On my first night in Indonesia, I heard dogs howl. Soft whingeing, followed by a blow and long bellows. When I left the house the next day, I saw that I was living next to a dog butcher. A dead dog was still dangling from a pole, naked, under the bright Indonesian sun.

Every night I heard the butcher attack the animals with his kitchen and gardening utensils. Initially, it kept me up all night. There was no such thing as peace and quiet after 11pm, or insulated walls. We all lived in our own huts, with a bucketful of water for a shower and a hole in the ground as a lavatory. Prior to that time, I had only known toilet rim blocks and towels with matching face cloths, but after a few days I got used to my bucket and hole. And after a few weeks the sound of howling dogs was no more annoying than the sound of a buzzing air conditioner.

Contested heartlessness

A little while ago, my Philosophy of Law tutor asked the students – who had just come to the conclusion that there was no better legal system than the Dutch one – whether it might be possible that they had been brainwashed. They all denied that possibility.

It is strange how your brain will sometimes trick you into believing that what you feel and do is based on well-considered decisions, even though they are largely determined by what you are used to.

Am I a heartless person because howling dogs did not keep me up at night, or are you heartless when you choose a piece of electrocuted pig at Albert Heijn? When you buy shoes that were produced by a twelve-year-old girl who will be walking home barefoot after work? When you insist on putting on blackface every time 5 December rolls along, or when you hassle children on that day because you feel they should understand your pain?

I think that, if you see or hear things too many times, you may start suffering brain constipation, a pile of observations that is preventing the flow of reason. And when you realise that this happens to all of us, you may wish to contemplate what you have come to regard as normal over the years. Maybe the odd brainwashing won’t be such a bad idea, actually.