[ by Charles Cameron -- when misunderstandings beget panics, we're not too conceptually far from rumors of wars becoming wars ]
I know I keep saying this, but it is true, and in the past few days I have run across two cases where false assumptions about the meaning of language have led to erroneous “hearing” of a message, with consequent unfortunate results.
I’ll post the press reports first in each case, then my own comments.
Red Cross and Rose Cross:
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies recently posted Fighting superstition in Congo’s Ebola zone:
In mid-February, at the peak of the epidemic, the situation took a dramatic turn for the worse. A local sorcerer accused four teachers of killing people to acquire supernatural powers.
According to him, the four belonged to the Rose-Croix, a Gabonese sect. The teachers – all from the same political party – were lynched by a mob wielding iron clubs and machetes.
Most of the terrified population of Kellé fled in the forest. From this time, a dangerous confusion has developed in people’s minds: Pink-Cross and Red Cross were seen as indistinguishable, all the more so because in the local Lingala language, the word for red and pink is the same.
My suspicion is that the Rose-Croix in question is not “a Gabonese sect” but Rosicrucians in the AMORC tradition familiar to those who chase divine secrets through ads in the back pages of esoteric journals — in this case, under the supervision of Serge Toussaint, Grand Master of the French court of AMORC, who visited Libreville, Gabon in July 2010 to address the Rosicrucian Central African Convention “On the Trail of Light”.
The original Rosicrucians were a key group of intellectuals in the early enlightenment period, best described in:
Frances Yates, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, and Christopher McIntosh, The Rose Cross and the Age of Reason
The Red Cross, or more precisely The International Committee of the Red Cross, is a global humanitarian organization whose founder, Henry Dunant, was one of two recipients of the first Nobel Prize for Peace in 1901, and the Red Cross has subsequently been awarded the Peace Prize three times, in 1917, 1944 and 1963.
Red is not pink, though a rose may be a rose be a rose.
Liberia and Liberia:
Rebecca Gordon, in Ebola & Immigrants and Muslims, Oh My! Operating the Fear Machine, writes of Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly, commander of SOUTHCOM:
The general has proof that they’re already coming – all the way from Africa. In fact, he says, a U.S. embassy employee in Costa Rica told him about a group of migrants he’d met on the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border. And where were these migrants coming from, Kelly asked? The embassy worker told him, “Liberia.” Liberians traveling to the United States through Central America. Who knew?
As it turns out, these folks may well have been from “Liberia,” but they probably weren’t Africans. Chances are they came from Liberia, Costa Rica, the state capital of Guanacaste province there. This from the man in charge of all U.S. military operations in Latin America.
Gen Kelly’s remarks were reported by DoD News in Kelly: Southcom Keeps Watch on Ebola Situation, October 8, and more widely in Time‘s General: Expect ‘Mass Migration’ to U.S. if Ebola Comes to Central America, October 9. Neither story picked up on the “two Liberias, one in Africa and one in Costa Rica” aspect of the story.
The two reporters, and likewise the General, were presumably unaware of the Costa Rican Liberia. Rebecca Gordon has worked in and published on Nicaragua, holds an M.Div. and a Ph.D. from Graduate Theological, and has a sharp eye for telling detail.
And we all have our blindspots. The question is, what can we do about them?