The Old Man, The Good People of Serbia and Selection Bias

The train is pulling out of Zagreb en route to Belgrade.  It will pass through marvellous sounding places like Slavonski Brod along the way.  Seated next to me are two older men.  As I sit, huffing and puffing from shlepping three heavy suitcases in 36 degree heat the older one asks me, “Greek?”  Since childhood people have been asking me this.  I don’t think I look Greek, but I guess I must otherwise people wouldn’t ask.  I say I have come from England (the full story being far too complicated)—he gestures that he cannot speak any.  We try a half-conversation in German.  He explains that he is Serbian and from Belgrade.  He then commences a lengthy apology—for nearly everything; the condition of the train (which seems fine to me, despite now being in 2nd class!) the surroundings, everything.  He then assures me that Belgrade has really wonderful people—really!  I did not challenge this, needed no such assurances and have met wonderful people so far and surely will in Belgrade as well—so what is going on?

I have no idea but will speculate.  During the conflict in the 1990s, Serbia, in most of the media I read, was cast in a negative light.  Perhaps, as I told him this was my first trip ever to Serbia and Belgrade, he felt he needed to try to “adjust” my view in advance.  This unnecessary promise will, I am sure, work out and the people I meet in Serbia will provide a very similar variety to those I met in Zagreb, or meet every day in London.  In fact, if they are as nice as those I have met in Zagreb they will be much nicer than a random sample from London!  But then I check myself, “is my sample in Zagreb, Belgrade or elsewhere on this journey likely to be random?  They are social entrepreneurs, NGOistas, human rights activists, independent journalists—hardly random.  By their very nature, are they are likely to be some of the most open-minded and public-spirited one meets anywhere?  Is thus my sample not random, but subject to heavy selection bias and therefore not representative of Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian or other people?  Should I not assemble a more “mixed” group of interviewees, so I can tell a more “balanced story?”  Well no, yes, yes and no!

Or to put it differently, I know my sample is biased and I do not care.  I am bored of national stereotypes and characterisations.  From my experience, no country has a monopoly on good people, or on assholes—all nations are a mixture.  I sometimes feel countries are attempting to “corner the market” in jerks, but this is impossible.  Competition is too stiff and barriers to entry are far too low.  But don’t I have a responsibility, as I reflect on what I see, to offer a balanced perspective, not only highlighting the good?  Again no!

Assholes universally receive a disproportionate share of attention and column inches.  If one analysed this over the course of the last 20 years in this region, I have no doubts that corrupt politicians and tyrants received far greater coverage than those many people trying somehow to do good.  I cannot be sure, but this is my hunch, at least based upon my understanding of media in the countries I know best.

So unashamedly I am producing a biased account.  I am searching for, as I made clear right up front, the best part of human endeavour.  Even if I meet people who do not seem so great to me, or just plain piss me off, I will try to find and report on what of the “good”, as philosophers describe it, I think I see.  This blog will be one-sided, subjective and personal and thus perhaps portray a falsely positive picture.  To a degree, I would submit that I am merely going a minute way towards correcting a pervasive negative bias.  People seeking “balance” are free to look elsewhere.


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