Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Dividing Peace

While traveling abroad for a conference my frequent interjections about cultural difference, whether about language, perception, values, or cognitive processes, were met with considerable friction from my academic colleagues (all reared in shadow of the failed European multicultural experiment-- a quick note about that...

After the 2005 riots in France, Jane Kramer made a comment in The New Yorker which neatly summarized European multiculturalism strategies:
There was the British “multicultural” model—or, to put it perhaps more accurately, the “You will never be us” model. There was the “We’ll support you, but please be invisible until you are us” Scandinavian model. There was the “integrated but not assimilated” oxymoron called the Dutch model. There was the “You’re guest workers, so you’ll be going home” German model—which, until the late nineties, put off even the possibility of citizenship for most immigrants and their children.
.... so that's the background.)

Each time I pointed out difference, they told me I was bumming everyone out with my negativity.  That certainly wasn't my intention, but they felt a valued schema was under attack.  A schema is the term in psychology for a conceptual framework which we use to make sense of information we encounter.  It facilitates our ability to handle tremendous amounts of information by acting as a shorthand; however, it can also make us blind to information which does not readily fit.  My colleagues operated with the schema that all human beings are universally, deep-down, the same.  We love our children.  We yearn to improve our lives.  We love peace and hate violence.  Each time my very intelligent, well-traveled colleagues encountered individuals from new cultures, this schema selected what information they heard and how they made sense of it.  In other words, when they were in a new environment bombarded by tons of new information, they were ever more reliant on a schema to make sense of things.  The familiar bits jumped right into place on the scaffolding of the schema, and they were contented that what they felt to be true had been confirmed.

So why do I point out differences?  Am I denying deep, universal human values?  Am I being contrary?  Not really.  I just find this particular schema misleading at its core.  The observer has defined and thereby recognizes 'universally human values' from self-reflection rather than observation.  From limited exposure, often through a translator, an encounter might go like this:
The way that woman expressed caring for her mother reminds me of how I care for my mother.  Caring is a deep, essential quality of human beings.  She and I are alike.  Humans are all alike. 
The schema prevents the observer from making sense of information without bias, and in particular, from listening.  So many misunderstandings start right at this moment when first impressions are slotted into schemas unconsciously and assumptions are made which inhibit all parties from seeing and hearing each other fully.  This schema was born as a result of the divisive policies of European multiculturalism which emphasized difference, so with the best intention of reparation, this framework focuses on the commonalities that unite us.  But this oversimplification can be just as dangerous in my mind.  Particularly, when it slots all of humanity into a value-system defined from the self-reflection of individuals from one culture.  Critics to my approach rush tell me how I'm a killjoy who is arguing that mothers across cultures don't all love their children.  But these critics will have to convince me how it is they come to know ALL of anything as complex as the human mind and spirit.  I'm not making any such claims. 

It is much harder to try and process so much new information without a schema.  To just see.  To just listen.  It's nearly impossible.  Reminders of difference are meant as speed-bumps, to slow down my colleagues who are so smart and facile.  It is an unusual pace.  An unusual level of patience both with oneself and with the situation.  It is uncomfortable to operate without a schema, a scaffold, a net.  Reminders of difference are alternative threads, but not full schemas, to start to make sense of the deluge.  The results of this patience might be, that from a particular encounter, you do find many commonalities.  But you may find differences too.  And that should be ok.  You find what you find.  As humans have spread across the earth, they have developed different ways of going about life-- cultures.  Attaching a positive or negative value to each alternative is a choice.

The enjoyment I get from noticing difference was certainly nurtured by my own cultural upbringing which prizes individualism, but honing it as a skill has helped me listen and observe things I would otherwise have missed. And I am not alone in this pursuit.  There are many interculturalists who've developed wonderful books and courses on the topic.  My own learning began when I noticed how often the assumptions, or schemas, I brought to new situations failed me.  Instead of confidently piecing knowledge together, I found myself humbly backpedaling in order find solid ground to start again to make sense of things or to listen to what someone was really trying to communicate.  My moments of utter wrongness have been, pride notwithstanding, an utter delight because they have  been the moments when, sometimes, I glimpse the world that is most different from my own.  And what else do travelers crave?

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