"We are being so careful to accept everyone's religious, spiritual, and ethical beliefs that we will accept almost any idea, lack discernment, and have forgotten how to choose between right and wrong. A good example of this might be how we protect women's rights in the own country, but, if we hear about abusive sexism, we might tolerate it because ‘it's just their culture’”.
(William Bloom, The Power of the New Spirituality)
The reason why Dr. Bloom’s quote has been on my mind for past couple of weeks is that I had recently finished two autobiographies, which I randomly found in the library and which have a lot in common.
The White Massai is a story of Corinne Hofmann, a Swiss woman who on her vacation in Kenya fell in love with a local Massai warrior, married him, and spent over a year living in a hut made from cow’s dung with her husband and his mother. Although the marriage didn’t last and Hofmann ended up returning back to Switzerland with her baby daughter (where they have been living ever since), the book is still a very powerful testimony of a White European woman’s experience in a pre-industrial, deeply patriarchal society.
Tales of a Female Nomad is a story of Rita Golden Gelman, an American writer, mother and wife, who at the age of 48 decided that she was tired of living in our money + success-driven society and has been traveling the world ever since, living with local people in their villages, learning indigenous languages, spending a couple of years here (Bali, New Zealand) and a couple of months somewhere else (Thailand, Israel). She considers herself a global citizen with no permanent address – a true modern-age nomad.
So what do these two ladies, one European and one American, have in common and how does it relate to the quote in the beginning of today’s column?
Apart from both their stories happening in the 80’s (and their hair in pictures from that time looking accordingly), the two writers impressed me by their open-mindedness and humility. They seemed to be (relatively) free from Western ethnocentrism, so common in people traveling to exotic countries, based on the firm belief that our culture is superior to all others.
BUT: Apparently even if you are the most accepting, multiculturally sensitive person, when living in countries like Kenya or, say, Argentina you are bound to see things that you won’t like – and for a good reason.
It is an ethical dilemma that both authors deal with in their stories (and future counselors in their multicultural class). They are aware that as guests in the cultures they decided to become a part of it’s not their place to judge people around them based on their own beliefs and values. However, they both admit openly that they have experienced moments when they struggled.
It’s simple – even as a multiculturally sensitive person you still have compassion for fellow human beings and it’s therefore very difficult, if impossible, to remain neutral when witnessing things like
- female circumcision done to teenage girls (without any medicine or anesthesia), who are then married off to men decades older, often crying desperately before and during the wedding (witnessed by Hofmann in Kenya)
- domestic violence leaving the wife with two black eyes, barely able to walk (witnessed by Golden Gelman in an indigenous village in Argentina)
- a woman pulling her dead baby out of her body all by herself because her husband wouldn’t take her to a doctor in time - out of jealousy (witnessed by Hofmann in Kenya)
And I don’t know how I feel about that.
I’m usually the one who resents deeply the notion that civilization starts and ends in the United States (or Europe, for that matter). But I’m afraid that I do have some serious limits when it comes to accepting unconditionally every barbaric tradition the humankind is capable to come up with just to be politically correct. It’s exactly what Dr. Bloom talks about in his quote – those of us who are trying to break from the ethnocentric state of mind, so to speak, often feel that in order to become truly non-judgmental and accepting we have to look at every tradition in the world with no opinion and no questions asked.
But how do you do that when you are facing a twelve-year old howling in pain, bleeding from her vagina (and knowing that within several weeks she might quite well be dead as a result of infection)?
I don’t know how you, but I probably can’t. If that makes me multiculturally insensitive, well, I guess it’s one of those things I will just have to live with.
And how about you? When it comes to acceptance of other cultures than yours, where is your line?