Monthly Archives: August 2013

Where It Started, Part Three

Catch up with Parts One and Two. I talked about how very weird Americans are, when compared with the rest of the world. And I asked some scary questions about “What It All Means.”

Don’t all humans value the same, basic things? How can I trust my brain, if it’s affected by my culture so much? Do people in the rest of the world worry about these things, or is THAT part of my culture, too?!

What’s true? What’s “right?” What’s good?

These types of questions are being thrown in my face constantly, now that I’ve asked God to reveal my biases.  Considering how much I love to dissect issues, it’s amazing that I’ve relied on things “everyone knows” so many times in the past.  Turns out, as the article “We Are Not the World” makes quite clear, “common sense” doesn’t make it very far outside our own communities.

Others have very different, unspoken values.

Thus, as God has worked to strip away even my most basic prejudices, I’m looking at everything in a radical new way. From government and politics, to family structure, to church practices and the Bible. I’ve forced myself to re-examine issues I thought were settled long ago.

And, along the way, I’ve had the chance to confront many Scriptures which used to embarrass me.

What’s with all the polygamy in Scripture? Isn’t it a sin to have multiple wives? How could God order Israel to wipe out entire nations, even women and children? Did God forget to command all the early Christians to free their slaves, or does He not realize that all men are created equal? (Our Constitution says so! Duh!) And, by the way…um…”women should be silent in church?”

Yikes.

Yet, what if the problems we have with Scripture and the places it embarrasses us the most have more to do with our cultural values than with Absolute Right and Wrong?  What do we make of other cultures still existing, which allow for the practice of polygamy, slave ownership…unequal treatment of women?

We say these countries are “still developing.”  They haven’t reached our level of progress just yet.  But, my goodness, how arrogant that is! We consider our own practices “advanced,” while assuming all others need to learn from us?  C.S. Lewis calls this “chronological snobbery.” This is an excellent, short explanation of that silliness: “The Spirit of Our Age.”

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Anyway…NOW you’re basically caught-up on the background for this blog.

Each of my future posts will relate back to the root questions: How much of what we value in the west truly is “better” than what others value? And how much is pure, WEIRD, American bias?

I’m pretty excited about this new concept, and I hope my old readers will be, too.  And, of course, I hope to pick up some new followers along the way…

Together, let’s peel back the layers of these Cultures at War.

Where It Started, Part Two

First, get caught up with Part 1—where I explained how a newbie sociologist and an optical illusion show that Americans are NOT NORMAL!

I asked, “Do we REALLY understand just how different we are?”

Quoting the article, We Are Not The World, once again:

“A MODERN LIBERAL ARTS education gives lots of lip service to the idea of cultural diversity. It’s generally agreed that all of us see the world in culturally-constructed ways, that pluralism is good, and that ethnocentrism is bad. But, beyond that, the ideas get muddy. … To avoid stereotyping, it is rarely stated bluntly just exactly what those culturally derived qualities might be. [If you] challenge liberal arts graduates on their appreciation of cultural diversity, you’ll often find them [stating] that, under the skin, everyone is really alike.”

So, which is it?  Do humans basically value the same things?  Or are we even more complicated and diverse than the most open-minded, multicultural college kid really understands?

And—most importantly to the future of this blog—just how do our Western assumptions affect how we handle the quest for absolute, overarching Truth?

A bit further in the article, the author finally arrives at the researchers’ conclusions. Americans are exceptionally “weird” in just about every category.

“[the sociologists] titled their paper ‘The Weirdest People in the World?’ …It is not just our Western habits and cultural preferences that are different from the rest of the world, it appears. The very way we think about ourselves and others—and even the way we perceive reality—makes us distinct from other humans on the planet, not to mention from the vast majority of our ancestors…”

The author goes on to pose several questions about what all of this means.

“The idea that I can only perceive reality through a distorted cultural lens was unnerving. For me the notion raised all sorts of metaphysical questions: Is my thinking so strange that I have little hope of understanding people from other cultures? Can I mold my own psyche or the psyches of my children to be less WEIRD and more able to think like the rest of the world? If I did, would I be happier?”

These are valid questions, and they certainly gnaw at the mind when we finally get hit with the reality of how our culture has affected our subconscious. (It’s very strange when it actually clicks, as opposed to simply parroting “everybody is different” in some college paper about diversity.)

Heck, even our understanding of diversity (as healthy and desirable) comes from Western assumptions about truth.  If you asked the Machiguenga people what they know about America, do you think they’ll tell you much? I doubt it.

But do you think they’d feel bad about that?

Probably not.  So, why do we feel guilty or embarrassed when we can’t locate Venezuela on a map? Should we march to Peru and explain that those people need to get busy studying American history—to reach out and connect with the rest of the world? Should we tell them that being primarily absorbed with their own farming community is ethnocentric and bad? Or should we start by asking ourselves whether “global awareness” really is the great issue of importance we make it here?

I have more to say in Part Three!

(END OF PART TWO)

Where It Started, Part One

A few months back, I started asking God to reveal anything I might be missing…

I was just wrapping up my first blog (Turning Selfish into Service), which focused on discussions about Truth. But I was aware there could be cracks in my foundation. Things I thought were settled that needed to be re-examined.

I prayed, “Lord, what things do I take for granted as being true—which aren’t necessarily so?”

Oh, boy, reader.  The answers weren’t anything like I expected.

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I love the title of this article:  We Are Not the World

It’s lengthy. But this entire blog will focus on the concepts covered (and questions raised) within it.  So, let me recreate the message the best I can, for my readers who probably won’t click the link…

For years, anthropologists have been using different research “games” to learn about human behavior, such as how people define fairness and equality. (The specifics of a few experiments are described in the original article.)  Unfortunately, most of these tests had been conducted almost-exclusively upon Americans and other Westerners. That is, until Joe Henrich decided to teach a “game”to the Machiguenga people of Peru.  It turns out, they give gifts and divide resources very differently from their Western counterparts…

And, when Henrich took his experiments to other remote parts of the world, he shook the very core of sociology by discovering that even basic principles of right, wrong, and fair are not understood the same way by all humans:

“At the heart of most research [before Henrich’s] was the implicit assumption that the results revealed evolved psychological traits common to all humans, never mind that the test subjects were nearly always from the industrialized West. Henrich realized that if the Machiguenga results stood up, and if similar differences could be measured across other populations, this assumption of universality would have to be challenged. Henrich had thought he would be adding a small branch to an established tree of knowledge. It turned out he was sawing at the very trunk. He began to wonder: What other certainties about ‘human nature’ in social science research would need to be reconsidered when tested across diverse populations?”

So, we all perceive things differently.  So what?  It doesn’t seem that ground-breaking, does it?  I mean, we all KNOW that.  At least we say we do.  But, just how far do these differences go?

Let me give a couple A-M-AZING examples (from the article), starting with the Muller-Lyer optical illusion.  You’ve seen it, but click on the link.

It turns out that foragers in the Kalahari Desert often aren’t fooled by this at all. Yes, they can tell the middle lines are equal, even though they look completely different to Westerners.

In fact, Americans have the most radical reaction to the experiment of any people group in the world—believing the lines are very different lengths—when many others see them as being just slightly unequal.

If this doesn’t give you a jolt, let me break that down in different words: if you grew up in the United States, you VERY LITERALLY see things differently from others.

In fact, for almost every area studied by Henrich (“in spatial reasoning, how we read the motivations of others, categorization, moral reasoning, the boundaries between the self and others”) people behaved differently depending on their community upbringing.

Do we really understand this concept as much as we claim?

(END of PART ONE. TO BE CONTINUED in Part TWO)