30 June 2011

The Development of a Stoplight Morality

Miss Coleen Monroe, B.A. in Anthropology speaking. It's time we had a little talk about universiality, cultural relativism, and cutting up meat with rusty hacksaws. 

In college I read a now-uncountable number of pages from books and articles and treatises arguing with each other about the nature of culture. Since I tended to lean toward exploring the biological side of human nature, I didn't pay much mind to a central conflict within cultural anthropology since its inception...universalism versus cultural relativism. 

Incomplete definitions in few words. 
Universalism = Moral codes apply everywhere, as we can objectively say that one way of doing things is better than another. 
Cultural Relativism = Everything humans do is dictated by culture and none is superior to the other, so no universal Wrongs or Rights exist. 

Anthropologists ran into the dilemna of whether to apply these ideas when they conducted their fieldwork in far-flung corners of the world and tried to engage deeply, richly, thickly (to borrow Clifford Geertz's term) with a culture different from their own. In writing their enthographies and making their analyses, they often found themselves judging another culture...assuming it was better or worse than their own. Before the field suffered a crisis of representation in the 1980s and cleaned up its act, much of the work was fairly heavily based on cultural imperialism. White man comes to foreign village. Lives there several months. Writes a scathing ethnography about their practices from his beautiful armchair back in the civilized world. Rinse. Repeat. 

Now, what does all of that lofty rhetoric have to do with me living in Puerto Natales? A change in my own thinking about universal moral guidelines and cultural exchange. 

In the four months I have been living here, I have tried very hard to adapt and integrate and change to accomodate differences in culture between myself and those around me. Everything is different, down to the way one eats (using a piece of bread to load a fork instead of a knife) or dresses or wears one's hair. Most of the differences are superificial and sneak in without much effort, becoming habit so quickly that I don't even realize they are happening until it's already there. 

Others are tougher and take a conscious effort to include in my life. Everything is late here. Regulations fall through. There is compulsory military service for all men over 17. Most people don't use seatbelts. Men and women still occupy very separate spheres and roles. Divorce was only made legal six years ago. My bosses can make jokes about me being their wife or lover without fearing a sexual harassment lawsuit. No one sterilizes their dogs or cats, meaning roaming packs wander the streets and occasionally try to bite you (Side note: It's always the tiny, poodle-y ones. Watch your ankles). Being openly gay would be an abberation. They teach religion in school. 

Oh yes, and we cut up the meat for our dinners using a rusty hacksaw. 

Just because these things are different shouldn't mean that they are wrong, right? Or should I apply my own culture as universal and lament Chilean backwardness? Or am I falling into the trap of manicheism (wrong or right. Black or white, no gray) that a lot of people from the USA have been reared on? When I bring up the differences, I am often told that as a foreigner I am the one who has to adapt, and that others do not have to. Shouldn't. That my very being here could be a form of cultural imperialism (check out the issue here http://caminochile.blogspot.com/2011/03/lightbulb-in-my-bathroom-is-out.html). As a result I tried to adapt more, to change more, to judge less and less until I found myself shrugging my shoulders at everything...even the things that really bother me. 

Walking around the town the other day, thinking about whether I could say objectively that these differences were anything more than irritating to me personally...I passed a stoplight. I realized that it looked exactly like the ones at home. Red, yellow, green. Simple, easy to learn, and it works. Could it be that this could apply to morality and cultural encounters? 

In that moment I became a fan of Stoplightism.

There are many differences between the macro-cultures of countries and regions, and many more between the micro-cultures of families, schools, and towns. By and large, they just don't matter that much. One arriving and living there should adapt to the change of circumstances and change themselves to fit them. But occasionally the differences are actually objectively wrong or right, but in a flexible definition of both with lots of gray. 

When can we objectively say, "Ok, that's just not right" and not be a cultural imperialist? When whatever it endangers people, causes loss of resources for no good reason, or reinforces inequalities. Simple, easy to learn, and works. Racism=wrong. Sexism=wrong. Killing=wrong. Stealing=wrong. Willful ignorance=wrong. Irresponsibility=wrong. Not because a god says so, or because my culture says so...but because they cause harm and waste and lead to other problems. Cutting meat with a hacksaw = probably wrong...given the potential harm of metal shavings in the stomach. 

Judging cultures based on a simple, functional morality with a lot of room for gray area means that cultural exchanges like the one I am in are opportunities to compare moral notes with other humans and find out what is really important. Meaning that in order for them to function, it has to be a two-way street. Both sides have to consider their customs and change when necessary.

That is why it is called an exchange and not simply a change. It works even better in Spanish (un intercambio inves de sólo un cambio). Equal sharing between cultures to find the simple parts that overlap for good reason, and offer new ways of relating for both to consider. 

I have done the best job I could do to change and adapt and accept. A lot of what I have learned and changed is great, and I will use the new point of view Chile has offered me to judge my own life more carefully. But that doesn't mean I should lose myself completely either. My own culture and identity have a lot to offer, and the exchange should change Puerto Natales and the people I meet as well. 

And it is OK for me to refuse to eat meat cut up with a rusty saw if I don't want to have metal shavings in my stomach. Just like it's OK for me to bring a bunch of Yerba Mate home to drink like a Patagonian. The cultural exchange will continue and both sides will consider the changes they can and should make to their own moral stoplights. 

Eventually we will realize that many of the important things are already the same. 

1 comment:

  1. you are inspiring in your writing. I sent you a message with a link to a TED talk that relates to this, http://goo.gl/dPf3u. I made a transcript ('cause I couldn't find one...) and sent it to you, but the key phrase is, "Be a traveller, not a tourist. Get off the bus. Seek out what's different. Approach a journey as a young child might approach a mud puddle. You can bend over and look at your reflection in the mirror and maybe run your finger and make a small ripple, or you can jump in and thrash around and see what it feels like, what it smells like. Come back at the end of the experience, covered in mud."