Friday, July 29, 2011

Arsehole vs. asshole

There's this phenomenon I've been noting for a long time: there are more differences in Australian and American usage of the word arsehole/asshole than just the spelling and pronunciation.

Stanford professor Robert I. Sutton ably describes the intersection of the Australian and American usage in his book The No Asshole Rule as follows:
  • After encountering the person, do people feel oppressed, humiliated or otherwise worse about themselves?

  • Does the person target people who are less powerful than he?
Meet these two criteria and you, sir, are an arsehole/asshole. However, while avoiding the faux pas above will spare you being called an arsehole by Australians, you may still be subject to assholedom under certain circumstances.

Americans seem to have a slightly broader definition of "asshole" that includes people that we Australians would term "fuckwits" or "dickheads." A person can be a "fuckwit" without being an "arsehole" if they show themselves to be generally ignorant about the way the world works in a way that invites derision, but does not do so in a way that intentionally harms or attempts to harm others.

In an effort to further elucidate the subtle differences, I have helpfully prepared the following chart:

Where 'A's are the unintentionally inept, 'B's are actual, literal, anatomical arseholes and 'C's are those that fit Prof. Sutton's criteria (who also just so happen to be fuckwits).

Let me close with a few examples of American usage of "asshole" that would not be acceptable in standard Strine.

Let me know if you have further questions or counterexamples.

Ethiopian creationism?

Have you ever heard of Lucy?

If you're especially knowledgable (or if you just read that Wikipedia page) you'll know that she was a partial skeleton of an Australopithecus afarensis found in Ethiopia in 1974.

Lucy is far from the only primate fossil specimen that illuminates human evolution found in Ethiopia; there are dozens of important specimens found over the years. The national museum in Addis Ababa devoted a huge percentage of its space to providing detailed information about these fossils, human evolution more generally and palaeontology.

Another interesting thing about Ethiopia is the dominant religion: Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity. Now, I'm far from an expert in the field, my observations are based purely on talking to a few people over a week in the country and reading a few Wikipedia pages, but here goes anyway.

As I understand it, the Ethiopian church split off from the rest of Christianity very early on; well before the split of the Eastern and Western churches into Orthodoxy and Catholicism. In fact, by the great schism, Christianity was already Ethiopia's state religion and they had already translated the Bible into Ge'ez (a translation that is still in ritual use today).

The religion still seems very strong in the country, at least in the north where we were. Pretty much everyone we spoke to professed to be a Christian though they said there were some substantial pockets of animism and Islam down south. The deacon who was our tour guide around the monolithic rock churches of Lalibela told us that there wasn't a strong history of proselytising, although there were missionaries that went to visit the southern provinces of Ethiopia, he said there weren't really any efforts to teach outsiders about the faith. They have a different calendar, a bit more of a focus on fasting* and their own festivals and holy sites, but as far as we could tell, they were pretty in line with the sorts of beliefs we had seen outside the country.

Wikipedia tells me that Ethiopian orthodoxy is considered to be in full communion with Catholic teachings, which means that the pope decided that they might have some different traditions, but they are essentially following the same doctrine. They seemed to have a lot of the same saints - St. George is a major saint had one of the churches of Lalibela dedicated to him. I asked a few people (including our deacon friend) what the significance of St George was to Ethiopians and he said that St. George was famous because he killed a dragon: the ultimate symbol of evil. There also seemed to be a lot of Ethiopian saints whose names and deeds escape me now.

A lot of the most spectacular sights in the country are Ethiopian Orthodox holy sites including the rock churches I mentioned earlier and what they claim is the real, actual ark of the covenant. Sadly, we didn't have time to see the church that supposedly contains the latter.

Soon enough, I started wondering: are Ethiopian Christians creationists? Does national pride over the importance of the scientific discoveries there outweigh doctrine?

According to the three people I asked this question (one deacon and two laypeople, all men between the ages of 20 and 35) the answer is no. The three people I asked knew about Lucy and were familiar with the idea that we shared an ancestor with apes but didn't believe it. None of the people I spoke to about it showed any interest in convincing me of their point of view, my guess is they looked at it as a matter of faith.

I'd be interested in finding out to what extent this is a doctrinal matter but, sadly, I don't know any Ethiopian Christians in Melbourne.

* Their fasting food was vegetarian and really tasty, which was pretty nice for the wife - she was getting pretty sick of nshima/ugali and greens from further south.

In search of Mulatu

I had a summer subject in Mumbai last January so the wife and I decided to take advantage of our long university holiday and turn it into a trip through a few parts of the world we'd never seen before. Seriously... When is the next time we're both going to have 3 months off?

Unlike seemingly everywhere else in the world I have been (except maybe America) you almost never hear foreign music in Ethiopia. We heard massive amounts of American hip-hop and R&B all through Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya but when we hit Addis Ababa it just stopped. And it's not like they're not in the habit of playing music in communal places, every restaurant, cafe, taxi, drink stall, bus and - of course - music shop has massive speakers blaring out music at all hours of the day. It wasn't until the second day that I noticed this and until the third day that I finally heard some Aretha Franklin pounding out from a bar near our hotel. The rest of the time was either traditional Ethiopian music or their frenetic pop music.

The rhythms of Ethiopian music are generally pretty complex. A really common rhythm to hear is four groupings of really fast quintuplets, usually with the stress on the first and third beat of each quintuplet**. They also have some version of 12/8 that stresses different beats depending on the region. Vocals are very melismatic and the most popular songs seem to be the uptempo ones (a nice change from the arhythmic Celine Dion often playing in restaurants in SE Asia).

The one singer we heard absolutely everywhere is called Aster Aweke. Have a listen to this song and tell me if you can imagine a place in the world where this is the number one hit song.

It's so syncopated, so complex, so virtuosic and band is absolutely slamming... I guess Cee-Lo and Janelle Monáe would give her a bit of a run for her money, but not too many other people in the west.

While I picked up a lot of new music around the country, there was one musician I was looking for in particular: Mulatu Astatke. He is considered the father of Ethiojazz and has been gaining a second career touring the world playing to lovers of fine music who discovered him through the Ethiopiques series of albums or Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers soundtrack.

He even toured to Melbourne twice last year. The first time backed by local Melbourne band The Black Jesus Experience and the second time with his own band (so I hear). I caught the first gig and it was fantastic.

So, I sought out CD stores in every town we hit. People's eyes would light up when I said his name, but no one had any CDs.

We even found the Mulatu Astatke Institute of Music, but sadly we were there on a Sunday so no one was around.

Look at him, mocking me

Then finally, on our last day in the country in a mall on Bole road there was an electronics store with a little CD section and, sure enough, there it was: a dodgy early 90s smooth jazz album with more cheesy synth pads and corny drum machine sounds than you could poke a stick at. Still, I probably like it more than Tutu and You're Under Arrest.

Ah well, as it turned out, there were plenty of 60s Bollywood soundtracks in India to keep me busy for a while..


I have dozens of half- and quarter-written posts sitting in various places around my computer, my draft folder and the dark recesses of my brain.

I'm going to see if I can't clear a few of them out...