Friday, June 24

Going Native and how to insult a killer bee (Don't try this in your back yard)

Pundita received letters in response to yesterday's post from some readers whose questions boiled down to asking how to thread the proverbial camel: How to teach people who are in denial about the downsides of their culture without causing them loss of dignity? How far should modern Western peoples go to imposing their values on those who don't share the same values?

These are thoughtful questions, particularly in light of Operation Muslim World Outreach, which marks the US decision to make it policy to help Muslim moderates reform and modernize their religion. And also in light of the Bush Democracy Doctrine, which many see as an attempt to impose Western and in particular American values on other peoples.

However, and with recognition of the readers' sincerity, the questions reveal the downside of the Age of Specialization, which now afflicts even kindergarten schooling in the modern Western culture. Frankly, the anthropological approach to analyzing human behavior has ultimate validity only if some of us weren't from this planet and arose from entirely different types of protoplasm. In that event, one would need disciplines such as anthropology and sociology to help bridge the psycho-epistemological gap.

This is not to dismiss the usefulness of such disciplines, which help us build a historical record of our race. But the disciplines have been over-applied; one downside is that Diversity sensitivity has run amok in policy decisions. Too much attention to diversity sets up a very powerful psychological screen, which makes it hard for us to perceive similarities between ourselves and peoples of vastly different cultures.

Diversity awareness has also been over-applied to diplomatic relations and development and aid policy. Time and again I have seen this phenomenon in action. Time and again, it prevents people who need to communicate about problems from finding the obvious and simple solution.

I first addressed this situation directly in The Enclave Mentality and the Oriental Stranger Syndrome, although it's a leitmotif in my writings. The essay outlines the complex prejudices and byways of human nature that arise when peoples from a powerful culture interact with those in a dependent culture, and how the resulting behaviors greatly impact foreign relations, including development policy.

In this essay I'll discuss what might seem to be the obverse of the Enclave Mentality, which is Going Native -- the latter being the scourge of the Western colonizers. If the Enclave Mentality prevents a resident foreign class from identifying with local peoples, Going Native represents a resident foreigner's over-identification with the locals.

I add that this can extend to peoples in a dominant culture over-identifying with an immigrant population or any distinct minority. However, that behavior should have a different label because Going Native specifically relates to conduct by people in a more powerful foreign resident class interacting with a weaker local population.

This said, the seemingly opposite Enclave Mentality and Going Native syndromes produce the same results, which often amount to ineffective and frequently bizarre approaches to problem solving. So while it's necessary to be aware of both syndromes and how they play out in foreign relations policy, formalized attempts to avoid the extremes tend to create their own bizarre situations.

The way out of the maze was alluded to in a reply that the Armenian-Russian mystic George Gurdjieff made to a disciple, who asked how she could learn to be more loving and compassionate toward all people.

Gurdjieff replied that it was a very big thing to learn to be more loving to all people so she should start small -- by practicing to be more compassionate with animals. He advised her to get a dog; if she could manage to treat a dog kindly even when she was in a bad mood, she could learn to transfer that to her relations with humans.

That advice is the key to understanding many things. The more you learn about animal behavior -- and even the behavior of lower life forms -- the easier it is to see the many fine and subtle similarities between humans of vastly different cultures.

For example, if you take it down to the level of say, a cockroach, you'd be amazed to learn that they share psychological traits with humans. For example, it's well established that 'bad boy' males are very attractive to female humans. For some unknown reason, the bad boys bring out the mothering instinct in many women.

It's the same in the world of cockroaches. Scientists have learned from observation that there are 'bad boy' cockroaches -- they run around and bully other male cockroaches, display fickle behavior towards the females, but these are the males who are the most popular with female cockroaches. Go figure.

Pundita has a story to top that one, but I want the reader to promise not to attempt to replicate the results. On second thought, I want to consider before telling the story because as soon as you warn certain types not to do something, they go right out and do it.

Of course you don't want to get carried away with identifying with lower life forms, but a lot of the wisdom we have collected over the millennia about how to deal with each other is based on observing wildlife. Consider the warnings we give about 'human snakes,' human vultures, and so on. Now that there isn't much wildlife to observe in our daily lives, we're tending to lose that wisdom, or at least not pay much attention to it.

Yet the wisdom speaks to atavistic traits that are shared by all humans. All humans know how to use guile, all humans experience envy and pride, resent a know-it-all, display impatience, and so on. Humans share a vast array of subtle traits. The gestalt we call human nature.

The double-edged sword of modern Western culture is its great reliance on idealism, which is based on systems of morality and gives precedence to conscience. This idealism has a great civilizing effect but because it deals greatly with abstractions, here is where you run into the 'babble of tongues' and the confusion it engenders. This is where the need for painstaking study of other cultures comes in, and the need for great precision at translating concepts.

Whereas systems of conduct that give precedence to the foibles of human nature create less confusion. This is because they deal with more concrete concepts that are universally understood. Idealism and its high abstractions tend to ignore or run roughshod over the universally understood foibles when it comes to building bridges of communication.

I interject there have been attempts to meld both systems; George Gurdjieff's teachings being perhaps the most well known of these. But his teachings were designed to be a mystical path -- a means to expanding consciousness and strengthening the impulse of faith. He wasn't interested in applying his system to foreign relations.

To put all this into an example, an American Christian got into an altercation with a Palestinian Muslim guard at the site of a Christian landmark in Jerusalem. This was post 9/11, during a time of great tenseness in the city due to fighting and terror attacks. There were very few tourists and foreign pilgrims at that time.

In typical American 'buddy' fashion the American put his arm around an American female companion for a photograph in front of the landmark. The guard told him it was forbidden for males to touch females. The American got outraged. By the time they got finished going at each other they were reliving the Crusades. It ended with the American not getting his photograph.

When I heard the story I asked the guy, "Did it ever occur to you that the guard had his hand out?"

No. It had never entered his mind. He looked at the guard's remark from a purely idealistic viewpoint -- human rights, gender equality, etc.

But if you put that American guy in front of an American national monument with an American guard saying you can't take a photo, what's the first thought that comes to mind? The guard is invoking a technical rule because he wants a tip.

Now put yourself in the Muslim guard's place. Business had been really bad in Jerusalem for many months for guards, tour guides and trinket sellers. Here comes an American = $$ on the hoof. You see a chance for a little profit when you can use your authority to invoke a technical rule.

I don't have a crystal ball so I can't say what the guard's real intention was; however, my view of that situation is an example of thinking according to a system of conduct that is grounded in human nature. The American's approach is an example of an idealist-based system.

In truth it takes both, if you want to help people evolve their primitive practices and if you want to teach the highly abstract concept of democratic government. And if you want to project a foreign policy that is actually 'heard' in many parts of the world.

Stopping to look at things from both angles takes practice. But as with anything else, with practice a way of thinking becomes second nature. That's what you want to head for, if you want to thread the camel. And if you want to steer clear of the poles of behavior represented by the Enclave Mentality and Going Native.

Going Native is no joke because it has elements of the Stockholm Syndrome -- I repeat, elements. They probably have different psychological roots, but the end result is pretty much the same. You develop an identification with another that goes beyond normal sympathy and empathy. Then you start imitating the behavior of the other and/or find tolerance for behaviors that you'd otherwise reject. That's how it can end up that highly civilized moral people tolerate barbaric practices.

I don't know how the French and Spanish imperialists warded off the syndrome, beyond removing the worst offenders from their posts and sending them home to get their head straight again. But the British stationed in foreign lands developed very elaborate social rituals for warding off Going Native, including ostracizing British who didn't want to join in the ritual belittling of the Native population.

Of course much of the belittling was genuine but it was also a literal ritual -- a kind of test to make sure you still remembered who you were, your own culture, and that you continued to see its value.

Readers who never ran up against this syndrome can find roughly parallel situations in their daily lives. We've all met an athletic coach or boss, etc., who identifies too much with the group he or she is supposed to be helping or administering to.

That's how a lot of Western businesspeople, including journalists, come to be functionally blind to the extent to which they tolerate behaviors in foreign government officials, etc. -- behaviors they wouldn't tolerate in their own country.

That's also how they end up unable to muster a vigorous defense for their own culture, including democracy, respect for minority rights, gender equality, and so on. They begin to compartmentalize their beliefs. That is a slippery slope, which leads to the phenomenon the British dubbed Going Native.

Someone once observed, "The less conscience, the more laws required." In the same manner, the less attention we pay to human nature, the more we need to rely on highly specialized knowledge in our dealings with people from other lands. There is a time and place for such knowledge, but if it's used as a substitute for dealing with human nature, it is a roadblock to better foreign relations.

After mulling it over, Pundita thinks she will save the telling of the killer bee story for another time.

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