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Globalizing Americana: Part 13 – Cultural Sensitivity

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In a previous discussion it was noted that one cannot be held accountable for infractions of cultural norms without knowledge of acceptable behavior. With knowledge, then, comes accountability and with accountability punishment for infractions of those norms is justified.

In attempting, however, to abide by and respect the diversity of cultural norms for each culture we encounter, one must assume a state or disposition of cultural sensitivity. In our day-to-day interactions with other people we often, without willful intent, offend the sensibilities of others. We say things in jest and assume without inquiry, which often leads to minor offenses, namely, people’s feelings getting hurt.

To offend someone’s sensitivity is actual a good marker for gauging acceptable measures of wit and sarcasm. Granted it is not being suggested that these offenses be practiced with any regularity, but in our everyday interactions with other people, even people within the same culture or society, we are bound to offend someone’s sensibilities.

For example, in many Black communities is it an acceptable practice for a relative, other than the parent, to verbally reprimand a misbehaving child. I remember on countless occasions being scolded by my aunts and uncles for my mischievousness. Though this practice may be acceptable within many Black communities, one cannot then assume that it is commonplace within all Black communities or within other non-Black social or cultural settings.

To be in tuned with the cultural sensitivities of others, one must continually engage members of that culture. One must continually interact with and assess how the practices and acceptable actions of members within a culture reflect the overall sensitivity of the culture. The process of continually gauging and refining these indicators or thresholds of acceptable and unacceptable modes of being within a culture offers an intuitive understanding of the boundary conditions and cultural taboos for those investigating other cultures.

Simply stated, if I am serious about learning of other cultures, I will have to allow myself to become accustomed to some level of discomfort, which results from competing norms, namely, the norms of my culture and the norms of the culture I’m investigating. The more I search, however, the more likely it will be that I will ultimately reach a threshold with which I cannot or will not engage the practice of the other culture because in so doing I fundamentally violate my own cultural, social, or religious norms.

For example, the false argument of comparing women's liberation in the West is often contrasted against women’s subjugation in Arabic cultures, especially in reference to wearing a burkah or hijab. Typically this fallacious argument is constructed in the following manner:

Within the West, women have fought for equal recognition under the law, which fundamentally entitles a woman to express and affirm both the right to her body, and all the assumptions entailed therein, and the freedom to express her body, without harming or infringing on the rights of others, as she sees fit. In so doing a Western woman may choose of her own volition to wear short shorts. In Arabic cultures, however, women do not enjoy similar rights and are forced to cover their bodies, which thereby oppresses their freedoms and equalities.

Though this argument is seemingly well constructed and may be used to persuade millions of people that Arabic culture oppresses women, the argument is fundamentally flawed in several respects.

First, the argument is a false dichotomy, that is, it assumes that there are only two alternatives. This is an assumed premise though it is never stated, the assumption being a woman is free or she is oppressed, the assessment of which is based on the practices of her culture. This form of argumentation presents all the justifications for why freedom is important and then associates Western conceptions of freedom as the only acceptable notion of cultural freedom. The distinction is easily drawn against those of Arabic culture because we are still assuming that we are comparing freedom against non-freedom, Western culture against Arabic culture.

Second, the fallacious argument doesn’t account for a third possibility, which is precisely why it is a false dichotomy, wherein one could claim that both Western women wearing short shorts and Arabic women wearing a burkah or hijab are both free and are both enjoying equal amounts or conceptions of freedom.

In Arabic cultures the concept of preserving one’s modesty is an important religious and cultural practice. Muslim women are free in their decision to preserve their modesty just as Western women are free to wear short shorts. The two are not incompatible. The two, however, are incompatible or at least compatible with great difficulty within the same culture. Within the same culture it is difficult to both accept the hijab and accept short shorts. As America is a mix of cultures, not a melting pot, this is a difficulty that every American faces. One cannot look at Muslim women as oppressed as their expression of freedom is also manifest in the hijab and burkah.

Finally, the myth and craftiness of the fallacious argument is that it appeals to the worst in us all, while seeming to do otherwise. If read at face value it seems to be a factual account of freedom, on the one hand, contrasted against oppression, on the other. In actuality the argument is not only biasing a Western conception of freedom, it is demonizing, at worst, and belittling, at best, a Muslim woman’s ability to both remain free and preserve her modesty. What the argument implies is that Muslim women should remove their burkahs and hijabs, and only then can they be free, which is completely erroneous.

The truth is freedom manifests in various forms, which is by its definition its modus operandi. Freedom cannot be assumed nor can it be taken. It cannot waver and it is not unjust. For these reasons, we all ought to practice a bit of cultural sensitivity.

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About Jason J. Campbell