Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Cultural Biases

I don't have much to say other than throw out a topic for discussion. Since reading Infidel the idea of having a cultural bias has plagued me. Especially at this time of the year, I am more aware of those things I have grown up with which I believe to be good and right. Infidel caused me to, not necessarily question the rightness of those things but, wonder if they are of my culture or an universal value. I am specifically thinking of the treatment of women, since that stood out so blatantly (the poor treatment, that is) in the book.

I am a first generation American. My values have been instilled in me by our democracy, my faith, my parent's work ethic, our public school system... I wonder (and I would like to hear about your wonderings on this subject) what in life is universal in it's value - can translate and embraced by all cultures, and what values are based on my assumptions, given my history, my upbringing, my culture?

To begin, I read of the treatment of women (female circumcision, given into marriage in early teen years, limited education, etc.) with my jaw slacked. I knew such things occurred but to read it in such detail was horrifying, as a woman, a wife, a mother, a daughter and a friend. Is it bold of me to say, "That is wrong, regardless of it being a cultural issue, that is a simply wrong and should be abolished!" (Much like what Britain accomplished in colonial India by abolishing the practice of suttee-the wife throwing herself on herself on her dead husband's funeral pyre.)

I guess I am wondering what values mark an ugly American and what values are wrong in my and other cultures, that with the Gospel, when removed, bring us to a place of freedom and right relationship (with humanity and our Creator)?


PatN said...

I am so glad for the people like Ayaan and others that can speak with authority on their culture. I majored in Anthropology and was sick of discussing "cultural relativity" as if it trumped every moral conviction. Recalling the Values Clarification of the 70's goes a long way to explain how we got here. Praise God for Ayaan and others that speak with the voice of experience.

I Was Just Thinking.... said...

Thanks patn - Ayaan does have the authority and articulates clearly and with conviction. I wonder sometimes how much I have been influenced by public schooling (I'm a homeschooler now, so that may influence this statement!) in a way that calls culture relative and more specifically tends to bash my own U.S. culture and seeks to see the positive in others.

Marti said...

I have a lot of the same questions. Spending time in other cultures has increased some of my questions bu provided some answers as well; have you experienced that, too?

For example, the value of freedom: very American. Hard to shake or lay down, and by no means a universal value. When I hear our politicians talk about giving everyone the right to be free and democratic, I cringe a bit; there's something that's more cultural, less universal, there, and I think we may just not 'get' the people we're trying to 'help.'

When I was in Central Asia my understanding of how things were for women there and why definitely evolved during the months I was living there. For example, I think I assumed that when women are being beaten, etc. it's because the men are so awful. Over time I started to see how much women were perpetuating this system as much as men were - especially the mothers-in-law. You raised your daughters and gave them away, but your sons were yours, and you would always be #1 with them. You picked out a girl to come into your house, and she was as much your servant as your son's wife; and of course you'd never want her for your rival, so you'd make sure your son knew to put you first. It was important for him to beat her, especially during the first year, so she wouldn't become spoiled.

And neither men or women knew enough about intimacy for it to hold the place it might in holding people together; it was typical for women to assume it was all for the guy and that they weren't supposed to enjoy it. The affection that might make all the difference for the woman was not encouraged. So once they got what they were supposed to get out of it - 2.5 kids - the women would try to avoid the whole physical thing all together; it was common for women to stop sleeping with their husbands at that point, and for these guys perhaps in their early 30s to look around for someone else. Not a recipe for unity or bliss, eh?

America has some just-as funny ideas of what it means to be married (e.g., 'bliss!), and our ideals may increase the pressures that keep marriages from surviving.

But there are some things that are deeper than cultural, and reflected more in some cultures than others, about this whole marriage thing. The scriptures contain the truth about these things and they judge all cultures. So I'd love to see more people explore cultures sympathetically but over time be willing to offer another way - and, as God leads, really stick their necks out against what is unjust.

I Was Just Thinking.... said...

Thanks Marti, great insight. I agree, having spent time in other cultures makes this question of cultural bias a greater one. I think being more sensitive and wanting to understand/appreciate other's values causes me to to question my own or better yet analyze my own with greater scrutiny.

In cross-cultural training it's drilled into you that culture is neutral. Yet, after reading Infidel, I wonder and am beginning to believe that parts of culture are not neutral, they are wrong or bad.

I read about Muslim women and the hijab or veil. I shake my head when I hear their reasonings for covering up. Yet I think, "I must, maybe not completely understand, but appreciate their logic." But another part of me say,s "Uh, Uh, that's just not right!" because it isn't simply a matter of covering up for modesty, it's symbolic of the entire treatment of women.

I know my culture has many negative aspects, but I can't help but think of the influence Christianity has over our cultures, vs. others and how Christ came to set gender, race free. I know that sounds politically incorrect and culturally insensitive and maybe a bit ugly american.

And your statement, Marti, about women perpetuating the harsh treatment, whoa, yes, you're right but that's a large pill that's hard to swallow - placing some responsibility on the "victim".

Marti said...

I'm with you, Barb: it's been drilled into me and I agree that it's best to approach culture as neutral, but there comes a point when that just won't do. Right and wrong matter! (Maybe you shouldn't judge these things in the first 15 minutes when you see or hear something from a single perspective and it makes you mad, but eventually!) Truth and scripture judge =all= our cultures. So we can say, yeah, that's bad, and fight against it!

The question of veiling is a complicated one, and it is misleading to say, 'this is what it means to the women who do it,' or 'really, this is what it's all about,' because I think the motives and meanings vary drastically from one context to another. At least that's what I've found in the cultures I've been in. In some places it's going to be a political or reactionary statement. In other places, it's more like wearing a shalwar suit in India instead of jeans. So when some feminist or traditionalist speaks of the veil and says, "No, THIS is why we do it," I think we need to recognize they are not speaking for everyone.

About blaming the victim - I didn't mean it's the women's fault and they deserve or bring on their bad treatment, but that men and women alike are treating one another badly and often the whole family or society are involved. The abuse of women may be coming from other women, not necessarily from men, e.g., women beating their daughters and daughters in law or urging the men to do so. D. Ells. told me when I interviewed him on this topic that even in the church there are NO men in the [sofarawayistan] church who don't beat their wives. Scary, huh? So, there's a better way. We can't just say 'it's cultural.'

Hey, did you hear about the guy who got arrested for an anonymous comment he left on a blog, seeming to indicate sympathy for the Columbine perpetrators? Someone called the police in the blog owner's town and he turned over the IP address and the guy went to jail, had to pay $350 bail. Guess I'd better be careful making controversial comments ; - )

I Was Just Thinking.... said...

Don't worry Marti - you're comments are safe with me.

That's disturbing about sofarawaystan. And the perpetuating treatment of woman by woman. My only comfort (which seems so trite because I am not facing such treatment, no where near, can't relate) is the hope in the kingdom to come, the hope that this is not right and there is a better place, like puddleglum trapped in the underworld.

klasieprof said...

I home schooled for 4 years. I think the Public School system we have is at fault for much of the downfall of our country. My kids are now in a Public Charter school. I'm on the Board. I substitute teach in schools across 2 counties.
If I hear "Criss cross applesauce, sit on your bottom" one more time..I fear I will scream. The "lining up" "Shushh", We can't begin until ALL are quiet..line up, coats on, coats off, Put your head down on your desk, lining up, sit down, is SUCH a waste of time. I think (and have measured) clearly 1/2 of the day in Public school is wasted time.
Home schoolers GET that learning is not compliance, Education is not becoming a worker bee in a failing system.
"Public Education" is really stressed here...especially the "free" public education.
I have a special needs kid. The WASTE of money..(apart from the moral obligation of training the underprivileged--I get all that..)But..the wasted$$ changing diapers, feeding etc in a SCHOOL setting!
Awwck, Someone must have put a quarter in me.