Thursday, January 22, 2009

I find this question impossible.

David Markham at UU Way of Life is presenting a series of questions that the new candidates for UUA President were asked, and commenting on their answers. One of those questions really got me:

"What experiences have you had that help you deeply understand the mindset and values of another culture?"

Honestly, I don't feel like I get other cultures*, indeed, I'm not sure I get my own and have learned most of what I know from hearing what other people say about it. I can observe differences from my own as I perceive it, but I think the question assumes a lot. Heck, I'm a Northern Virginian who has lived around "real" southerners quite a bit and married into a North Carolina family and I wouldn't claim to really get Southern Culture.

I don't think my lack of desire comes from a lack of curiosity, just a cognizance that what I see I see through the eyes of someone in my culture and an invitation to claim that you understand another culture's mindset is an invitation to make an ass of yourself.

Markham calls for using the "platinum rule," which is "Do unto others as they would have you do unto them," which he says calls for an understanding of the "values, opinions, beliefs, practices, and preferences of the other." The most straightforward way to find all this out would be to ask them in what promises to be a lengthy interview. If you're not directly asking, you're probably making a lot of assumptions that are based in how you perceive you would feel if you were in their shoes anyway.

For simple things, which really constitute most of human interaction (e.g. "If I were carrying a bunch of packages and I dropped them, I would want someone to help me pick them up," "If I were practicing a presentation in front of a co-worker, I would want them to be diplomatic and encouraging, but to tell me if they saw a mistake before I did the presentation in front of the boss," etc,) the plain old Golden rule is going to have to do.

Also, there's a certain amount of cockiness inherent in saying you follow the platinum rule because in doing so you're claiming to understand someone else's needs and desires well enough to act on them.

Once, a good friend's wife was having a baby, and I encouraged him to call me any time of day or night when she went in to labor. Both husand and wife were effusive that they would love to have me there and they called a few times when she had false labor and theCSO and I went rushing over and sat with them through it. One afternoon, her husband called to say she'd had the baby the previous evening. Later I asked him why he hadn't called and he said:

"Well, it was late at night, and you have such a high-pressure job. My wife knew you wouldn't have wanted to come out here, but I know you would have felt obligated, so we decided not to bother you."

"Umm... Wouldn't you have wanted to come if I were having a baby?"

"Of course!" he said "But I'm not as focused on work as you are and I don't have a high-pressure law job. We knew you would *really* want to get some sleep so you could get lots of work done"**

The platinum rule in action.

I can see where people are coming from with the Platinum rule on a theoretical level, but I would say that it takes a great deal of confidence in your own understanding to pull off, and I don't think that level of confidence would be justified in most people. Indeed, probably the more certain you are that you understand, the less confident I am that you do since the primary think that brings a feeling of confidence on these issues is oversimplification.

I don't think Rabbi Hillel's words "That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it," are in any danger of going out of style.

This is the root of my issue with "reaching out" to people of other races and classes. I really don't know how to do that without being insulting. Particularly given the number of gay folks who find the "welcoming congregation" stuff annoying and insulting, and I would think that would be easier.

I think everyone can agree that getting greater diversity in our congregations is a good thing, whether that means reaching out to people of other races or other classes. I just think we're paralyzed by the discomfort people have shown with what we've done already. (I think just about all recognitions of Kwanzaa have making the African-Americans in the congregation feel welcome as at least a partial goal. Ever seen an African-American actually enjoy a UU Kwanzaa recognition? The ones I've seen have always looked vaguely uncomfortable.)

I don't think it's lack of desire. I think this stuff is just next to impossible to do well.


*And when I do feel like I get it intellectually, I still don't feel it, so I don't think I really understand it. For an example "We're a poor and tight-knit community and you were born here and you're 'one of us.' If you study hard and go to college and become a professor like you want to, then you won't be one of us and you will forget your roots and who you are. Indeed, you will be abandoning your community. So every time I see you studying, I'm going to remind you that 'real' members of our culture don't do that and if your friends kick your ass for using big words and acting like you're better than the rest of us by talking about that Shakespeare stuff, I'm going to turn a blind eye to it."

As far as I know, that's not a terribly inaccurate summary of some people's attitudes about kids who are "trying to be white," or "acting too big for their britches." (Indeed, for evidence of this attitude and the impact it has one only needs to look to Faith Hill singing that "A Mississippi girl don't change her ways, just because everybody knows her name, ain't big headed from a little bit of fame" or Jennifer Lopez reminding fans "Don't be fooled by the rocks that I got, I'm still, I'm still, Jenny from the block" to see that fears about success separating one from one's roots are very real.) I think I understand the logic intellectually. But I can't imagine feeling the feelings behind it, and I think one has to do that to truly say one understands a mindset.

**Yes, I've considered the possibility that she and her husband decided they wanted to be alone, but she swears up and down that this isn't the case and they had called a few other times when she thought she was in labor. I honestly think she believed that she was doing what I would really want her to do.


Comrade Kevin said...

I think what happens is that smug good intentions rapidly become platitudes. True diversity needs no introduction, nor a buzzword attached to it. It's subtle, in other words.

Erika Baker said...

What about actually talking to the people you're making assumptions about and asking them? And then taking their replies seriously?

Chalicechick said...

Well, as I said, that's the optimal solution, but it is not going to be possible with every interaction.


Anonymous said...

"What experiences have you had that help you deeply understand the mindset and values of another culture?"

Humility is not one of the UU virtues.

Knowing that you do not know is like waking up from a bad dream.

Best Wishes

Dudley Jones

Anonymous said...

After years of advanced study of other cultures, I abandoned the quest for understanding them, for fear it would limit my already pressured understanding of myself.

So what do I do with other cultures? Forget understanding -- I just MIRROR WHAT I SEE, ECHO WHAT I HEAR!

It does wonders for the comfort level at my full-muscle job. And at the end of the day, I can settle into this messy little room and blog my little brain until it fries!

Anonymous said...

interesting topic. I have been thinking about writing a sermon on "real diversity" -- like the kind of stuff that makes us uncomfortable with people of other cultures, or even subcultures. Like the kinds of things addressed in Deborah Tannen's books That's Not What I Meant and You Just Don't Understand, as well as things like the distance we stand from each other when we speak to each other.
I watch my stepsons' other mother, with her wealthy eastern seaboard upbringing, complaining about the way the elder son's "working class" girlfriend dresses -- she calls it trashy. I see this as a culture clash. (as I see it, it isn't what she wears, it's when she wears it.)
There are a lot of clashes -- and most people aren't aware that other people have a different view from them -- they assume people are just being annoying on purpose. I'm thinking of a receptionist in an office I worked in who frequently complained about the boss's very Japanese wife. When I said that maybe, since she was raised in a different culture, what she said that you think is rude, wouldn't have been rude in her culture, so she doesn't know. The reply I got from her was, "Well, she's in America now, so she should act like an American!"

PG said...

"Well, she's in America now, so she should act like an American!"

I hate that too, but I have to say that in specific reference to the Japanese, I can imagine a person who had spent time in their culture saying, "If I were in Japan, I'd be expected to act like I'm Japanese!"

It's also a difficult sentiment to cope with within a family -- my folks have a terrible way of telling my husband that he should learn to like spicy food, learn Telugu, get used to people's being late, etc. now that he's married an Indian girl. He HATES that, and feels particularly annoyed because we're not living in Hyderabad (where it might be reasonable to ask him to adapt to general local norms of cuisine and language, as he did when he lived in Japan), but in the U.S.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if that question isn't just a fancy way of asking, "How are you not a WASP?"

Anonymous said...

CC-- I added that book to my wish list. I liked what I read of it on amazon. I love that feature they have of being able to look inside books a bit.
Thanks for letting me know about it.

uni-talian said...

As an Englishman living in Italy, I tend to coalesce with other "Anglos".

I think the British tend to view Americans as simply British people with different accents, while the Americans tend to view the British as no different to any other foreigner.

Oscar Wilde remarked that the two cultures were of course separated by a common language, and this does illustrate the gulf.

However, while I think the British tend to delude themselves about the Americans, I think the Americans tend to delude themselves about themselves!

Although there are differences - as there are between all of the Anglo cultures - these are less pronounced than between others. But i suppose it was important for Americans to fashion out a separate identity after independence.

Equally of course, the same applies to the English - and Europe!

Robin Edgar said...

"Particularly given the number of gay folks who find the "welcoming congregation" stuff annoying and insulting, and I would think that would be easier."

Especially when they discover to their chagrin that, for one reason or another, they aren't *really* welcome in *some* U*U "Welcoming Congregations". . .

Anonymous said...

"I wonder if that question isn't just a fancy way of asking, "How are you not a WASP?""

Why is it UUs do not typically use nasty ethic stereotypes, but make an exception for the term WASP?

Do you think throwing words like that at people makes good karma?

Dudley Jones

Chalicechick said...

I think because most people regard it as a discriptive term rather than a pejorative one.


Robin Edgar said...

"Why is it UUs do not typically use nasty ethic (sic) stereotypes, but make an exception for the term WASP?"

Well Dudley, *I* personally get a kick out of describing egotistically delusional aka self-important 97% White U*Us as WASU*Us myselves. :-)

Robin Edgar said...

CC You completely missed the point of my comment about some GBLT people finding themselves to be "less than welcome" in self-described U*U "Welcoming Congregations". Or you disingenuously sidestepped my points. . . Did you even bother to follow the links? My point was that even if GBLT people are completely "love-bombed" by a U*U Welcoming Congregation because they are gay they can, and in some cases do, discover that they are "less than welcome" and even outright unwelcome because they are Christian oriented or otherwise theistic and/or are political conservatives such as "Log Cabin Republicans" for example.