Resilience is not useless 02/09/15

Niaz Alam, Dhaka Tribune op-ed 2 September 2015


There’s nothing I can say or do to persuade people that Gallup’s labelling of Bangladesh as the country with the “least emotional” people sounds inaccurate.

It seems a bit off to me as well.

But while I believe it is wrong to stereotype entire national populations on the basis of opinion polls, there’s no denying surveys like this have traction. Advertisers, corporations, and the authors of business best-sellers like Freakonomics mine this type of data all the time to try and sell their products.

Perhaps rather than getting outraged at the headline, we should embrace our inner Spock and search for the true meaning of the survey’s results.

After all, few people are complaining that people in Greece, Iraq, and Iran reported the highest percentage of negative daily experiences, or that Middle Eastern nations recorded the most angry people and Latin America the happiest. Take a look at the first four of the survey’s five questions:

  • Did you feel well rested yesterday?
  • Were you treated with respect all day yesterday?
  • Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?
  • Did you learn or do something interesting yesterday?

It may be easy for readers of this newspaper to answer yes to these questions, but can you really be surprised that Bangladesh, with its large numbers of people stuck in repetitive jobs, working long hours, and often treated without courtesy or respect, had the smallest percentage saying yes? How many workers in a typical factory, farm, urban rickshaw, or domestic service can honestly say yes is true?

Given this, it doesn’t surprise me that relatively few people answered in the affirmative to the final question which asked if they experienced enjoyment, physical pain, worry, sadness, stress, a lot of the previous day.

I appreciate the stress part sounds incongruous to anyone stuck in traffic. The noise pollution from anti-social drivers using horns as signals is stressful enough. But on the whole, acceptance and calm by most people seems a rational response towards helping them cope with daily life. Why indulge in mood swings when it won’t change anything?

I’m not saying this is a wholly good thing. Numbness and passivity rarely improve anything. I was upset for instance by the lack of uproar when the tiger statue in Dhaka’s Karwan Bazar fell down killing a bystander. As some wag pointed out on the Tribune’s comments board, imagine the hullabaloo if the same thing happened with the Statue of Liberty or Nelson’s Column?

Such things can happen anywhere, people said. And we’re not proving very successful at protecting real tigers, why be upset if we can’t save a fake one? You get the idea. Cold, logical responses. Rebuild and carry on.

In other words, resilience.

And who can say that Bangladesh’s people are anything but resilient? Over the last five decades, Bangladesh has experienced war, famine, floods, genocide, coups, and dictatorship. But not only is it still standing, most social and economic indicators are better than people in 1971 expected.

When politicians and talk show guests talk in apocalyptic terms of people trying to reinstate Baksal, or take us back to 1971 or 1975, they’re ignoring the very real changes and strides Bangladesh has made since independence.

This is all down to the perseverance of ordinary hard-working Bangladeshis. They have to prove every day that they can cope and survive in the hope of building a better life for themselves and their families.

Resilience is a good thing.  Don’t knock it. We’re going to need a lot more to keep improving living standards and cope with the impacts of climate change.

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