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The Rights and Wrongs of Traditional Cultures

by Christine DeSadeleer Nov 30, 2009
Whether we romanticize – or condemn – a traditional culture’s practices, we are often missing a part of the picture.

Sometimes, I think about the romantic notions that arose in my Masters program, on my part just as much as others.

A good chunk of what we did was take a look at traditional ways of healing. Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, and Native-American healing are all extremely valid, deeply historical systems that are often dismissed in our Western allopathic mindset.

Even though, of course, each has been around hundreds to thousands of years, and seen millions of more patients than medical doctors.

Sometimes, learning about disregarded, lesser-known or underutilized traditions can lead us to the conclusion that all is right with the world in the “natural order,” while our current approach is kind of, you know, evil.

Sure, there is a lot wrong with the way we live life in the West. That’s a given. So it is easy enough to fall into the trap of longing to live in a place where the 8-6 job does not exist, people are still rooted to the Earth because they actually work with it, and family connections leave little room for depression or other American institutions. Ah, wouldn’t life be grand?

The Wrong Parts

Then, way over on the flip-side, there’s the shock that arises when seeing a traditional culture up close and personal. Andy Jarosz at 501 Places just tackled this topic in his piece, When is ‘local culture’ just wrong? Now you are facing a particular tradition that you not only don’t understand, but inherently believe is immoral.

The first thing that popped into my mind as I began reading the piece was female genital mutilation, and my own struggle around believing we shouldn’t step into other cultures and tell them what is what (through war or other means) and at the same time, believing no woman should ever have to face this barbaric, misogynistic act.

One of the stories Andy related was about a blind girl he met in Uganda while working at an eye camp. He notes:

Her corneas were totally opaque. At first she said didn’t know what had caused this, but on further examination and in conjunction with a local nurse, we found out that she had been to see a local shaman about a matter unrelated to her eyes, and he had given her a liquid to wash her face with, and specifically to put in her eyes. The main ingredient was horse urine, and this potion had proceeded to render this young girl blind.

He was obviously extremely angry about what he witnessed, and rightly so. But the nurse he was working with explained it was a “slow, frustrating and often dangerous” process of educating people away from their faith in witch doctors.

And what exactly might be offered in return? A system that also damages a lot of people with pharmaceutical drugs and unnecessary surgeries? Even with the positives of Western medicine, these traditional societies would never have continuous access be made available to them.

Not So Pretty

Reality is a lot less pretty and succinct – all cultures and places have their ups and downs, their “rights” and their “wrongs.” Trouble is, some of the things many on the outside see as wrong, such as wearing a burka or even seeing a shaman, are not only deeply embedded in cultures, but also have valid points that we would never truly be able to comprehend from our own cultural mindset.

There are certainly things indigenous cultures would be flabbergasted by if they came to the West.

Sometimes, what we see as gruesome may actually be distinctly connected to the Earth in a way that our Western hands-off approach to all things icky just can’t wrap our heads around. And as Andy noted in his piece, there are certainly things indigenous cultures would be flabbergasted by if they came to the West – people being forced to live on the streets as open, empty buildings sit nearby, or the forgotten elderly generation that is so prized in their own culture.

The real question is, how does removing both romantic ideals and disapproval get us closer to a just world for all?

What do you think about romanticizing or condemning other culture’s beliefs? Share your thoughts below.

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