we are under pressure we tend to shift the blame to others. It is a plantation phenomenon that persists in our psyche. On many of the Afro-American television sitcoms the humour tends to be based on insults and put-downs like “Darling, I went to the doctor today and he says that I’m in really good shape.” “Did he say anything about your forty-year old, wrinkled bum?” “No darling, he didn’t mention you at all.”
There is also a kind of misplaced arrogance. Sometimes we behave like Goliath (or it might have been Bathsheba) taunting young David, “You think you can get me with that little thing?” However, if we sin we sin in good company. History is replete with other people, many of them experts, who have quickly jumped to the wrong conclusion or put down people only to see them rise higher.
In 1925, an Editor on Britain’s Daily Express newspaper was told that a John Logie Baird was downstairs in reception. He begged a reporter, “For God’s sake go down to reception and get rid of the lunatic who’s down there. He says he’s got a machine for seeing wireless! Watch him. He may have a razor on him.” Later that year Baird demonstrated his invention. It is now known as television.
In 1920 the New York Times went after Professor Robert Goddard, one of the pioneers of rocket science, a discovery which led to the exploration of space. Goddard had said that rockets could function in the vacuum of space. The Times wrote, “He seems only to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.”
In July 1969, forty years later, following the successful Apollo 11 mission, the Times had the grace to apologise.
In the 1960s, the big thing in motor cars was the Wankel engine. It was used in the Mazda RX series. Sports Illustrated had said that the conventional or reciprocating piston engine was “as dead as a dodo”. General Motors announced that the Wankel was such a great invention it would dwarf other major post-war technological developments like television, xerography and the Polaroid camera. The U.S. News and World Report magazine described it as the engine to power the car of the future.
According to “Don’t Quote Me”, the source for many of these examples, even Mazda eventually realised that the Wankel was a no-go because of the rise in gas prices. As the company admitted in 1976, “The world has changed. So has Mazda.”
In Trinidad we had the recent example of a government crime plan which was supposed to end the spate of murders and kidnappings. It seems the criminals have a better plan.
The father of psychiatry, Sigmund Freud, spoke enthusiastically about a commodity extracted from a plant which produced, “Exhilaration and lasting euphoria, which in no way differs from the normal euphoria of the healthy person…You perceive an increase in self control and possess more vitality and capacity for work. In other words, you are simply more normal and it is soon hard to believe you are under the influence of any drug.” He was talking about cocaine.
Another, diacetylmorphine was given the all clear for general use. It was “a safe preparation free from addiction-forming properties.” James Daly writing in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal of 1900 said, “It is not hypnotic and there is no danger of acquiring the habit.” The wonder drug was heroin.
I was lucky that in the 1970s, as a student in Ottawa, Canada, my lecturer in communication was a mild-mannered humanist and semanticist named Mel Thistle. His philosophy, repeated often to me, was always to find three things to like about anything that people did for me, or that happened to me in life, before making any negative observations or criticisms.
He said that if you put criticism in a positive context, people would be more receptive to the negatives than if you started off with negatives. His formula was, “I like this, I like this, I like this but…” Invariably, it works for me.
Some people are less fortunate. Whenever I shoot off my mouth or am tempted into a hot, bitter comment, I remember the story of the “crunch” bird. A lady went into a pet shop and saw the ugliest bird in the world. When she asked the proprietor what kind of bird it was, he said it was a crunch bird. “What does it do?” she asked. He gave her a demonstration. Pointing to a table, he said, “Crunch bird my table.” With a crunch, crunch, crunch the bird demolished the table.
The lady was astonished. The proprietor gave her a second example of the bird’s unique gift. “Crunch bird, my chair,” he told the bird. The bird destroyed the chair, “Crunch, crunch, crunch.” The lady demanded that the proprietor sell her the bird. “Name your price,” she said.
The proprietor was mystified. “Why would you want such an ugly, destructive bird,” he asked. She explained, “My husband is a very negative and sceptical man. I would buy the bird and put it in the living room. When my husband comes home he would ask me, ‘What is that ugly bird?’ I would tell him, ‘It’s a crunch bird.’ He would then say, ‘Crunch bird my…’”
*Tony Deyal was last seen saying don’t be like the Deputy Head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Tom Lambo. In May 1975, WHO declared that Malaria had been licked and its intention to close down its anti-malaria campaign. The same afternoon, Lambo was rushed to a Geneva hospital suffering from malaria.
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