[Opinie] Impenetrable cultures (or the impossibility of understanding each other)
James Anderson is een AFS-uitwisselingsstudent die zes maand stage volgt op StampMedia. Hij woont in Nieuw-Zeeland maar is oorspronkelijk van Zuid-Afrika. Voor StampMedia schreef hij een opinie over hoe moeilijk het is om andere culturen te doorgronden. Je kan James’ ervaringen volgen op zijn blog: belgiumcorrespondent.blogspot.com
Cultures are multidimensional. They have superficial levels such as race, clothing, ornamentation, (the stuff you notice straight away), communicative levels such as language or slang specific to that culture, and the much deeper levels, which centre around value systems and attitudes. No matter how many different cultures you are exposed to, ones which are not your own always have ways of surprising you.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to fully grasp more than a very few cultures in one’s lifetime. Even if you do manage to master the language of another people, a culture is comprised of many parts with many nuances in traditions, celebrations, slang and religion which make up the entire culture. There are so many small things making up a culture, that often if you ask a member of a given culture the finer points of it, they won’t be able to give you very much detail. This is because it is usually so deeply ingrained in them, they do not actively have to think about them. I think the main reason it is so difficult to fully grasp another culture is that the culmination of all these small differences result in different cultures having different ways of thinking. That is, to truly understand a culture one has to change one’s way of thinking and thus one’s way of life. For obvious reasons this is not very easy thing to do. Indeed relatively few people ever truly manage to understand a culture apart from their own. This results in great cultural divides and inter-cultural conflict, mainly due to misunderstanding.
It is easy to see why we are fairly culturally isolated, even in this age of globalization. For one, learning other cultures puts us out of our comfort zones and perhaps more importantly, in modern day life, it is a highly impractical venture. To even have a chance of truly comprehending another culture, one has to live and breathe it. Full immersion is required, and who has the time for that while juggling a career and a family?
Even if you manage to enlighten yourself in the ways of another culture, there are so many cultures in the world that this actually means relatively little. By understanding one additional culture you have surely taken a step in the right direction but there are so many diverse cultures in the world that even if you understand a few of them, you can, and probably will, encounter many more which bear no resemblance to those you already are familiar with. From lack of understanding comes stigmatism and stereotyping, and from there serious conflict seems inevitable.
This has been evident throughout history, most recently between Muslims living in traditionally un-Islamic countries (such as France, Belgium, and the U.S.A.) and the local population. The Islam presented in the media is very different from what mainstream Islam entails. The media has focused on the extreme end of the scale, which promotes the idea that all Muslims are extremists. This is of course a misperception, but it goes to show how ignorant most of us are of other cultures. Gallup Center for Muslim Studies shows that 43% of the U.S.A. admit at least a little prejudice against Muslims. Given prejudice is not something people like to admit to, in reality this figure is likely to be higher than the data suggests. The figure is higher again when you consider that most racist people do not see their views as racist or prejudiced.
In a report published by the Open Society Institute (OSI), 55% of Muslims surveyed across Europe believe that discrimination has risen in the last five years. While this is not conclusive, it is indicative of a lot of inter-cultural friction. The only way to reverse this negative trend is if people become more culturally aware and more culturally accepting.
To fully understand all cultures in the world is a simple impossibility for the individual. What we must strive to do, is understand and learn as much as we can from other people. While the individuals of this world are unlikely to ever truly understand all other people, it is an unachievable goal which we should seek furtively nonetheless. If people had a better understanding of one another, there would be less conflict. I’m not saying the world would be at peace and we would all sit sipping cocktails in the comfort of our beach hammocks for the rest of our lives, I have no illusions there. People will always find reasons for conflict, it’s in our nature. One cannot deny that possessing more insight into other people’s ways of life would create better conditions for inter-cultural relations, and if it will not prevent all conflict, at least it will help eliminate one excuse for it.
© 2010 - StampMedia - James Anderson