Thursday, February 17, 2011

Understanding Other Cultures

Yesterday, I happened to attend a presentation on Egypt conducted by a brilliant Egyptian colleague. After her talk, an equally brilliant American colleague asked:

"Could you talk a little about diversity in Egypt?"

"About what??" she asked, looking bemused. This colleague's English is perfect, so it wasn't a linguistic problem. It was a cultural one.

"About diversity," the American professor answered. "Everybody keeps talking about Egypt as if its people were one. They forget about the diversity of the population."

"But we are one," the Egyptian colleague responded. "We are all the people of Egypt, one nation, one people."

This is precisely why it is wrong to try to impose one's own catchwords, cultural constructs and concepts on other cultures. Talking about democracy, diversity and multiculturalism when referring to Russia, Egypt, Latin America, etc. is a waste of time. It is an equal waste of time to try to impose the concepts that have wide currency in Russia, Egypt, or Latin America onto other cultures. Cultural differences exists. They don't make anybody better or worse than anybody else. They just are. We will never understand what is going on in other countries until we get rid of the desire to fit different realities into a set of familiar concepts.


Rimi said...

This is the second time this has happened: you've mentioned something on your blog that I've been writing an article or paper about. Earlier it was the gendered nature of capitalism, now it is the flawed sense of inclusive equality of democracy.

It's one of those things.

Clarissa said...

Well, you know what they say about great minds. . . :-)

eric said...

Americans are now learning the hard way that their (our) "way of life" nowhere approaches universality. Yet the neocon dream persists, and why Obama did not disown it completely, is anyone's guess...

Pagan Topologist said...

I am troubled by this. Are you saying that it is OK for Egypt to oppress Coptics, say, because that is part of their cultural values, just like the oppression of black people was a part of southern U. S. cultural a few decades ago?

Acknowledging that we cannot do anything about it is not the same as affirming that it is wrong. If I took your advice on this, I would stop supporting Amnesty International, for example.

el said...

Is this presentation on-line somewhere? May be she could put it on-line as YouTube video or at least PP? It would've been very interesting and let not only academicals learn from the first source and clear misconceptions.

Isn't there some diversity in Russia? Several times when I turned on Russian news, Medvedev talked about Russia being a home for different peoples, the need to peacefully coexist, etc. It was after recent events against minorities in Moscow. I guess USA has more diversity, of course, but f.e. in Ukraine there are both Russian and Ukrainian cultures. In Israel the situation is again different. There are Jews from all over the world, but they all to me seem to belong to relatively same culture (children of the immigrants and the 3rd generation), differing in the amount of religious belief.

Could you give examples of concepts familiar to Russians, which would make no sense in US and Canada?

Spanish prof said...

Although race issues in Latin America is not my field of expertise, in my Latin American Civilization classes I always mention and talk a little about Brazil and the Dominican Republic as examples of different constructions and understandings of race.

Jonathan said...

Latin Americans talk about democracy a whole lot. They even have elections. It's not an imposition to talk about democracy in Latin America.

On the other hand, what the Egyptian colleague was saying is that the dominant discourse is nationalist, and that therefore the intelligentsia does not care to talk about the role of minorities (Copts for example). The definition of one people, one nation is classic tautological nationalism. It is not a statement about Egypt, but about where the dominant paradigm lies.

Clarissa said...

"I am troubled by this. Are you saying that it is OK for Egypt to oppress Coptics"

-I'm saying it isn't. Now the question is whether anybody should abide by what I consider not to be OK. And what if tomorrow people from other cultures decide that the way we live is "not OK" from their point of view?

The issue of whether powerful countries with a huge military might should invade other countries with the goal of making things right is a painful one here in the US. Usually, such well-intentioned efforts to "spread our values and bring our freedoms to others" only result in people hating the invaders.

Clarissa said...

"Latin Americans talk about democracy a whole lot. They even have elections."

-So do we in Russia and Ukraine. because it makes the Americans feel good and comforted by familiar words. Nobody takes those elections seriously, though. they are just a front to dupe the foreigners.

"The definition of one people, one nation is classic tautological nationalism. It is not a statement about Egypt, but about where the dominant paradigm lies"

-Exactly. So imposing an American paradigm of "diversity", a word that many languages do not even have, is an exercise in futility.

Rimi said...

El, if I might intercept your question, and Pagan opologist, if I may address your very real concern:

The 2008 presidential campaign was the first US political event that I witnessed close at hand, and it struck me, as someone who has also grown up in a democratic country and has been voting regularly for a few years, as a remarkably undemocratic process.

Before I ruffle any feathers, people, I'm saying "Down with the USA!" here, I'm merely reflecting the process of a foreigner from a democratic country commenting upon (what she thinks are) shocking aberrations to democracy as she knows it.

First, it seemed like a popularity contest between four people, whose speeches were rubbed and scrubbed till they were so politically correct they said very little. We elect parties, not people. But this is not undemocratic per se. What WAS undemocratic was:

a. elections were being held in one day. It's impossible to hold free and fair elections in such a huge country in ONE day. In India elections are held in phases over a month so central task forces can be sent to polling areas to prevent local administration influencing results. And we still have corruption. One day seems plumb impossible.

b. Election Day is not a holiday. Now that seems like a national incentive NOT to vote. Why on earth should people miss pay to go vote? I grew up with the assumption that anyone who truly wants a government of, by and for the people would make it easier for the people to have a say in it.

c. the fact that presidents appoint chief justices seems to violate the basic tenets of democracy -- separation of powers. If the executive can appoint and ratify the legislative, then how on earth is the legislative supposed to check and balance the executive?

In fact, I was shocked to hear judges being discussed in terms of "liberal" and "conservatives" -- the judiciary is corrupt in it's own ways, but at least at the high and supreme court levels, completely removed from politics. This last, more than the first two, convinced me democracy didn't really exist in the USA.

But that's just the opinion of someone who grew up in a parliamentary democracy.

Jonathan said...

Well, I think you can take elections in Brazil or Chile quite seriously. I don't see Lula as a less democratically elected president than Obama. I won't dispute Ukraine and Russia with you.

Your argument is nominalist, about what words a language has, but obviously Latin America does have both the word democracy and functioning democracies in several nations along with dysfunctional electoral systems elsewhere, dysfunctional to varying degrees. Only a few dictators remain. Fidel, and Chávez, who is a kind of hybrid elected dictator.

Democracy is fragile in Lat Am, but that does not mean that democracy is the wrong word or concept to be using to analyze the situation.

Clarissa said...

el: how do you say "diversity" in Russian? Exactly. The concept in its American meaning does not exist. Expecting the whole world to operate with the same concepts is a waste of time.

Liese4 said...

Oh my goodness well said Clarissa, "This is precisely why it is wrong to try to impose one's own catchwords, cultural constructs and concepts on other cultures. Cultural differences exists. They don't make anybody better or worse than anybody else. They just are. We will never understand what is going on in other countries until we get rid of the desire to fit different realities into a set of familiar concepts."

I would broaden that sentiment, you will never understand me until you get rid of your catchphrases and ideals that you associate with homeschooling and stay at home Moms. I am a totally different culture than you and I don't fit into you familiar concept of what a woman or Mom or teacher is. Can you extend your concept of allowing for different cultures to people of every faith? Every walk of life? Every way of bringing up children? Or is it only countries that get that amount of tolerance from you?

I agree that we in America think that 'our' way is the best. But cultures have survived for thousands of years with no help from us, so why do we think becoming more alike will solve their problems?

America is great not because it is a melting pot, but because it is Not a melting pot. People from other religions, races and cultures bring such diversity to our country, and that is a good thing. Other cultures have 'diversity' they just don't call it that.

Clarissa said...

Liese: did I ever suggest that I'm planning to invade your house armed to my teeth and drag you to work by force?? I reserve the right to express my opinions about people, countries, cultures, events, or anything else on my own blog. If I think a culture or a person engages in a barbaric practice, for example, I will say it. Otherwise, there will be nothing to blog about on the post dedicated to personal opinions.

The idea of "tolerance" is completely ridiculous, which I blogged about a lot and don't want to repeat myself.

It's unbelievable that once again the discussion is degenerating into whether I should have the right to express MY OWN opinions on MY OWN blog. I thought we'd covered that already in a variety of ways.

Liese4 said...

No, you did not. I am just shaking my head that you can have views that seem on the one hand to embrace diversity and on the other condemn it. In your world nothing is gray, it is either black or white with no middle ground. How can you teach at a university and not be tolerant?

Once again the question is not whether you have a right to your opinion on your blog, I defend that right, it's just that you seem to never see the other side of any argument. You have a right to be a feminist, but if I say I want to stay home then I am a depressed, suicidal, oppressive person? And yes, you did say that SAHM's were depressed and only want to control their children. Which, again you have EVERY RIGHT to say on YOUR blog - I am not disputing that point. I am just saying that you don't ever seem to be willing to see any side other than you own.

Which makes Obviously I come here and read what you have to say because I think you are right when you says that people need to question what they read and not just blandly stumble along agreeing. So, I question and you say you have a right to publish whatever you want. But, still I question, because it's what you said to do!

(You're a good verbal sparring partner.)

Clarissa said...

I don't embrace "diversity" because I believe it's an empty, meaningless concept. Just like "tolerance."

I love hearing opposing points of view. But only intelligent and well-argued ones. If a student, for example, tells me that Don Quijote was published in 2010, it's not an alternative point of view. It's a piece of ignorance. I am not obligated to respect that and give him a passing grade for this "opinion", am I?

If you don't see the difference between me saying that you are a depressed, suicidal person and saying that housewives suffer more from depression than any group of population, I don't think we will be able to have an intelligent discussion here.

Clarissa said...

el: In my annoyance that yet again everything is being reduced to the plight of housewives I missed your question:

"Could you give examples of concepts familiar to Russians, which would make no sense in US and Canada?"

Many examples can be given. I speak on the phone at great length every single day to a) my sister; b) my mother; c) my father. And I love it. It's fun. I don't know a single American person who has the same concept of family. Unless parents and grown children live in the same small town, they only speak once a week or so.

Another thing is that, for example, Americans don't see it as normal if their 35-year-old children leave with them. In our countries, that's done a lot.

Russian-speakers usually are ready to tell you they love you 3 days into a relationship. Americans, however, mull over their feelings for ages. The concept of love is completely different between both cultures.

I have many more examples, if anybody is interested.

Clarissa said...

I meant, "live with them", of course.

Liese4 said...

"I don't want to write posts that make everybody nod sagely in agreement. That would be the worst thing that can happen to my blog. More than anything, I want to make people start questioning, doubting, engaging passionately with issues."

You make me wonder....why do you think 'diversity' and 'tolerance' are meaningless concepts? Do you mean that you don't understand them coming from a different culture, or do you mean that you just think they are terms and mean nothing?

BTW on a totally different topic - what kind of netbook did you get? My Dell broke and I just got a Toshiba and it is a piece of crap next to my old one. It's so slow I can click on something and leave the room, come back and find it still loading, unacceptable!

Clarissa said...

On tolerance, I want to quote the greatest living philosopher of our times Slavij Zizek: "What lurks at the horizon. . . is the nightmarish prospect of a society regulated by a perverse pact between religious fundamentalists and the politically correct preachers of tolerance and respect for the other's beliefs: a society immobilised by the concern for not hurting the other, no matter how cruel and superstitious this other is."

Clarissa said...

More from Zizek on the hypocrisies of tolerant multi-culturalists: "Moral majority fundamentalists and tolerant multi-culturalists are the two sides of the same coin, they both share the fascination with the Other. In moral majority, this fascination displays the envious hatred of the Other's excessive jouissance, while the multiculturalist tolerance of the Other's Otherness is also more twisted than it may appear – it is sustained by a secret desire for the Other to REMAIN "other," not to become too much like us."


Clarissa said...

"BTW on a totally different topic - what kind of netbook did you get? "

-I'm sorry, I keep missing questions today. I got a Toshiba satellite L675D-S7104. And it's super fast. Even Civilization 5 works extremely fast and well on it.

Liese4 said...

Thanks, I wiped the computer back to factory settings and have to wait to see if that will make it work faster. Otherwise I'll have to get a refund and buy it somewhere else. Very frustrating.

Anonymous said...

"Diversity" isn't a deep American paradigm, it's a recently coined bureaucratic code word. I first heard it in early 90s but it may have existed a little earlier. Before that was non discrimination and before that, integration (end of legal segregation). Affirmative action as reparations for past discrimination or even as leveling of playing field is not palatable to all, so "diversity" as a good in itself was introduced ... that and also "inclusiveness" are more acceptable because less political.

"Diversity" refers to the idea that women, persons of color, non Protestants, and so on, might also be legitimate citizens. Back when I was born "American" essentially meant WASP; Mexicans had to sit in the balcony at the movies; my parents didn't quite qualify as white because of Eastern European looks/name; that meant they could be barred from some venues they aren't now.


There have been huge wars and social movements in Latin America about who can be included in the space of the nation; there are major indigenous movements now; there were things like the Partido Independiente de Color (Cuba) and the Movimento Negro Unificado (Brasil), there's the question of the 'lettered city' (Rama) and what is outside it. Brazil has affirmative action now and for good reason, and there are reams of writing about cultural heterogeneity, race and racism, etc., in Latin America, by Latin Americans. Consider also the ladino/indio division in Guatemala & Chiapas, etc. etc.

Clarissa said...

"Diversity" isn't a deep American paradigm, it's a recently coined bureaucratic code word."

-This code word has already turned into a paradigm. Bureaucracy rules! :-)

"Diversity" refers to the idea that women, persons of color, non Protestants, and so on, might also be legitimate citizens."

-Not any longer. At this point, there's the idea that a certain number of non-Wasps within a group (say a college class) will enrich said WASPS culturally. As such, diversity (and it's attendant buzzword "multiculturalism") are supposed to be 100% "good", nonproblematic and positive. Any such promotion of diversity is based on pretending that cultural differences do not exist. Or if they do, only as unoffensive and cutesified peculiarities.

Jonathan said...

The origin of "diversity" as code-word was the Bakke supreme court decision in 1978. A white guy sued the University of California, Davis, for admission to the medical school, arguing that less qualified applicants had gained admission because they were members of minority groups. The Supreme court said that you could justify affirmative action based on the goal of having a diverse group of people. This decision outlawed outright racial quotas but used diversity as a kind of backdoor justification for considering race at all.

Pagan Topologist said...

I am inclined to think that when several cultures coexist, there are only two possibilities, long term: They will either gradually merge into a richer, more complex whole, or sooner or later one will exterminate the other. Humans have long proven that we have a terrible capacity for genocide. To me, tolerance and the embracing of diversity represent the commitment to embrace the gradual merging of cultures over the other alternative. When people say that the U. S. is not a melting pot, I think they are misled as to the time frame required for such a process to occur. It is a matter of centuries, not of merely decades. And either forcing it to happen too quickly, or keeping peoples apart to prevent its happening at all are both steps toward the other, unacceptable but all too possible, alternative.

Pagan Topologist said...

I have been told by colleagues in Anthropology that in Brazil it is not a crime to kill a member of an indigenous tribe. This is indeed the alternative to a sane approach to a multicultural reality.

V said...

to answer your question about the Russian concepts not having direct analogies in American discourse one should probably give you some examples you've never heard about (unless you are from FSU or a Russian studies scholar). So I give you some from Russian traditionalist-nationalist discourse:
"Sobornost": it has something to do with the way Orthodox religion is governing various aspects of public life, but otherwise I am too westernized to explain it. I do not "feel" it myself. :)
"Samoderzhavie": has something to do with the particular implications of absolute monarchy, Russian style...
"Duhovnost": technically translated as "spirituality", but really not the same thing as "sprituality" in American discourse. Much more intertwined with both Orthodoxy and nationalism.

Clarissa said...

el is from Ukraine. :-)

Good examples, V.

Anonymous said...

Those things are true at a certain level, and it is why those words (designed to denature politics) are problematic. This does not mean that the issues they cover and refer to in a now veiled way are not real.

And Zizek is right about tolerance but that doesn't mean US couldn't use more of it anyway. Example: you can run for President as a Catholic now (JFK was the first, also the first man of Irish descent, which was not a polite background to have here) but you still have to be Christian. That's religious intolerance.

Democracy in US, well, Presidential elections are not very, and but it's important to note that democracy isn't just voting. It's participation, and voting is just one form of that. According to that Democracy Index the Economist put out, U.S. is #17 in world - Canada, Uruguay, Australia, Scandinavia, and some European countries have more of it, and the US is a second tier democracy (in the Americas, first tier ones are Canada and Uruguay).

The point above about nationalism as dominant paradigm in Egypt or for Egyptian intelligentsia is a good one. Also the point about US *not* being a "melting pot" ... that melting pot idea was an ideological intervention about deculturation and also depoliticization of immigrants; it seems that some of the objectives of this melting idea worked in the end, or at least from 1941 onwards (many people became very conservative, xenophobic, etc).

? Not sure about the point of the original post. It seems to be really about US invasions made with the excuse of "bringing democracy" ... but that's never the actual intention you know, the intention is to install a regime friendly to US and make this palatable to US public by calling it "democratic."

But as far as the questioner about diversity in Egypt, it seems that was a question about which sectors of society were behind the uprising and so on, what other sectors there might be, what other interests might be, etc.

So there are a lot of different things conflated here, or so it seems to me.

Anonymous said...

@Jonathan, thanks for the explanation re the Bakke decision. I should have realized this!!!

The larger point would be that just because Bakke circumscribed nondiscrimination and affirmative action in this way for things like college admissions [in elite schools that actually have to choose among qualified candidates, cannot just accept anyone who meets a certain standard], does not mean that the larger political struggles around these things stopped or that serious questions / problems do not persist, nor that older and much more serious political projects addressing these do not exist.

But, in 'polite' venues 'diversity' is sometimes now the word used to point to racial / cultural division, strife, oppression, etc.