Thursday, May 13, 2010

On the Nature, Criticism, and Attempts to Change Culture

Is culture sacred?

Nowadays, in these 'enlightened' times, people get pretty spooked at the idea of interfering with a different culture. Sure, American capitalism, McDonalds and Starbucks and 7-Eleven and a hundred other corporations I could name are spreading all over the world. American movies and media also spread throughout the world. Most of those things actually don't exist here in Tanzania, Africa, but they've still spread far and wide, and people's levels of comfort with that do vary. But at least, we can say, the people in those other cultures are supporting it, to a certain extent. If at any given location, McDonalds didn't sell any burgers, or Baskin Robbins didn't sell any ice cream, you can sure as hell bet that they wouldn't stay for very long. None of these businesses would stay somewhere they didn't make money, so the locals must be at least implicitly supporting their existence.

(I've recently been told by the British woman who lives in my town here in Tanzania that the British have a very interesting way of celebrating International Workers' Day. They very reasonably celebrate it the first Monday after May 1st, the way we in America treat things like Presidents' Day and Labor Day, so that they can have a holiday from work or school.

(Anyway, that first Monday after May 1st, they celebrate International Workers' Day by smashing the windows of all the McDonalds and Starbucks in protest of American capitalism. The other 364 days of the year they're quite happy to buy delicious but over-priced coffee and kind of gross but low-priced burgers, but on International Workers' Day, they smash up all the windows. We imagine that all the McDonaldses and Starbuckses in the UK must just figure the cost of replacing windows at the beginning of each May into their budget.)

So that's one thing. As I said, some people aren't comfortable with American capitalism spreading all over the world, but most of us don't lose that much sleep over it. It's interfering with a culture, sure, but we can tell ourselves that it's at least, you know, in a collateral damage sort of way. (Because that's... comforting.) And a lot of the people who really care are more angry about the corporation, economic angle than the cultural.

It's an issue in itself, to be sure. But while it's the issue that people are most aware of, it's actually not the issue that I really want to discuss in this blog post. I want to discuss a more direct focus on culture, what it means, and what it doesn't.

Basically, I want to discuss my first line: Is culture sacred?


So... is it?

People tend to be really uncomfortable with the idea of judging a culture (especially a non-Western culture). The idea of actually purposefully trying to CHANGE a culture... now there's something that will get people up in arms, or super uncomfortable, or in some incarnation of “Eep!!,” “Danger, danger!,” and so on. In some ways, fair enough. Europe has certainly had a history of going in and changing cultures and, in the process, causing damage (if they didn't, America would be a very, very, very different place), and once America was so largely settled with Europeans, we followed suit. There are a lot of mistakes in the past that involved destroying culture that we don't want to repeat-- and well we shouldn't.

But this guilt, and the lessons we've taken away from those mistakes (often rightfully), have led a lot of people to consider all aspects of other cultures to be completely untouchable, something about which we have no right to any sort of opinion.

I mentioned a while back that a friend of mine decided to go teach English in Korea, with the idea that we'd be there together. But then, thanks to an invitation from Peace Corps that arrived many months before I expected, she ended up arriving in Korea the same week I left.

Well, sadly, there were a lot of aspects of Korea that she didn't like (and as promised in the post I just linked, I do feel super guilty). So on her blog, Curiosity Killed the Kat, she mentioned some of the things that she didn't like (as well as the ones she did). Well, apparently her posts criticizing aspects of Korean culture angered a Canadian teaching in Korea, because about a month ago, she posted this entry: Friendly Fire: Waygook-on-Waygook Flaming, or Why I Talk About the Bad Stuff.

For those of you who don't feel like clicking links to other blogs (though she is a good writer and I highly recommend hers), basically, this man sent her a flame about what she said. I'm going to copy and paste a part of the flame, because a lot of what I have to say directly references it:

I can think of only 2 options for the author of this post. I'm a Canadian with with 8 years of experience teaching in Korea. If you don't like it here, THEN GET OUT. Simple as that. Although you call yourself a "desk warmer", I believe I can safely make the assumption that you are not being held prisoner here.

Korea is NOT the United States. You complain about the work culture here. That's how it is here. It's your fault for thinking it is "wrong." Principals sleep, teachers in hagwans go months unpaid, and some female teachers get harassed by their superiors. This doesn't happen in every case, but it does exist. I'm a hagwan graduate and made my way to an international school. I would have left otherwise.

What your doing is similar to this: A person from Florida choosing to live in Alaska and then complaining about the cold weather.
Actually, you have three choices:
2) Stay and be more culturally sensitive.
3) Stay and have a miserable year.
The choice is yours.

'It's your fault for thinking it is “wrong.”'

It's a common attitude that Westerners have. While South Korea is a first world country and ought to be way, way past the point where we're tempted by the Noble Savage concept, I'd be lying if I said I didn't think it played a part in this kind of thinking.

Even just this little block of text says a whole lot of things. For one, that it's culturally insensitive to disapprove of any aspect of a culture that isn't your own. Look at the example he references: 'female teachers get harassed by their superiors.' That's on his list of things of which it's culturally inappropriate to disapprove? Sexual harassment? Really?

I knew a girl in Korea who worked at a hagwon, and yeah, they didn't pay her for months. Then, after not paying her for months, they suddenly fired her right before the end of her year, so that they wouldn't have to pay for her plane ticket back to America. This after not having paid her, so she certainly didn't have the money to get home herself. She had $100 to her name, nowhere to live, and no way to get home.

It's culturally insensitive to disapprove of this treatment of a person-- a human being? The mere fact that they're from a different culture gives them the license to treat people like shit?

His comment is disturbing enough to me. What I don't think he realizes-- what I don't think people realize when they say things like this-- is what happens when you follow that thought through to its logical conclusion.

These are the relevant premises that I see stated, explicitly or implicitly, in that comment:

1.If a culture is not your culture, then you don't have a right to judge that culture. It is your fault for thinking that an aspect of that culture is “wrong,” even one that seems repugnant to anyone from your own culture.
2.It is culturally insensitive to talk about aspects of a culture of which you disapprove. I'm going to split this one into (a) and (b)-
(a) is talking about those aspects either to members of that culture or in a forum where they're likely to see it, and
(b) is talking about those aspects in a forum that is largely aimed at people from your own culture.

Since Curiosity Killed the Kat is pretty clearly aimed at Westerners, the Flamer clearly thinks that 2b is wrong, but I'm going to want to discuss 2a as well, and thought I should make a distinction. I'm going to take a leap and say that that if someone things that 1 and 2b are bad, then they'd say 2a is bad as well.

So let's take those premises, shall we? Let's start with Premise 1. As I've said, South Korea is a first-world country. But if we're following these premises to their logical conclusion, we can bring in other cultures as well.

As you know, I'm a teacher in Tanzania. I have students who are the victims of female genital mutilation. That's the culture. That's how it is here. So it's our fault for thinking that it's wrong?

(True, Tanzania is trying to discourage this practice. Many Tanzanians have realized that it's not good, and they're trying to get rid of it. So it's Tanzanians changing their own practices; that's not interfering with another culture! Not quite. Whether they're trying to discourage it or not, it is at this point still a part of the culture. By Premise 1, it would still be my fault for thinking it's “wrong,” especially considering that Korean women are certainly trying to get their superiors to stop harassing them.)

In the Middle East (and parts of Africa, for that matter), women are stoned to death for adultery. Even if they were raped, and it was totally against their will, they have still been called whores and killed. That's the culture. That's how it is there. So it's our fault for thinking that it's wrong?

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and in Burma, and I'm sure in many other places, rape is used as a military weapon against their own citizens. That's the culture. That's how it is there. So it's our fault for thinking that it's wrong?

In Somalia, thieves' hands are cut off at the first offense. Many of these thieves are poor and have no other way to eat, and don't have the skills to get a job. (Without hands, that will be a whole lot harder.) That's the culture. That's how it is there. So it's our fault for thinking that it's wrong?

I'm sorry. I couldn't keep up the quotation marks around the word “wrong” when I was listing those aspects of culture. We all know the quotation marks are there to negate the word, to belittle the sentiment behind it. And I do believe that each of those things are wrong, with all of my heart.

If you follow what he's said to its logical conclusion, it's not only disgusting, but one of the most destructive attitudes it is possible to have and, frankly, a menace to the attempt to improve the world. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I have a huge commitment to improving the world, and feel insulted not only on behalf of myself and my colleagues (who have enough to worry about trying to help Africa without having to deal with this kind of shit from people who should know better), but much, much more importantly, on behalf of everyone in the world who is being oppressed, beaten, abused, or neglected because it's "culturally acceptable" where they happened to have been born.

There is a reason that the international community has written “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” There is a reason they called it “universal,” and that is because too often people's fundamental rights are trampled, ignored, deemed unimportant, etc, because “that's the culture there.” That's why the international community has declared them UNIVERSAL. That means that it applies to all countries on the planet, and that “it's the culture” is not an excuse to violate a person's fundamental rights as human beings.

I've now taught in three cultures that are very different from my own. If another teacher harassed me, I WOULD NOT FUCKING stand for it. No, that is NOT okay. The fact that Flamer used that as something that is okay because "that's how it is here" is disgusting, misogynist, and downright sexist. (Incidentally, the "right to just and favorable conditions of work" is enshrined in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 23, as well as the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, articles 6 and 7. Obviously, women being harassed by a superior would violate this.)

This man should understand that by saying what he has said, he is by direct logical continuation saying that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should be considered void.

When I first arrived in Tanzania, fresh off the plane, bright-faced Peace Corps Trainee, I hadn't really thought about a lot of this stuff. I mean, when I was younger I was involved in Amnesty International, so I knew some pretty horrible things happened in parts of the world. But even just 6 or 7 months ago, I flinched at the idea of trying to change a culture. That's not what I'm here to do! (I'd have said.) They invited us! (True.) We're just teaching students math and science... helping people with income generation projects, making jam or clothes or wine or whatever else we can think of to help them make a living... teach them how to eat healthily, how to put together a nutritious meal that gives a family all the nutrients they need... trying to introduce positive reinforcement in schools and cut down on corporal punishment... running girls' empowerment programs, so that girls can go out into their community and take some power for themselves... teaching new methods of farming and gardening that take less labor and yield more food...

But what is education, what is a person's method of making a living, what is the kind of food they eat and how they cook it, what is how teachers and parents guide and discipline their students and children, what is the relationship between the genders and whether girls and women stand up for themselves, what is the method by which people grow their crops...

...but aspects of culture?

All of those things make up a culture, and some of them are a very fundamental part of culture. All of those things we Peace Corps Volunteers are attempting to change.

My experience as an aid worker has really taught me that we have to strike a balance. We don't want to destroy a culture, there are many important aspects that it would be a tragedy if they were lost. The world is just a complex place, and change is such a loaded concept. I won't say it's perfect, but Peace Corps has a method we try to use.

We Peace Corps Volunteers work with what we call “Counterparts.” A counterpart is basically just a friend of yours, who is a native of the country you were placed (HCNs-- “Host Country Nationals”). This is where we get into my Premise 2a: talking about what you see as wrong with a culture to a member of that culture. What makes this counterpart more than just a friend-- and you can have more than one-- is that whenever we do any of these projects, we do it with a counterpart. We don't jump in here, trying to impose our views on the locals. We collaborate with the citizens of the country, agree on a goal, on a positive change, and work towards it together.

While Flamer has the concept all wrong, cultural sensitivity is very real, very important, and something I must practice in order to live day-to-day here. It can be really difficult, because it's just not second nature yet-- sometimes I have to think beforehand about the right way to say that I disapprove of something. No matter how hard it can be, though, it's necessary.

If we never talked to any Tanzanians about the problems here, the things that we and they would both like to change-- well then, it would be pretty impossible to start any projects to change them, wouldn't it?

I have no problem telling the other teachers at my school that I disapprove of hitting the students. Cultural sensitivity isn't never criticizing anything about a culture-- it's about saying it in a way that doesn't insult people. It's exactly the way being polite isn't about never saying anything unpleasant-- sometimes you have to. It's about saying it in a way that doesn't insult people. Cultural sensitivity is really just knowing how to be polite within the framework of another society, and practicing it as best you can. As far as 2a goes, if you believe you can never, ever tell the friends you've made in a new country the parts of the culture that bother you... they're never going to become very good friends. We become close to people by being honest—which does not mean insensitive—about what we're thinking, feeling, and experiencing.

All I have to say about 2b is that if you can't talk about the things that are bothering you to people who are coming from the same place culturally and can really understand how you're feeling, you're going to explode. At least, from a Western (especially American-- and for that matter, Canadian) perspective. Westerners, and this is unlike many other cultures, believe we need to let our feelings out, and that it's healthy. Because that's how we've been raised, for us at least, it really is healthy. Sometimes you have to vent. Living in a really different environment is hard, and getting it out of your system somewhere people will understand is sometimes just the only way you're going to be able to get up the next morning and have the patience and strength to practice that cultural sensitivity.

There is absolutely nothing wrong-- and a lot of things right-- with changing aspects of a country's culture (in, again, a cooperative, collaborative effort with the people whose culture it will affect) in order to improve the quality of life of its citizens. Again, in Tanzania, as well as in a lot of places, education isn't usually a priority, especially for girls. That's the culture. But the only way that Tanzania is going to progress as a country, the only way that they will be able to work towards and attain a better life, is by making education a priority. By changing the culture. Because if they don't change some aspects of their culture, they will remain stuck in poverty.

As far as African countries go, Tanzania is not exactly the biggest violator of human rights. Generally the opposite, in the scheme of African nations. There are so, so many more horrible, cruel, torturous, INHUMAN practices throughout the world that are "part of the culture." Anyone who thinks that just by virtue of being part of the culture, we have no right to call an atrocious act wrong... well... that person is implicitly condoning all the things I mentioned above (female genital mutilation, stoning women to death for being raped, rape as a military weapon, cutting off thieves' hands), as well as so many more things, hundreds if not thousands, that I could list.

So... no. My answer is no. Culture is not this sacred, holy, untouchable thing. Culture is important, and there are parts of it that are well, well worth preserving. (There's a reason that the international community has also declared many World Cultural Heritage Sites.) There are many things about Korean culture and about Tanzanian culture that I really like, and it would be a true shame if those things were changed or lost. I don't believe that all the countries in the world should become just like each other, that we should all just be homogeneous.

Every culture has aspects that are good and aspects that are bad, but when we get right down to it, we are all human beings. I'm not denying culture shapes a person in an enormous way. It affects perception hugely-- two people from two different cultures can see the same situation so entirely differently that it's amazing. Yet, all of us have our humanity in common, and I truly believe that there are things-- like the rights listed in the The Universal Declaration of Human Rights-- to which every human is entitled. That every human being deserves.

Keep the good. Heck, keep the neutral too. But things that hurt people, damage them, deprive them of their health and their dignity and their safety, of their ability to, well, I'll be American here, to pursue happiness... those are also a part of culture. They are a part of culture we have every right to not only criticize, to not only call “wrong,” but to do our best to eradicate from the face of this planet.

In fact, I consider it part of my duty as a human being.

1 comment:

Rachel said...

Very well said!

One thing that is important to me, that I don't think you stated explicitly: just because something is traditional doesn't mean that it is unquestionable.

We act this way ourselves, in regards to facets of our own lives, we don't accept sexism or inequality in our own country: it would be monstrously hypocritical of us to endorse these things in other countries because it's "the way it's done".

This is not to say that everyone needs to eat McDonalds and wear Levis in order to be considered human beings. This is to say that just because things have been done in a certain way doesn't mean that it is in everyone's best interests to continue this way.