Saturday, April 25, 2015

Very Superstitious

Probably a quarter century ago, I read an op-editorial piece in the Globe and Mail, penned by a Uganda immigrant to Canada, that I’ve been unable to find anywhere on the net. I cannot recall the man’s name either, unfortunately (it would make the article easier to track down, no doubt). 

But he described his anticipation before coming here that (unlike his home-country) the principles of science and rationality would be the norm in a highly-modern, industrialized society.

Don't press that button!

The migrant was, however, quickly disabused of this notion when, soon after his arrival, he entered the elevator of a tall building, and discovered that the numbers on the buttons skipped from 12 to 14. 

Thinking this was some kind of mistake, he checked other buildings and found that these two, had no thirteenth-storey. 

Asking Canadian friends why this was so, he was told that thirteen is a token of bad luck. 

The Ugandan op-ed writer soon enough learned about many other superstitious practices engaged in by the people of “rational and scientific” Canada (as well as all other Western countries), to avoid ill-fortune: not raising a umbrella indoors; not putting up a calendar before the beginning of the year; or tossing salt behind one’s back should the shaker tip over by accident. 

Every building thirteen storeys or more has a thirteenth level, of course. I myself used to work on the thirteenth-storey of my building (which is, of course, known as the fourteenth floor). 

The actual labelling of the floor as such is, while extremely rare, not unheard of: on a trip to Las Vegas some years ago, I found that our suite was located on a floor labelled “13”. 

But as if to confirm the cursed nature of this number, we were forced to move to another floor when the toilet stopped working. 

The lack of the thirteenth floor is intriguing, though, because although the superstition about 13 is very old, not much more than a century ago, no building was high enough to actually have thirteen floors. 

What’s more, the high-rise building is a by-product of highly rational, engineered knowledge – the sort which generally eschews superstition.

However, high-rise buildings have been constructed not by engineers, but by proletariat and immigrant labour – very skilled labour, often, but otherwise people not imbued with an academic view of reality. 

A lack of education does not, however, does not in itself promote superstition amongst construction-workers (or anyone else). 

It is, rather, that no matter how well-designed a skyscraper, and well-planned its actual construction, contingency always intrudes, in the form of accidental death and injury from workers falling from great heights. 

Even in contemporary times, with all the safety equipment available to the high-rise construction, such fatalities nevertheless remain common enough

Thus it is that, during the construction of a high-rise, the thirteenth-floor remains unnamed, so as not to “tempt fate.” 

Superstitious behaviour is common in other vocations where contingency cannot be avoided. The seafarer’s rites are a recognition that, while man can surf the oceans’ waves, he can no more command them can he can the weather. 

When the latter turns sour, the mightiest ship can be lost. The seasoned crewman adopts a web of conventions and practices that combine the practical and the superstitious, such that the distinction between them is scarcely recognized. 

The sailor, like the high-rise hard-hat, cannot approach his situation with complete rationality, since the risks presented by both vocations are too great. Their method of operating is only partially rational (that is, directed in a serial-logical manner). Method digresses into actions which are not strictly progressive toward an end. The forms of action become important in themselves. 

Athletes are also notably superstitious, and yet their jobs do not involve threats to personal safety (or at least, not to the degree known to high-rise workers or high-seas shipmen). But any game is, by definition, of chance. 

This bed is in Room 13-13.

No matter how well-trained and practised is an athlete, or team, the factors of any game cannot be completely controlled (short of deliberate fixing). Especially in the big leagues, where a sportsman is observed by thousands or millions, and is paid just as much, losing carries low risk of injury except to pride and social standing. 

The pressure to win, and the inability of any athlete to be certain of it, prompts many to adopt superstitious behaviour, as well. 

Empirically, superstitious practices cannot prevent misfortune on a high-rise construction site, on a ship at sea, or on the playing-field. Because these activities are risky (or contingent) to one degree or another, it is statistically inevitable that carrying them out will result in failure and accident, often of a catastrophic nature. Superstition reflects a psychological need to mitigate this inevitability, regardless if it betrays common sense or the strictures of rationality.

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