Teju Cole's "9 Questions About Britain" Skewers Listicles, Perceptions of "Others"

Teju Cole's scathing response to a listicle concerning Syria provides a good examination on why our perceptions need adjustment.

Last week, one Washington Post columnist by the name of Max Fisher, a well known foreign policy analyst, wrote a list disguised as an article, also known as a listicle, called "9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask" in an attempt to explain the situation in Syria.  While well-written and very detailed, the nature of the listicle clearly displayed a bias toward American thinking, and eventually revealed itself as very silly (as is shown by question 5, "Can we take a music break?").  Teju Cole, a rising novelist based in Brooklyn by way of Lagos, Nigeria, responded on Twitter by writing "Nine questions about Britain you were too embarrassed to ask," which skewers not only the nature of listicles, but also how we create a bubble by perceiving others in such a narrow way.

Teju Cole built his fun list of questions on the premise that British chemical weapons may have been sold to Syria and used in the chemical weapons attacks in eastern Damascus in late August 2013.  This premise has since been mostly rebutted.  However, despite that, Cole's point still stands in satirizing listicles, and how shallow they tend to be.  There is a general silliness about listicles that tends to skip over any thoughtful consideration or analysis in the name of "getting the basics."

It is reasonable that people want information to be as easy to absorb and understand as possible.  Admittedly, it is partly why we do such articles here.  But to write a listicle like every person reading the article is five years old, like Max Fisher did, comes off as obnoxious and crass.  Teju Cole was right to skewer him for that.  The tone of the article, which was also the tone for several other articles in recent weeks about Syria, needed to be questioned, especially in its offhanded, patronizing nature.

More importantly, though, Teju Cole showed that we tend to view situations like Syria as something that is happening to "others," people that are far away and have no connection to us.  It is more a spectacle, a fictional drama to us than it is something that directly affects us as a whole.  By shifting that "other" to our allies the British, Cole revealed the ease in which a person can create an "other" and be completely separate from what is going on.

Teju Cole followed up the questions with an interview by Max Fisher himself, who took the parody list in stride.  Cole made clear that his list was about the "other," which shapes much of his writing.  By examining what being an "other" means in this context, Cole shows that by trying to keep things simple for people, there is no willingness to understand and appreciate "others" in total.

(Image Sources: Flickr: US Consulate General Barcelona, Lorianne DiSabato)

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