Other cultures are weird. You know it, I know it, Austin Powers’s dad knows it.
Come on, don’t be coy. There’s no need to worry that the PC brigade are going to come along and make this whole blog illegal under human rights legislation (thank you, Brussels). We’re all friends here, us British and North American folks, with a handful of varied Commonwealth types maybe dropping by from time to time. Sure, we don’t always get along with each other. There are times we confuse each other a bit with our local pronunciations, like when someone from Leicester tries to write to their penpals in Mackinac Island and Natchitoches. But at least we all speak English, like decent, civilised human beings. The people who don’t even do that much, the really foreign ones… well, they have some pretty strange ideas.
And some of them are bad ideas, too. Not just different, but dumb. I mean, it’s fine when they want to eat their own weird food, or sleep for half the afternoon, or run away from some giant angry cows for no reason – that last one probably balances out all the extra sleep, by being the direct opposite of a quiet lie down. But sometimes they do stuff that’s just ridiculous on the face of it.
Like, look at the caste system they have in India. It’s not like social class isn’t a concept much abused in the West, but it’s nothing like the formalisation of the idea that you see over there. You’re born onto a rung on the ladder and you’re stuck there; even if it’s not legally recognised, there’s apparently a widespread social acceptance that this is how things are. The recent rape and murder of two “untouchable” teenage girls is just one incident highlighting the effect that caste has on people’s perceptions of others.
Or look at this Chinese Keqi thing, essentially a form of courtesy taken to extremes. Actually, the author of that article puts it better: “less about being polite to people because you don’t want to hurt their feelings and more about being polite so you don’t look bad”. They’ve taken a benevolent concept and turned it into something unhelpful and egocentric. Being polite to people is obviously basically good, but surely the cultural approach apparently popular in China is objectively worse than, say, Canada’s take on the same subject?
Hopefully the casual xenophobia in my opening paragraphs was broad enough that it’s clear I’m not actually talking about billions of other people as if they were part of a homogeneous mass objectively less awesome than my own. But it’s easy to think this way, when you read about phenomena like these from far outside the cultural context. And it’s not like such culture-specific memes can’t ever be judged on their merits; the death penalty’s a cultural phenomenon of the US which I don’t hesitate to criticise and call barbaric. So why not assess some less harmful but still problematic cultural concepts, like the above, and conclude that other people’s ways of doing things aren’t such a great idea?
It’s probably okay to try it – so long as you remember to finish the thought, and complete the picture. How would somebody who isn’t me, but might read about me and my people in an article online, complete the following paragraph?
You know, those middle class white boys from the south of England have some funny ways of doing things, right? It just seems stupid the way they always…
There are surely any number of ways you could go with that. I’m a prime candidate for falling into thoughtless patterns of behaviour, and letting my biases keep me stuck to damaging ideas, just like any other human. That’s the important thing to understand if you don’t want an interesting cultural comparison exercise to turn into tedious “us and them” blabbering. Someone from outside my bubble could point out any number of things which really ought to make me take a long hard look at myself.
There really are some behaviour patterns, which are the familiar and comfortable norm in other societies, and which those societies would surely be better off adapting or abandoning. The same is unquestionably true of my own, but I’m less able to identify those. I’m too rooted in my own concept of normal. So maybe what we need is some kind of cultural criticism exchange program. Some venue where we tactfully bring up things that seem weird, messed-up, and sub-optimal about each other’s cultures, in a non-judgmental, friendly, constructive way, and all do some learning about how the traditions came to be that way, the possible advantages of attempting to shift them, and so on.
The emphasis does need to be on understanding the role that these cultural oddities play in the societies in which they’re found, and the purpose they serve, so that we’re not attempting to deprive anyone of something meaningful without providing the tools to install an adequate replacement. This is especially true in cases like the ones I’ve talked about here, where someone like me is in danger of delivering condescending lectures to individuals whose country my recent ancestors invaded and basically decided was ours. I don’t want to let imperialism or Western paternalism be any kind of driving force to this… but I would dearly like to encourage Indonesians not to cut their own fingers off as a sign of mourning.
And I want to hear their ideas about the things that are wrong with the stupid way I’m living my life, too, because Christ knows that goes both ways. We badly need some gentle advice from an impartial observer over here. You can start by tearing your hair out over everything we ever think, say, or do about sex. It’d take some truly bewildering cultural narcissism not to recognise how fucked up my people are on that score.
Classroom discussion questions
1. Is there something intrinsically offensive about this cosy Westerner telling people he doesn’t know, and whose ways he doesn’t understand and has never experienced, what they’re doing wrong with their lives? Is it more okay if I ladle on enough context, make it clear that I don’t just want other people to be more like me, and acknowledge that I’m in need of this “service” as much as anyone?
2. This should totally be about stealing other people’s great ideas, too, like throwing a party to celebrate a baby’s first laugh. What else is cool like that which we just haven’t figured out we should all be doing?
3. Seriously, what is it with literally every society that’s ever existed and sex? How are we still so far from getting that one right, after all this time? Those bonobos, man, they know what they’re about.