Saturday, July 15, 2006
The West and the Rest: Where Does Their Rage Come From?
In my previous post I summarized my presentations at the recent Cornerstone Festival in the Imaginarium venue. In this post I will summarize my seminars in the Cornerstone YoU venue. My series in this venue brought a cross-cultural perspective to the anger of the non-Western (majority) world at the West in a series titled "The West and the Rest: Where Does Their Rage Come From?" I made it clear from the outset that I was attempting to present the insights of intercultural studies and related disciplines to this topic rather than a perspective that was either politically Right or Left, Conservative or Liberal, Republican or Democrat. Although it is impossible for anyone to be completely objective (we all bring our presuppositions and biases to any and all subject matter), I was attempting to look at broad international tensions (that include but are not limited to the global war on terrorism) from the perspective of culture.
In my first session I noted that the major difficulty we have is grasping any other sense of cultural awareness (let alone acceptance) simply because our individual cultural experience is taken for granted as the way things are and the way things should be. Culture is like the air we breathe in that we take it for granted unless we experience cultural otherness. Evangelicals often then compound the problem by "baptizing" their American and Western cultural values as biblical and Christian when the situation may have more to do with culture than theology.
In order to help my audience step outside of their cultural boxes I had them go through two cross-cultural exercises, both taken from chapters in Richard A. Schweder's Why Do Men Barbecue? Recipes for Cultural Psychology (Harvard University Press, 2003). The first exercise came in the form of sleep order arrangements where audience members were given a family of a given size with two parents and multiple children but with differing dwelling sizes ranging from two to four rooms. Participants were asked to divide the family sleep arrangements based upon these differing room arrangements. This exercise reveals that Europeans and North Americans tend to value the "autonomous couple" sleeping together and independently of the children whenever possible, whereas other cultures, such as those in Asia, tend to value the parents sleeping separately and with individual children. In fact, Asian cultures tend to view the Western sleep order pattern as psychologically damaging to children and aberrant, whereas Westerners wonder whether the Asian pattern (particularly if replicated in the West) does not hint of child abuse.
The second exercise involved a look at female circumcision, sometimes called female genital mutilation, that is practiced in a number of cultures, particularly African and Muslim cultures. I summarized the negative case frequently presented against it usually presented by European and North American physicians and human rights advocatates, and then shared the contrasting medical, psychological, and experiential evidence. If we listen to the multicultural voices of women, some 80 to 200 million African women participate in this practice, and some have shared their displeasure with it. However, the vast majority of African women who undergo the procedure do not regard it as maiming, mutilation or oppression by men or Islam. Their concept of body image and sexuality causes them to affirm the practice. From their cultural perspective the “natural” state of the female sexual organs is repulsive and unclean prior to this procedure, whereas after the procedure they are associated with cleanliness, beauty, and adulthood.
My point is utilizing these exercises was not to change anyone's desires in the area of sleep order arrangements or female circumanycision. Instead, my point was to use these provocative examples as a means of helping Westerners to become more aware of your cultural assumptions. The second example illustrates that our own assumptions and perceptions of beauty and disfigurement are assumed to be universal and transcendental. Differing cultures have very different ideas as to these and other practices. Consider how routinely we accept male circumcision and other forms of bodily enhancement surgery (breast implants) which those in the Third World would consider mutilation. So while we might think and say “Yuck!” in response to the thought of certain sleep order arrangements, or female circumcision, someone from another culture might look at our cultural practices and say, “Yuck, what kind of barbarians are those who don’t circumcise their genitals!”
My second session sought to build on the ability to check cultural assumptions as a means of creating understanding of non-Western rage and violence. (Understanding in the form of mental comprehension of cultural reasoning is not to be confused with condoning terrorism.) I part company with many conservatives at this point in that I believe understanding the root causes of the rage are important if we want to move beyond responses to the symptoms of terrorism in order to address their root cultural causes.
I began by setting the cultural stage and noted the retribalization of large swaths of humankind based upon ethnicity, nationality, and religion. I then introduced the concepts of Jihad as a metaphor for an anti-Western, anti-universalist struggle, and McWorld as a metaphor for rampant consumerism taken from Benjam Barber's book Jihad vs. McWorld. In the case of Jihad vs. McWorld we find one group of cultures pursuing a politics of identity, the other a politics of economic profit. From the non-Western perspective, Jihad might be considered a response to colonialism and imperialism and their economic children, capitalism and modernity. While this might be a bittler pill for Westerners to swallow, as Barber writes, Jihad is not only McWorld’s adversary, it is its bastard child.
As we reflect further on our cultural assumptions we might also consider our notions of terrorists as "enemies of freedom," as they have been labeled by Western leaders, and those who also stand against “the universal values of the human spirit” (meaning, presumably, not only freedom, but also democracy and the consumerist aspects of Western culture). Such thinking reflects American notions of “common sense.” We have to be careful here in our cultural assumptions of common sense. Common sense may be common, and it may make sense, but maybe not! Some of our cultural presuppositions (like the primacy of individualism and privacy) are not genuinely common at all. The common values shared (to differing degrees) by Western societies generally are sharply at odds with those of the non-Western cultures that confront them.
My next session interacted with the writing of Meic Pearse in his book Why the Rest Hates he West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage. While most Americans, particularly our political leaders, view America as the great agent of freedom and democracy around the world, many times the non-Western world, particularly those in Muslim countries, view us as great Barbarian Juggernauts steamrolling over other cultures. Why these differing perceptions?
As Pearse notes, Westerners are often perceived by non-Westerners as rich, technologically sophisticated, economically and politically dominant, morally contemptible barbarians. Why barbarians? Among a variety of reasons, Pearse cites despising tradition, the ancestors and the dead, religion, cultural shallowness and triviality, sexual shamelessness, loose adherence to family and tribe, and an absence of honor. In the non-West, shocking as it will be to American evangelicals, Western values (often equated by evangelicals with Christian values) are onsidered antivalues, and Western culture anticulture, exported under the guise of consumerism. As one Iranian leader put it, “When you see some people here dressed in American-style clothes, you are seeing the bullets of the West.”
The point is that seeming justifiable economic, political and military actions from the Western side of the fence look very different from a non-Western (majority) point of view. Our talk of human rights and free trade appears to be self-seeking. You may not agree with the non-Western preceptions, but you do have to grapple with it.
My final session shifted gears to look at the implications for cultural clash between Western evangelicals with the shift in growth and vitality in Christendom from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern, a topic I have touched on in previous posts while discussing the work of Philip Jenkins.
I concluded this series with a summary, and by noting that for non-Westerners, our cultural ignorance, both of our own culture and non-Western cultures, and our assumptions of cultural superiority and imposition of Western culture on the Two Thirds world, results in us perpetuating our history of cultural imperialism. And then, curiously, we wonder why we’re hated.
For those who would like a further exploration of these topics:
Benjamin R. Barber, Jihad vs. McWorld (Ballantine Books, 1995)
Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford University Pres, 2002)
Meic Pearse, Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage (IVP, 2004)
Richard A. Schweder, Why Do Men Barbecue? (Harvard University Press, 2003)
Image from Benjamin R. Barber, Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism are Reshaping the World (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996) modified cover photo http://www.lclark.edu/~eyoung/Trans/Images/jihad%20vs.%20mcworld.jpg