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Where to Draw the Line When Defending Cultural Norms

by Emily Hansen Apr 1, 2009
When we respect the sovereignty of other cultures, is there a danger of compromising our own values?

I came across a wonderful article in the May/June 2008 issue of Psychology Today about the authentic self.

It discussed the North American obsession with self awareness, and whether or not there is a “true” self that determines enjoyment in life. “A hunger for authenticity guides us in every age and aspect of life,” says the author Karen Wright. “It drives our explorations of work, relationships, play, and prayer.”

I began to think about authenticity in terms of travelling, and how we can be more genuine and respectful on our journeys.

Most travelers want to “realize” something about the places they visit; they also hope to discover more about themselves. However, when we blindly dispense our “true beliefs” for the sake of adaptation, does this “respectfulness” compromise our personal integrity?

The saying goes, “When in Rome do as the Romans do.” Many of us agree with this statement.

Part of travelling is reaching into ourselves and changing our long-held ideas. In choosing a different place, we are required to leave ourselves open to experimentation with new social rules.

Gender Discrimination

While I believe we should respect the local etiquette when abroad, there are times when this issue becomes more complex than just “adapting” our minds and behavior.

In abiding by the new program, many travelers often feel confused and distressed. They wonder if they are doing the “right thing” by adhering to certain practices which may go against their core values.

Has accepting “social norms” compromised my belief in women’s equality, a goal that people around the world are fighting for?

For example, in cultures where I have been encouraged to cover up every hint of flesh or risk being seen by some as “culturally insensitive,” or worse, harassed or raped, I have often wondered: has accepting “social norms” compromised my belief in women’s equality, a goal that people around the world are fighting for?

The reaction I often hear from others is, “Well, it’s part of their culture to do (this, that, or the other oppressive thing).”

In analyzing this reaction, I have felt that some rules are less reflective of any “authentic” culture than they are of patriarchal dominance. This is not something that I feel comfortable indulging in psychologically, for the sake of not offending people in power.

In India, a site called Blank Noise dedicates itself to the topic of sexual harassment.

The owners believe that gender discrimination is wrong, regardless of what a woman might (or might not) be wearing. This may come to a surprise to many North Americans, who view India as being “more oppressive” than Western cultures, as if it is written in the Indian Constitution that women must be held down.

What Are We Defending

This begs the question: When we defend a practice as “culture”, do we even know what we are talking about, or is this a concept that our minds have invented?

When we respect a country’s values as being “authentic”, without any analysis as to who or what is defining them, we must ask ourselves who we are defending.

North America is particularly “inauthentic.” Politicians and even many citizens call it “free” when in fact it is like any other region, never completely emancipated; historically, we also have committed many wrongs in the area of human rights, and continue to do so.

Though I am philosophically part of Canada, I am also part of its diversity. If a traveler to my country pointed out that Native people were being treated badly, for example, I would agree with them.

I would never expect them to “respectfully” agree with the dominant Canadian perspective that oppression is over, for our culture is as well-acquainted with inequity as it is with revolution.

Pick Your Battles

I have met some travelers that have tried to adjust, in every way imaginable, to a new country.

They say they agree with every new rule, but don’t realize that in doing so, they are reproducing inequity. They are culture shocked, afraid of “disrespecting” people, or just unaware. They haven’t taken the time to ask themselves the question, “According to what I know, is this new concept in the spirit of justice?”

I am not suggesting that we go out and fight other countries’ battles for them. We are not “the liberated West”, destined to save anyone, as our own people rot in various levels of despair.

However, we should stand by the positive changes that justice-oriented people abroad are trying to make by not passively accepting other’s inequities under the mask of “respect” or “culture”.

The human psyche is fluid and liable to transformation. With traveling comes a huge responsibility to decide what changes for ourselves might mean to others as well; we need not buy plane tickets for the purpose of buttering national egos.

In search of knowledge, the “authentic” and respectful traveler looks from within, before deciding which way to go.

What are your thoughts about defending cultural norms abroad? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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