Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Cultural Change

So I'd like to propose the following question:

Is a cultural practice always "right" if it is an integral part of one's culture and acting otherwise is outside of one's cultural norms?

If that was a little too confusing or vague, let me develop this question...What I mean to say, is that if there is Cultural Behavior A and this behavior or practice is widely used and common practice, does that make it a "right and justified" behavior? If acting otherwise, outside of that cultural practice, would not even be considered because that cultural perspective has been so ingrained into one's way of thinking, and hence behavior, does that make that behavior "correct" if it has negative consequences? Does not "knowing otherwise" or "knowing better" (dare I say) because of a lack of formal education and unchallenged acceptance of one's cultural norms justify the practice of those cultural norms even when they can cause harm to a person, group, organization, or society?....or is this attempt to mathematical deduce a problem with cultural overtones actually a futile endeavor because mathematical reason just doesn't apply to complicated cultural issues. But alas, trying to reason is part of my cultural mentality.

Before I completely lose you, I'll get more specific. Today I was speaking with a worker of mine whose 18-year-old daughter was in town this weekend visiting. Through a little bit of discussion, I find out that this weekend she had been using words that her father didn't like, and while they weren't "bad words," he didn't approve of her using them. At one point, she said the word to provoke him, and he hit her in the face. Hard. She left the house and didn't come back for the rest of the weekend..this morning she left for Tegucigalpa where she goes to university. He hasn't heard from her since and feels bad about what he did, but she was the one to provoke him and he had to show her that she has to respect him as her father, he says.

A little taken aback by the whole situation, I gave myself a few minutes to think and then gave my two-cents. I said, "Hmm. Well, I think that while words can provoke, they never justify hitting or being violent." Wanting to keep the conversation calm, I went on to say, "I know that might be part of my culture speaking, but I think getting violent crosses a line that only words do not." He responded by telling me, "Yeah well that is your culture. It's not our culture. I felt bad about what happened, but it's part of how I respond and to others, it's justified, it's okay." I gave a small pause and said, "Well just because it's okay because of the culture and because others approve, does that make it correct? Just because it's something cultural, does that make it okay?" He didn't respond for a while, but then chimed in saying, "Honduras is different...and you know what, sometimes words hurt more than getting hit." As others' ears started to perk up to our conversation, I decided it might be best to cut the discussion at that. It's true, words can truly hurt and verbal violence is real...and getting into a discussion about violence with a group of 9 women who I'm sure at one point have all been victims of some form of violence was something I was not mentally prepared to embark on yet.

But it made me think, and it made them think. Is something like violence, which is so common and accepted, particularly against women in Honduran society, correct simply because it is part of the typical cultural response? Is not having a formal education, where one learns that violence is not (legally) acceptable, justify this type of behavior or "acts of ignorance" as some would say? Does education even have anything to do with it?

One (adapted) quote I remember from a video on Female Genital Mutilation was from a religious leader in Liberia, who said, "Just because Female Genital Mutilation is practiced and is part of our culture, that does not make it right." But it's so easy to catagorize violence, female genital mutilation, racism as bad, not just, and not acceptable. What about other more subtle cultural behaviors like, for example, gossip?

Here in Honduras, gossip is a huge part of a Honduran non-confrontational culture. When there is a problem, instead of confronting the issue or person, it is customary to talk to someone else about the person causing the problem. There is a fear of confrontation, and so what results is a cycle of gossip that hinders direct communication and hides true emotions. It seems harmless enough, but when emotions and little problems stay inside, they sit and fester...and at some point...it erupts causing much more pain and hurt and drama that would have ensued from a small confrontation at the very beginning. Perhaps this seems like a harmless "cultural norm," but when it involves the communication between patients and medical staff, between co-workers in a health setting where a continuity of care is the goal, it can have definite implications on both the patient and the medical provider, physically and psychologically.

So...is this behavior acceptable? Should it be changed? Do I, as an outsider living in this society, have the right or capacity to try to change that behavior among the people I know? At one point do we respect cultural behaviors and practices and adapt to them because they are part of the "culture," even when it's negatively going to affect the well-being or the healthy communication between individuals, an organization, or a society? Input welcome :)


Parker said...

No. Yes. No, but yes. Yes and yet no. Love you, Jo.

Jon said...

Jo, that is really interesting stuff and puts you in a tough position. my first thought was to lead by example, which you should do, but that has limited immediate and not always noticeable impact, and it sounds like you are passionate about this (as you should be). So I think making your ideas known, as you did, is important, but I would try to stay away from going much further than that, unless it is a close friend.