February 16, 2010
Honey and vinegar and water
I was fairly young when I first learned the phrase “you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar,” but it’s stuck with me. It seems like maybe I learned it in the context of making friends (“If you’re nice, it won’t be a problem! Well, unless you’re an introvert, and/or socially awkward, in which case you might kind of be on your own…”), but when it echoes in my head these days it seems to be more in the context of advertising, of sales pitches, of evangelism (in both the literal and figurative senses). As a consumer, I’m more interested in what FedEx can do for me than what UPS can’t, you know? I appreciate that that’s mostly a personal preference, of course, and that negative advertising isn’t going anywhere soon.
That sort of mindset did lead to a fairly unpleasant interaction this afternoon, however. I came across a display promoting The H2O Project, and decided to stop and take a look; I need to drink more water anyway, I’ve been toying with the idea of abandoning my slavish devotion to diet soda (So fizzy! So caffeinated! So wonderful!), and I had vague memories of the project from last year. I asked the student manning the booth what the deal was, and he went into a fairly rambling sales pitch involving donating money to groups that dig wells in Africa and pointing to a picture of a guinea worm emerging from a child’s leg, then saying “don’t look at that if you’re about to go eat lunch” (too late!). I stuck around and listened, because I myself was once an undergrad fumbling through a pitch explaining why a passerby should get involved in my organization or activity of choice, and I knew he’d get to the heart of the project sooner or later. I couldn’t help noticing that the project was sponsored by a religious group, and that the student wore numerous outward displays of his faith, but I didn’t expect that would be a problem. Making sure people in developing countries have potable water is something people of any or no faith can get behind, right?
He was in the process of describing what the actual challenge of the project is when a couple of other people approached the table, at which point he shifted tactics, saying something along the lines of, “Many of the water problems in Africa have their root with a certain group, but I’m not going to say anything about that.” I lifted an eyebrow, which apparently encouraged him to be more specific. “I’m not going to talk about the connection between the spread of Islam in Africa and the poor quality and scarcity of the drinking water there. But there is a connection.”
And that’s when I walked away. I was thinking that maybe I’ll do a similar project on my own and donate whatever money I save to Partners in Health (or maybe a food bank in the US?) or something, but obviously the group from which that student was ostensibly a representative is not for me.
(For the record, I can’t find anything suggesting a connection between Islam in Africa and the water issues there. My primary resource for this search was Google, and so I appreciate that said search was relatively limited, both by the sources at hand and the fact that maybe I just wasn’t using the right search terms, but if there was a link that goes beyond correlation, the problems of colonialism as a whole, and the fact that water is an extraordinarily limited resource in Africa, you’d think I’d have been able to find something. I mean, come on: I even searched World Net Daily, to no avail. I did find this excerpt, though, which has lots of interesting stuff in it.)
Now, obviously I understand that one of the defining characteristics of many mainstream religions is that they believe that their path is the only true path (“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me;” “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is His Prophet;” etc.). Even so, something I’ve never been able to wrap my brain around is the methodology of slamming other belief systems (or lack thereof) in order to promote your own. I’m even more confused by the desire to slam another belief system while trying to promote a charitable venture to a stranger whose faith (or lack thereof) you have no way of knowing (but obviously all people in Middle America, and all REAL Americans, are Christians, amirite?). Granted, the idea that Islam is inherently bad has a fair bit of traction around here, so it’s possible that such intimations draw more participants in than they drive away. All the same, though, wouldn’t it make more sense for widespread charitable efforts to be ecumenical, or not linked to religion at all, so lots of different people could work together on them? Is that way too Pollyannaish of me to hope for?