Cultural superiority: good intentions often pave the way to hell
First of all, what do I mean with “cultural superiority”. It’s this idea that “my” culture is somehow better than someone else’s. It’s similar to the term ethnocentricity but differs from it in that you actually DO know about other cultures and still think your own is superior. Let me exemplify the difference: ethnocentricity is e.g. studying psychology at a western university and not seeing the name of a single researcher from China or Asia, not reading a single book about the history of psychology on different continents. Cultural superiority is when you think that the way your culture handles certain aspects of life, e.g. the number of vacation days, is better than that of another country. Both may have common roots in preconceptions, racism even.
As a writer, I often come across cultural superiority in the books that I read, and in my own writing, I have to be careful not to judge other cultures based on my own views, but to be balanced in my views. That isn’t always easy. Allow me to exemplify with a couple of examples with regards to my coming novel Returning to the Land of the Morning Calm which plays out in the United States and South Korea.
Eating cats and dogs
Last night I read an article that the United States Congress wants to officially make it illegal to eat cats and dogs. So far so good. I’m sure felines and canines across the U.S. will all sigh in relief. Congress is finally taking action on something. However, the legislation has a catch, not just because it’s not really needed. It’s not about making sure that poor Americans who’ve been denied food stamps won’t turn to their pets instead. No. It is a signal to South Korea and other countries, where the consumption of cats and dogs is still a thing. This becomes a thing for a few months before and after every major event in Korea, before the world moves on again. And with Korea currently being in every news cycle, it’s not likely to go away any time soon. But seriously, if you think about it, why is eating a dog different from eating a chicken? Or a calf? A lamb? Or a piglet?
Imagine the uproar in America if Muslim countries and Israel suddenly decided to chastise the U.S. for its consumption of bacon and ham? Or if India, where the cow is considered sacred, began to pressure the U.S. to outlaw hamburgers? Surely, 1.4 billion Indians outweigh the views of 400 million Americans?
Equality and marriage laws…
As a gay man, I’m all for equality, and I will voice my views wherever I can, including this globally (except Russia when Putin’s angry with me) available blog. And yes, I’d love for every human being to be able to get married in every country on Earth, not just nineteen or twenty. Wouldn’t it also be great if countries who do not allow single-sex marriages to accept such unions entered in other countries (as the EU demands of its member states), the way we accept unions from other countries which may greatly differ from what we allow here? But no such luck.
Most Western countries will accept marriages between children if the was legally married in their home country, and we’ll also not consider wives two to four “single” if they were legally wed in a Muslim country, as difficult as it may be to stomach for us. There have been calls to stop such unions, but I’m afraid it would only make it more difficult for us to work with those countries to accept our views of the world. Cultural superiority goes both ways.
Criminalizing behavior elsewhere
Last week, Swedish lawmakers decided not to pursue a proposed legislation that would’ve made buying sex illegal even abroad, at least for Swedes and residents here. Norway is currently the only country with such a law on the books. In Sweden, it’s been illegal to buy sex for many years, while it’s perfectly okay to sell it (in an effort not to stigmatize sex workers.) The reason for the abandonment was simple: fear of retribution.
Imagine if countries suddenly felt they could prosecute their citizens and residents for actions in other countries. It would be a serious breach of a state’s sovereignty. Please note that we are only talking about democracies here. Non-democratic regimes have no respect for the rule of law anyway… The country that has most such “elsewhere” laws on the book is the United States, with their taxation laws at the forefront. As a Swiss living in Sweden, I don’t pay Swiss taxes here. Americans in Sweden, however, get to pay twice, forcing many to give up their citizenship because they can’t afford it.
But it goes beyond financial means. What if Ireland (where e.g. abortion is still illegal) were to punish women for getting one in the U.K., or in Sweden? Or what if an LGBT person from Russia were to be thrown in jail for going to a gay club in New York while on vacation? Borderline case, since Russia isn’t a democracy, but still. You get my point.
The risks of cultural superiority
The biggest risk is of course that it can backfire, as the example with the meat shows. But more than that, it also shows a lack of in-depth knowledge, of why some cultures do things differently. Why is child labor still a “thing” in South Asia? Hardly because parents think it’s a “good” idea… Severe poverty along with different definitions of child- and adulthood are more likely the real reasons behind this phenomenon. And when you look at the bigger picture you’ll also be able to do something about it in a way that doesn’t make it worse or aggravates people. Child labor is a great example of how our western views make things worse for millions and millions of people. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think children should work either. They should go to school. But we’re doing it all wrong today, simply cutting off suppliers who use child labor.
In my coming novel, I ran the risk of being guilty of cultural superiority as well, and it was an effort to make sure to depict both American and Korean society on equal footing, despite my personal convictions. This also affected the story itself, the plot, and how the book ultimately ends. Not that I can go into any details here (spoiler alert!)
What are your experiences? A problem? How can we address it? Let’s hear it…
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Hans M Hirschi