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21 May

The fine line revisited – About a month ago, I wrote about walking the fine line between maintaining your own cultural values in a foreign culture and imposing them on your host culture. The entry was written in response to a specific situation—namely, whether it was right for someone to free a dog that they felt was being mistreated by its Korean owner. In that specific situation, I think the answer is pretty clear.

“Principles are clear and simple, but when all the complexities of human emotions get involved, the waters can get murky.”

Even as I wrote the entry, though, I knew I was taking the safe route. Whenever I ran into a tough spot, I always fell back on the excuse that I was only talking about this particular situation. Yet I knew that if my ideas were to have any merit whatsoever, I had to follow them to their logical conclusions.

I think that particular entry received the most feedback of any single entry I ever wrote on Liminality. Interestingly enough, all who commented recognized that my ideas were not limited to that single situation—in fact, very few people even mentioned dogs. Instead, they applied my ideas to other and broader situations. Some people agreed, some people disagreed, but most people were merely going on speculation because I hadn’t elaborated on my ideas. I had always meant to write a second entry, applying those ideas on a more general level, but something else always came up. Now, a month later, I’m finally getting around to it.

I would like to address four different e-mails I received, and in doing so hopefully clarify my position and ideas. After I finish that, I’ll try to tie everything together and wrap it all up. I may wander a bit on the way, as this is a very complex issue, but I hope to come around at the end. Bear with me.

No one outright disagreed with me, but many people took exception at one aspect or another of my ideas. One commenter disagreed with being a doormat and allowing rude behavior just because “it’s the custom.” When I first read this comment, I thought that the answer was fairly simple: you don’t have to be a doormat, but you also shouldn’t try to impose your cultural beliefs on others. The hard part, however, is finding the balance—realizing when you’ve crossed over from defending your beliefs to imposing them on others.

Of course, it’s also important to recognize the difference between genuinely rude behavior and cultural beliefs and customs. In other words, there are activities that both Koreans and Americans alike consider rude. Then, of course, there are activities that one culture may consider rude, but the other may not. In my own life, I try to evaluate the situation and determine just how much the other person’s actions affect me. If they have no great effect on me, I let them slide (or at least try to). If they do have an effect on me, I stand up for what I believe is right. Not imposing your own cultural beliefs on others does not mean that you should let them impose their beliefs on you. It is important to remember, though (at least in my case), that you are living in their culture, and you have a responsibility to conform to that culture to a certain extent.

This is an important point, I think. Many foreigners seem to forget that they are indeed living in another country. To go back to the American example (only because I am originally from the States), many Americans tend to be fiercely protective of what they perceive as “Americanness.” How many times have you heard the phrase, “If you don’t like it, go back to (insert country here)”? Why is it then that when some Americans live abroad they make no effort to adapt to life in their host country?

Another commenter had an idea about that: “It is my sneaking suspicion, though, that people are more ready to accept ‘When in Rome...’ than they are to accept ‘When in Korea....’” In a word, it is not a question of general ethics, such as how a foreign national should act in his or her host country, but a question of nasty words like “Eurocentrism” and “Social Darwinism.” He also pointed out that it is not necessary to be assimilated, but it is necessary to at least make an effort to understand the host culture.

I think that’s a key point. We fear what we do not understand. We vilify what we do not understand. Let’s take age discrimination, an issue near and dear to my heart. It burns me up sometimes that age is so important in Korean society, but I have come to learn that it is not always a bad thing. There are certainly negative aspects to it, but there are also positive aspects as well, such as a respect for one’s elders. I still do not like the Confucian age hierarchy, but because I understand it better, I have an easier time dealing with it. If we do not make an effort to understand our host culture, though, we will most likely continue to react strongly against things we perceive as “wrong.”

Here’s an interesting Korean tidbit for you; I do not mean to make any generalizations about Koreans in general, but this might offer some insight on the issue at hand. In Korean, the word for “different” is dareuda. The word for “wrong” is teullida. It may be hard to tell from the romanization, but they are two quite distinct words. There are similarities between the two, but fewer than those between, say, the words for “to eat” (meokda) and “to lodge” (mukda). And yet, while Koreans do not use mukda for meokda, they do use teullida for dareuda. In other words, when Koreans talk about something that is “different” from something else, they will say it is “wrong.” Interestingly enough, the usage is not reciprocal (i.e., they will not refer to something “wrong” as “different”).

I do not think that this sort of thinking is limited to Korea—the linguistic manifestation may be limited to Korea, but the way of thinking is universal. As human beings, we judge the world around us by our own internal standards and values, and we have a very hard time distinguishing between that which is different from those standards and values, and that which is actually wrong. Part of that, as I mentioned in the original entry, is due to the fact that we often confuse our own standards for an absolute morality. As I said then, I do believe in absolute morality, but I do not believe that many of the things that we are told are part of this absolute morality are actually part of it.

What is this absolute morality? Well, I do not think I am qualified to offer a definitive reply, but I think most people would agree that respect for your fellow human beings is part of this morality. To go back to the age discrimination issue, the basis of this philosophy is just that—respect for your fellow human beings. The negative aspects of this, such as the disrespect for those who are lower than you in the hierarchy, were not part of the original Confucian philosophy—respect was mutual, it was merely the roles that were different. The king was indeed higher up in the hierarchy then the peasant, but ethically speaking he had the same responsibility to respect the peasant that the peasant had to respect the king. In fact, the king had the greater responsibility—all the peasant had to do was love and revere the king, but the king was responsible for making sure that the peasant could make a living for himself and his family. With power, as they say, comes responsibility. Unfortunately, they also say that absolute power corrupts absolutely, which is why this great theory rarely worked in practice.

When it is no longer a matter of equally valid cultural systems co-existing—when it becomes a matter of right versus wrong—there is no room for understanding. Historically, the West has been the mightier of the two hemispheres, and it is the strong who write the history books. We have been brought up to see everything in black and white, to not recognize that there doesn’t always have to be a right and wrong—that two different, even conflicting, ideas can just be. We like to categorize things, we like to pigeonhole ideas, we like to make everything fit into our conception of the world. And it’s much easier to do that when we can just dismiss half the world as “wrong.”

That being said, since I do believe in an absolute morality, I do believe that certain things people (be they Koreans or Americans) do are wrong. What should we do when we see someone doing something wrong? Should we attempt to help people see the error of their ways? Personally, I believe that if someone asks for help or advice, it is fine to give it, but to give it when unasked for may do more harm than good.

Another e-mail I received read as follows: “For the most part I agree with you, but all too often Koreans brush everything off with ‘we've been doing (whatever) for 5,000 years, therefore it is culturally superior and who are YOU to impose your inferior ways on us?’ So, to help people tune into the idea of picking garbage or treating dog as pets (or humanely) cannot be a bad thing or cultural imperialism.”

There are two different ideas here, but they are both related. First of all, in my own personal experience, I have never been met with the “we are culturally superior to you because we’ve been doing it this way for thousands of years” argument. There may indeed be people like that, but my experience leads me to believe that they are in the minority. Perhaps, though, the reason I have never heard this is because I have never provoked it. Imagine how you would feel if a foreigner living in your country started going on about the evils of your culture and how he thought they should be remedied. How would you feel? If you’re human, you would most likely grow defensive. The argument cited by the commenter seems to be of the same nature: a defensive response to an attack on their culture.

The second idea is that it is not a bad thing to “help people tune into” the right thing. I agree with this, depending on what exactly is meant by “helping people tune into” an idea. In the specific situation I was dealing with in the last article, someone was freeing dogs that he felt were being mistreated by their owners. How does this help the owner “tune into” the idea that dogs should be treated humanely? There is a huge difference between showing people the right way and saying, in effect, “It’s my way or the highway.” If you show someone what you believe to be the right way, you give them the choice of adopting that way or not. If you impose your beliefs on them, though, you have taken away that choice, and no one has the right to do that.

This is all very good in theory, but there are times when we may have to make difficult choices. The last e-mail I want to discuss presents one such choice. The writer was a Peace Corps volunteer in Korea about the time I was being born in a hospital back in the States. While teaching English in a middle school, he witnessed a teacher beat a student with a stick until the student passed out. He left the room, and the teacher later apologized to him.

What was the right thing to do in this situation? These days, even most Koreans would agree that the teacher was in the wrong. I wasn’t in Korea at the time (like I said, I was busy being born), but I know that physical discipline of students was more common back then than it is now. I have a hard time imagining that beating a student to the point of passing out was normal, but again, I don’t know.

At any rate, most of us would have been appalled if we had been in the same situation. There are three possible courses of action here: 1) interfere on the student’s behalf, 2) lodge some form of protest, but do not interfere, or 3) do nothing. The writer of the e-mail chose the second course of action, making his disapproval of the situation known by leaving the room, yet not interfering with the teacher. I believe that, however difficult the situation may have been, he did the best possible thing.

Let us imagine for the moment that he took the first course of action. In its most extreme form, interference might have taken a physical form—he could have physically come between the teacher and the student. In a lesser form, he may have interfered verbally, either reprimanding the teacher (more severe) or asking him to stop (less severe). Interference would likely have saved the child a beating right then and there, but what about the future? I believe that, in the long run, any positive results of interference would be heavily outweighed by the negative repercussions.

For one, any form of interference, be it physical or verbal, would have caused the teacher to lose face in front of the students. It is possible that this would make it more difficult for the teacher to control his students in the future. An even more likely scenario, though, would see the teacher become bitter at having been shamed. Depending on his actions, it is possible that our English teacher might have been recalled, or at least switched to another class. And it should be obvious that any teacher who beats a student to the point of passing out is not very good at controlling his temper. Who would save the students the next time he decided to take his wrath out on them?

Doing nothing, on the other hand, would support the status quo. A better choice would be to do nothing, but register a complaint later on in private. By walking out of the class, though, the English teacher made his opinion known in a very understandable way. Since the Korean teacher later apologized to him, we know that his actions made the Korean teacher think about his own actions. We cannot know what happened as a result, but I believe the influence was more positive than it would have been had he interfered.

It all really comes down to a very simple principle, albeit one that may get a bit sticky when applied in real-life situations: you can’t force someone to change their mind about something. In fact, attempting to do so will generally only make them dig in even deeper. By forcing someone to do something (e.g., imposing your own cultural beliefs on them), you may affect the outcome of one particular situation, but your actions will have a negative effect in the long run.

The first impulse, of course, is to ask: “OK, if that’s not the right way to change someone’s mind, what is?” My answer to that is: “You’re asking the wrong question.” There is no right way to change someone’s mind. All you can do is give someone options and hope they choose the right one. There is, of course, something else you can do, and that is to be an example. If other cultures see us being true to our values and principles, they will respect that, and they may be more inclined to see the good in our way of thinking. If we compromise our principles for the sake of expediency, though, it doesn’t matter what we say—our words will have no weight, and will only make people bitter.

That doesn’t mean that the choice is always going to be easy. The English teacher in the situation we just discussed wrote: “It still bothers me that I did nothing.” He is still struggling with a decision he made over twenty years ago. Why? Because he saw an injustice and felt he was powerless to stop it. As I said above, though, I do not think he did nothing. He did the best thing he could have done in that situation, and I think that it did have some effect on the Korean teacher.

Sometimes it is not only difficult to make the right choice, but to even figure out what the right choice is. Principles are clear and simple, but when all the complexities of human emotions get involved, the waters can get murky. I have heard the term “situational ethics,” but I believe it is redundant—ethics in and of themselves are situational. Once you take ethics out of the situation, all you are left with are abstractions. Ethics is about the decisions we make every day of our lives, and the beliefs and values that inform them.

I could stop here, but I think I need to clarify something. Taken the wrong way, the ideas I presented here could be misrepresented as an opposition to activism, such as fighting for human rights. I am reminded of the boy and the starfish on the beach. You all know the story: a boy is picking up starfish that have been washed up with the tide and throwing them back into the ocean. Someone asks him what possible difference he thinks he could make with all the starfish that are continually washed up on the beach. The boy picks up another starfish, tosses it back into the water, and says, “I made a difference to that one.”

To go back to the original issue of freeing mistreated dogs in Korea: when the person in question first posted his story on his website, several people made comments along the lines of, “Are you going to go around freeing all the dogs, then?” Others responded in his defense with the starfish argument. There is, however, a glaring difference between the plight of the starfish and the plight of the dogs—the starfish do not belong to anyone, and were not washed onto the beach on purpose. Throwing the starfish back into the ocean is in no way imposing beliefs on anyone else.

The point of the starfish story is to discourage apathy and encourage action. I am not advocating inaction. I believe that acting on what you believe is a vital part of the meaning of human existence. However, you are not going to change the world by running around and trying to change the way everyone thinks. It has been said before, but it always bears repeating: the only way to change the world is by starting with ourselves. There is only one person I can change in this world, and that is me.

I am not blind to the irony, even hypocrisy, of this entry in light of my previous entry. But GK over at Whistle & Fish was quick with a reply to that entry, and his e-mail was a sorely needed wake-up call. I will not comment here on that subject—that will likely be another journal entry—but I can say that I realize I have a responsibility, not only as a citizen of the United States, but as a citizen of the world. In fact, I think that helped me formulate my thoughts for this entry.

Again, I have left a lot unsaid, but this is what I have been wanting to write for a month now. Hopefully it will clarify how I feel on the subject in general, and serve as the more complete reply I promised those who commented a month ago.

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