Wednesday, September 22, 2004

it's not all good, but is all relative

I have come to understand cultural relativism differently in the last ten years or so. Here are some of my thoughts and how I am currently approaching it with students.

First, I think the notion of there being distinct cultures is inaccurate. To me, cultural, cultural items, etc., are fluid, especially now with the ubiquity of cultural information exchange through different media. In other words the "boundaries" between "cultures" are illusory to a great extent -- where does one stop and the other begin? I don't think one can say this with any real degree of precision; certainly not with "scientific" precision. Furthermore, I believe that certainly arguments can be made that even the possession of one cultural item from "another" culture has an influence on the possessor and that possessor's "culture." In sum, I just don't see the argument for distinct cultures being tenable any longer.

Second, I think that one could argue that the logical extension of the soc imagination is that each person is a culture unto her/himself. Why? Precisely because of how we as individuals intersect with our own personal biography and the social contexts we find ourselves in. Yes, we have "cultural" similarities based on classic sociological variables like education, ethnicity, gender, etc., but the combination of those factors, along with our personal experiences with those factors leaves us unique in many respects. I am an upper-middle class, well-educated, Anglo male. Are there some things that I share with others that share those characteristics? Yes. But, I also have distinct differences with many of them, too. Not the least of which are the enactment of my values, which I am sure many of them would claim to share with me, but the actual behavior which, IMO, is reflective of those values would differ greatly, i.e., I certainly don't plan to re-elect the President.

I think that feminists have done an incredible (and typically
underappreciated) job at pointing out to us the merit of taking into consideration our own social and personal places in the structure and how these influence our outlook on things -- our own personal "culture" if you will. To me, this kind of analysis is very much in keeping with the soc imagination and is, in fact, what constitutes great sociology, IMO.

All of that said, I do think it is critical for students to pay attention to their ethnocentrism. Despite what Fox News and all of the other pundits declare about the seeming divine "rightness" of all things American, I think it is disrespectful to approach any other human being with a sense of knowledge about him or her, even, if not especially, other Americans. I try and instill a sense of wonder with students in their encounters with others
-- whomever they might be. I think that is what social inquiry is all about
-- perhaps one of the reasons I highly value verstehen as a method of inquiry. I really don't "know" about any one person's experience of "culture" until I speak with her/him about it -- even then, my knowledge of it is going to be mediated by MY soc imagination

Lastly, I heard a debate on Democracy Now last year between a human rights atty from the US and representatives from a women's rights group from a country in which FGM is practiced -- it was fascinating. The HR atty was saying that FGM was a violation of universal human rights and the reps were saying, yes, but let us handle who we change it. It was a great debate because it exposed the HR atty's ethnocentrism -- she could not hear what the reps were saying because she was so intent on promoting human rights for them! I wish I had bookmarked it.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Armed Men and Safety

I have been listening to some of the news reports about the RNC. A few times I have heard about how many police, firefighters, law enforcement, and other security personnel in “full body armor” with automatic weapons there are around NY and how safe many of the delegates feel because of all of this. I flashed back to a time when I was a young teen, exiting an airplane in Venezuela, walking between a phalanx of heavily armed military men across the tarmac from the plane to the terminal. This would have been in the mid ‘70’s sometime. I remember at the time how much fear I felt, not safety at all. It spoke to me about how ineffective that current gov’t was in maintaining security – so much so that they had to have heavily armed men protecting passengers deplaning. I was terrified. I didn’t feel safe – that walk was one of the longest I ever took in my life.

Couple of other things that came to mind, too…I used to live in Brazil (again in the seventies) and it was not at all unusual to see heavily armed law enforcement men driving around in Suburbans. It was also not unusual to see some of these guys stop and physically assault someone on the street. As youth, we knew that if we really screwed up and somehow got into trouble with the law, their motto was, “shoot first and ask questions later” – so we had to make sure that we could either run really fast or steer clear of any of them. Recall, also, that it was at this time that Brazil had the off-duty police officers roaming around in gangs (the Black Hand) murdering people. The one redeeming factor about the law and Brazil was that if you had enough $$ (and the amount varied, based on the offense) you could discreetly walk away from just about anything. I did not have any personal experience of that, but knew people who did (I did have a personal experience of being shot at by the police, but that is another post!).

Last reminiscence…when in college, some friends and I went to a small beach in Mexico (where they filmed Catch-22 believe it or not) and were approached by two very heavily armed Federales. They asked us if we wanted to buy some marijuana. Not being idiots, we declined, but turning my back and walking away, was again one of the scariest things I have ever done – walking away from heavily armed men who were allegedly “maintaining the peace.”

Granted the last two anecdotes are a bit divergent from the first, but I think all speak to something that we have not really experienced that much in the US, yet -- heavily armed law enforcement folk walking around as a matter of course. I can’t help but wonder if the reason that some of the delegates felt safe by all of it is because it is new, it is NOT common-place and I guess it does physically demonstrate power, which I suspect some people associate with safety. I continue to wonder how safe people are going to feel when we see them not JUST at conventions, airports, bus stations, ports, etc., but wandering around in the course of their normal activities.

From the limited experiences I have had in encountering these folks, the feeling I was left with was not safety, but fear. And the thought that if things were so bad that we had to have some kind of military-like presence in our communities, we were in deep trouble – that was easy to dismiss in those “third-world” countries like Brazil and Venezuela, I wonder what it will be like in the US?