Living In Layers – Part VIII – VIII – Relating to the Other: Clashing Beliefs and Cultures

Our pursuit of power and control, our boundedness, and our layered selves and social structures all contribute to the way we relate to others. We allow contact with select individuals and keep others at a distance. Depending upon the permeability of our personal and socially layered boundaries, we permit or disallow entry. Such entry at a fundamental level can involve our willingness to understand and to see our connectedness to others and to our natural world. As we solidify our beliefs and our personal, religious, cultural or national identities, we build barriers to understanding. Our perspectives of “other” become centered upon our specific assumptions and points of view.

When visiting India for the first time, the over-riding experience was one of watching my own assumptions about life and living being crushed. I realized that I could no longer judge what I saw and experienced through the same lens. The scripts, the embedded patterns that guide how we act in certain contexts, no longer worked. Even the shaking of one’s head from left to right no longer carried the same meaning. In one situation, although I “knew” that shaking one’s head in a kind of wobbly right-left motion meant “yes,” I kept repeating a question to my colleagues. I asked, “Can I take all of you to dinner tonight?” as we drove around Bombay. After each repetition, they shook their heads, and I automatically restated the question thinking that they were saying “no.”

Of course, the whole situation of using toilet facilities in India and most of Southeast Asia presents a major obstacle to Americans who visit these areas. I was told to pack a lot of toilet paper. My hostel room had an American style toilet and toilet paper, which was more like thin cardboard in a two-inch roll. However, in any other location, the toilets are oblong holes in the floor. Some are quite fancy with nice ceramic tiles and shiny faucets (Singapore Airport must have the most glamorous and high-tech versions these facilities!). Next to the toilet was a hose or a bucket and a faucet, but no toilet paper. When finished, you used your left hand and water to cleanse, then take a couple of steps to a sink, where you wash thoroughly. I avoided the process as much as possible by carrying toilet paper with me, but, on a number of occasions, I was caught unprepared. Surprisingly, it worked quite well, once I got over my resistance. It helped to think of changing my kids’ diapers.

If one travels around Mumbai, there are areas of little one room shanties built of scrap materials with no electricity, no water, and no toilet facilities. They are laid out in grids as far as one can see. In one case, I was passing by such an area and saw a man wearing a tie walk out of the houses, cross the railroad tracks, and get onto a bus. I was told that he was probably going to work in an office downtown. How do we make sense of this situation? What frame of reference can we use to understand the life of people living in what we would think of as slums like no others we see in the United States? Are these people happy and satisfied with their lives? How can they live without a refrigerator, a telephone, a toilet, or any of the other basic appliances possessed by even the poorest of families (excluding the homeless) in the United States?

In response to difference, the tendency is to retreat into and reinforce one’s layers. In extreme circumstances, the retreat is accompanied by aggression and hatred of the “other.” After I became more comfortable and acclimatized to India, I enjoyed watching the American tourists wearing their Rolex watches and expensive jewelry walking around Mumbai. You could see them tightening up, solidifying their protective layers, and pulling back from contact. I am sure many of these people left India hating the experience, as did a Saudi businessman I met at the airport when departing. He ranted on about how he hated India and swore never to return.

The history of the United States since 1492 has been one of conflicting assumptions resulting in retreat or aggression. James Wilson’s book, The History of Native America, is a history of conflicting assumptions between Native American’s and European settlers. From a perspective of egocentric and ethnocentric arrogance, the Europeans acted towards and interpreted the actions of the Native Americans in ways that perpetuated a context of misunderstanding. Such misunderstandings led to the deaths and disenfranchisement of thousands of Native Americans. The disenfranchisement continues today. In order to remain in their communities on Reservations, most must continue to live in poverty. To get better paying jobs, they must leave the Reservations and put the continuity of their cultures at risk. And, most schools on the Reservations have to follow the state mandated curriculum, which makes no allowances for maintaining the language and culture, for content that conflicts with cultural beliefs, or for cultural learning styles that may differ from those of the general population.

The same disenfranchisement, which arises as a result of the arrogance and lack of understanding of those in the culture of power, is evident among many African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and so forth. Alcoholism, violence, crime, and loss of hope become epidemic among many who see no way to live the “American dream.” Those in the culture of power see these people as a drain on our economy and as the scourge of our society. We continue to limit access to welfare, reduce unemployment benefits, and divert funding from social programs. Such actions further marginalize these people. At the same time, we fail to see how our actions create other social problems. We have created a fundamental separating binary. On the one hand, we have the American dream as promoted in advertising and other media presentations, where the possession of material goods is the basis of one’s identity as successful. On the other hand, we have the marginalized and impoverished, who see no way to achieve such material goods without resorting to crime. We have created the ultimate “set-up” for failure among the poor in this country. This “set-up” also has the added effect of providing a context where people lose their minds. When people feel helpless and hopeless, they may retreat even further into hopelessness, depression, and anger. They may cling to social situations that seem to provide some sense of comradery, such as gangs and other organizations that do not fit into the mainstream. Or, they may engage in violent and criminal activities. In contrast, countries that provide for the basic needs of its citizens and lessen the focus on consumerism tend to have less violence and crime.

The passing of the No Child Left Behind Act seemed to be, on the surface, an attempt to upgrade education and address social and economic welfare. However, failure is built into the effort. Attempts to present a narrow view of curriculum will result in marginalizing those students who see no relevance. And, shortly after the NCLB Act was passed, for those that failed, school principals were required to send their names and addresses to the Department of Defense for recruitment purposes. The Act is a built-in conduit for schools-to-the-military and schools-to-prison.

In Canada, where a social safety net exists, although threatened and slowly disintegrating, people are guaranteed healthcare, food, and housing. And, Ontario is experimenting with “basic income” for all. Somewhat higher taxes pay for this and thus reduce people’s abilities to indulge in extreme consumerism. However, the result is a safer, cleaner, and gentler lifestyle. Crimes, especially violent ones, in the cities are much lower than in comparable cities in the United States. As opposed to the “melting pot” metaphor of America, Canadians view their society as a cultural mosaic. So, rather than trying to make everyone the same, Canadians attempt to embrace diversity. The social safety net and the cultural mosaic come together to provide an implicit working metaphor of actions that support the good of society. This working metaphor not only winds itself through the day-to-day actions of individuals, but is supported through the parliamentary system of government. If the citizens do not like the actions of its politicians, they can demand an election (which have to take place anytime between two and seven years after the previous election). If the politicians do not call an election, they are certain to lose when they do call for one. However, Canada is not perfect. Prejudice and cultural conflicts occur, but when push comes to shove, in my experiences, Canadians tend to react in ways that support the good of society. Reacting against hateful public speech takes precedence over freedom of speech. Someone in dire need gets assistance.

Talking Politics

The deeply seated prejudices within the culture of power range from the overt to the less evident. For many white people, we express our disdain of prejudice, but when we closely examine ourselves, we find prejudicial patterns of thought and action that may barely emerge at the conscious level. Growing up in a family with significant prejudice, I frequently felt uncomfortable and embarrassed, when may parents and relatives fell into hateful discussions. Although I glossed over my reactions, they seemed to create an underlying pattern that eventually rose to the surface in college, during which time I became active in the anti-Vietnam War and civil rights efforts. After having many of my home-grown assumptions challenged by others, I and many of my new and long-time friends began to change. However, even now, I will notice prejudicial gut reactions and stream-of-consciousness thoughts arise. When such reactions and thoughts arise, we all too often either suppress or go along with them. Neither reaction is particularly helpful. On the other hand, if we recognize their existence, let go of them, and then kind of “lean into” whatever situation stimulated such reactions, we can begin to reduce the controlling effects of prejudice.

Mary Catherine Bateson, in her book Peripheral Visions: Learning Along the Way, discusses how conflicting assumptions are characteristics of how we relate to Arabic cultures personally and politically.

One of the American assumptions is that conflict is resolved by direct negotiations and openness is preferable to secrecy. Older and wiser, the Iranian tradition is inclined to believe that face-to-face meetings are more likely to cause trouble than to resolve it and that positions repeatedly proclaimed in public leave little room for maneuver. Trying to discuss these alternatives may seem to fly in the face of common sense or decency, to be so perverse as to be intended to fail. (p. 156)

Although we share much in common as human beings, if we do not understand and address cultural differences and their underlying assumptions, we are likely to create more confusion and separation.

How do we react and relate to situations where conflicting assumptions arise? When confronted with uncomfortable situations where our basic assumptions and worldviews are challenged, we tend to avoid contact and retreat into the protective layers of our own familiar contexts or we become angry and actively take aggressive action. On the other hand, we could recognize the situation, take a deep breath (or several, depending on the degree of psychological assault!), notice all of the space and sensory input around us (as a way of climbing out of the claustrophobia), and try to relax with the particular emotional sensations without indulging in all of our thoughts and rationales. But, more importantly, we could try to have a sense of humor about the whole situation. Whether we are prepared for the assault of conflicting assumptions or not, having a sense of humor helps to create a connection between ourselves and others. A number of years ago, I dropped by a Navajo colleague’s office one Monday morning. He asked, “how was your weekend? What’d you do?” Knowing fully, the conflicting assumption, I replied, “We went on a bird watching trip to find owls.” Among the Navajo and many Native American Nations, owls are bearers of bad news, specifically death, and are to be avoided. He looked at me, laughed, and said, “crazy white people!” I agreed.

About Jeff Bloom

I'm a Researcher with and am on the Advisory Board of the International Bateson Institute and am a professor emeritus with the Department of Teaching & Learning, College of Education, Northern Arizona University.
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