March 2, 2010

Fallacies in Comparing Cultures

We have heard the new politically correct slogan- "There are no inferior cultures, we are just different."

There is also another slogan-" there are good and bad people/things everywhere". As you travel from country to country you become more and more convinced that the above two statements are simplistic at best.

Nations undoubtedly have different cultures but there are definite inferiorities and superiorities inherent in each of them. However, these do not exist in the entire culture, but in different aspects
of it as compared to the same aspects in another culture.

Here is a case in point: Country A has very friendly people, delicious foods and great music. Families are strong, there is very little divorce and children are well- behaved. The country has a great number of wonderful artists and beautiful architecture. However, the streets are dirty, the infrastructure is backward, and the police routinely take bribes, not to mention the fact that they do not do their work properly. Jobs do not pay any good money, and services are also bad.

Country B has cold and unfriendly people, bland food and non-impressive music. Local art is also of inferior quality and could not hold a candle to that of Country A. The divorce rate hovers around 50%. Young people appear tough and disrespectful. Houses look like shoe boxes. However, the streets are clean, the infrastructure is superb, bribery is almost non-existent, and the police is efficient. Salaries are high and services are excellent.

So when comparing cultures we cannot easily say- "Country A is inferior to Country B". However, we can confidently state that, apparently, several aspects of each country do not compare well, and are inferior or superior to each other.

And yes, there are good and bad people everywhere. However let's take a case in point- a Japanese and a South African are talking about each other's homelands. The Japanese says that South Africa is dangerous and there are many criminals there. The South African feels offended and replies:" There are criminals everywhere!" There are criminals in Japan, too".

A Thai is offended when someone mentions that there are many prostitutes in Bangkok. He shouts back "There are prostitutes everywhere!"

I can't count how many times I have heard similar arguments. What is wrong with them? Well, you see, it is true that every human society will have a certain number of good and bad aspects and various social goods and evils. No one denies that, say, both Bangkok and Jedda, Saudi Arabia, will suffer from the scourge of prostitution( in case of Jeddah it would be one or two secret whorehouses), and that both Tokyo and Johannesburg will have criminals. However, they will vary from country to country in their numbers, degree, frequency of occurrence, and intensity. Sure, there must be prostitutes in Saudi Arabia, but what would their numbers be? Ten, fifteen of them? I'd say rather small compared to Bangkok, where houses of ill repute are on the main street of town for everyone to see. Sure, there must be violent criminals in Tokyo, but what is the overall crime, murder or robbery rate per 100,000 of population per year?

So, if you say that South Africa has a much higher crime rate than Japan, or that Thailand has one of the highest rates of prostitution in the world, you will be making a much better statement. It is just that few people like to hear the truth about how screwed-up their countries are.

About the Linguo-Racial Complex again:

It happens when:

1)You have large ethno-cultural groups of people who are socially and politically "pitched" against each other. The example would be the US, especially in large areas where Hispanics feel that they are oppressed by the "Gringo" and they want to preserve the purity of "La Raza".

This would probably never happen in Buenos Aires- people there are all of different backgrounds: British, Polish, German, Russian, Hungarian, etc. All are Argentines and all speak Spanish. There is no "Raza" there, meaning the mythical Mestizo " Jose Rodriguez" who needs to "protect his culture and race" against a mythical blond John Smith- the case of the US. An Argentinian more often than not is a "Jose Smith" himself.

Some Asians ( except tourists and foreign students) after living in the US also develop the LRC. It is funny that after years of living in some Asian country you come to the US and want to speak Japanese or Tagalog to the people and they give you these squeamish looks. Really sad.

2) When you are abroad and places where there are large groups of tourists or military men whom the natives see every day and whose ways and behavior they think they already know and are trained to deal with- Mexican border towns, San Juan, Puerto Rico and the tourist areas in the Philippines, Thailand, and other such places. Cairo? Paris, maybe?

Places that are not like that at all:

1) Smaller towns- not necessarily very small but kind of like second biggest cities which do not get many tourists. One is far less likely to be treated with a Linguo-Racial Complex in Osaka than in Tokyo.

2) Places where all kinds of immigrants come to assimilate- Argentina, as I have mentioned, Brazil, I guess. And of course, the US, Canada ( with the English language) These people are used to seeing immigrants, not tourists. The attitude is- "this is Argentina, you are here now, you had better speak my language".

3) Remote areas where people can speak only one language and they will not answer to you in English simply because they don't know any English- rural Russia and other rural areas in E. Europe. Rural China, I guess? Small town Italy?

4) Places where the person you are speaking to is a foreigner as much as you are a foreigner. LRC does not happen much in Saudi Arabia or Dubai if you talk with Filipinos or any other such people there. I was very happy to be able to speak with Thais in Thai and Filipinos in Tagalog and even Puerto Ricans in Spanish when I was in Saudi. It was great.

It is the same if you travel in ,say, Costa Rica and you meet a German or a Japanese who is also traveling there. More often than not, they will not behave with LRC.

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