Every time I travel, I’m struck by how judgmental I am. Why are those children playing unattended on that busy street corner- how dangerous. Why are those men drunk by noon – how irresponsible. Why must those women cover their heads – how hot.
It comes down to different circumstances, different socioeconomic factors, different social norms. I know – there’s different religious practices, family dynamics, employment rates, day-to-day expectations, but I find myself clumping these factors, squishing these reasons, under the blanket phrase:
“It’s their culture.”
With that, I feel small-minded, intolerant, ignorant – in a word: American, for my quick judgment. Trying to distance myself from the unabashed western-centric perspective that has saturated my upbringing and slanted my coursework, I take a step back. I not only try to understand and accept the difference but I find myself becoming protective. I trumpet a solid defense of each person’s right to carry on their own traditions, employ their own judgments, and rely on their own values and rules-of-thumb.
Yet, upon further reflection I begin to wonder: is this an explanation or more of a simplistic excuse? When does infringing upon a cultural practice become a moral imposition and when does failing to do so become a human rights violation?
With this question in mind, I think first of the virginity tests that continue to surge in popularity as a part of the Zulu culture and then the more brutal example of genital mutilation. Beyond these extremes stand tamer shades of grey, however, such as, polygamy. The current South African President, Jacob Zuma, currently has four wives. He holds himself as a proud polygamist following a Zulu tradition.
Thus, the line blurs between right and wrong. On the one hand, illegalizing polygamy stands as an act of moral imposition that disregarding the right to preserve one’s culture. On the other, polygamy contravenes a women’s right to equality. The tried-and-true mantra respect all cultures therefore warrants the question- at what cost.
Ultimately, the values of cultural awareness and sensitivity hold merit, yet they imply a state of coexistence that, to me, rests upon a false sense of space between cultures and distance between people
Although passively respecting cultural differences and taking a “live and let live approach” sounds ideal, a passive cultural sensitivity must give way to an active cultural responsiveness.
Engaging with another culture in a manner that goes beyond simply recognizing differences involves not blind acceptance but nitty-gritty “bargaining”. This term speaks to the back and forth of a negotiation where each side has both something to gain and something to lose. It aptly suggests an environment of tension, yes, but also the potential that both parties will walk away better off.
To view cultural encounters as bargains indicates that although cultures are likely to clash, it does not necessarily have to be a violent collision. If it involves some give and take rather than one culture dominating another, it can be a beneficial compromise and coming together.
Placing another culture in conversation with your own involves both looking inward and outward. To learn about another culture demands that you reevaluating our own. Yet, when should we judge people by our own values and standards and when should we place our judgments aside? For example, in a medical context, seeing that we believe in and value Western medicine, would offering subpar treatment out of a need to respect the culture of another be disrespecting our own?
How do we respect cultural differences while avoiding an “anything goes” attitude? While we must recognize that what is considered right and wrong is culture-specific, we must also avoid unconditional support for all opinions and life choices. Ultimately, to fight the assumption that our perspective is the perspective, we must stand at cultural points of tangency not with relativism, but with humility.