Sunday, July 24, 2011
You Take the High Road, You Take the Low Road and I'll Take Whichever One Gets Me There Faster.
While we were there I spent a good deal of time walking around the city and just enjoying Turkey and it's culture; the good, the bad and the ugly. Which got me thinking about the way we approach culture here in the US. Generally it seems as though the typical American (if there is such a beast) will adopt one of two views towards foreign culture: ethnocentrism or multiculturalism - the pedant in me is insisting that I apologize that these are not strictly antithetical terms what with one having "ethnicity" as its root while the other centers around "culture" - But I don't really like either of those approaches.
Let me do a little defining. As I see it, ethnocentric Americans are generally convinced that America has already arrived at the cultural peak of human existence. Our culture is the best there is because... well... it's ours, gosh darn it! And anyway, look at all the things we have been able to do because of it. Am'rcan culture landed a man on the moon, won two world wars, and spent the Soviet Union into a not-early-enough grave. Ethnocentric Americans do sometimes show and interest in other cultures but usually this is done either to study them as curiosities, to mock them as bizarre and inferior, or to figure out how to gain some sort of edge (these days usually educational or athletic) over them.
Multiculturalist (spell check says I coined a word there) Americans are much more humble. They will be the first to tell you (and tell you, and tell you, and tell you, and tell you) that American culture is just one culture among equals and that all cultures are their own beautiful selves and that they cannot really be compared in any qualitative way unless of course you are willing to admit that American culture is the worst possible because we have lots of nasty, racist, oppressive tendencies so that, come to think of it, you can sort of rate cultures as being better or worse in so far as they differ from ours which is clearly at the bottom because all those ethnocentric Americans clearly want nothing more than to rise up and conquer the whole world under one vast red-white-and blue golden arch, riding wiener mobiles and throwing cold pepsi cans at defenseless, illiterate, two year old shamans in the heart of Papua New Guinea just before we force them to watch 48 straight hours of Saved By the Bell.
Thus I really appreciate and try to emulate the American "can do" spirit along with the western "protestant work ethic" and the importance of taking responsibility for my own actions. I have a huge admiration for Turkish concepts of hospitality and friendship which go far deeper into a person's self-image and worldview than the more American versions of good manners and acquaintanceship. At the same time, I am perfectly happy insisting that the Turkish cultural understanding of fate and it's twisted concepts of male sexual honor, are disgusting and have no place in a healthy person's worldview. American consumerism and the value we place on things over relationships are disgusting and damaging as well.
This all feels very freeing to me. I see what multiculturalists call the tapestry of cultures as something more like a gold mine. There are so many ways of seeing the world and doing life out there and the world has become so much smaller in the last hundred years, that we now have this exciting opportunity to evaluate cultures, process them, harvest what is good, beautiful and helpful, and get rid of what is evil, disgusting and hurtful (female circumcision anyone?). While my ethnocentric friends frustrate themselves trying to defend every piece of America as "vastly superior to anything they have" and my multicultural friends tie themselves in knots trying to explain that it is right and proper for some cultures to treat women like property, I get to step back and condemn what is evil and enjoy what is good.