It’s not all relative

Back in the summer of 2001, I spent a month studying African drumming and culture in Ghana. My mother met me in London afterward, and when she asked me about Ghana, I found that I didn’t have the language to talk about it. This scared her. She worried that something awful had happened to me, or perhaps she worried that I might have converted to the indigenous religion.

My time in Ghana was wonderful and transformational, and I still look back on it as a pivotal moment in the formation of my adult value system. I needed time to process what I had experienced, and in a way, that process continues to this day.

The lack of words had to do with my own concerns that I would somehow exoticize the culture, and I didn’t want to say anything that would make my new friends sound strange. Since then, I’ve developed a set of tools for talking about other cultures, and I strive to do so in a way that is respectful and honors the amazing breadth and depth of humanity.

This doesn’t mean that I agree with everything I encounter. For that matter, I don’t even always agree with myself…ideas, belief systems, and ways-of-knowing in this world can be complex and seemingly contradictory at times. It’s in the recognition of fluid “in between” spaces that we can begin to connect with one another on a deeper level.

As I move forward with my posts about Cuba, I’d like to request that readers keep this framework in mind. This is something of a generalization, but I find that we in US-American society tend to look at other cultures through a lens of superiority, or alternatively that we might over-romanticize the “Other” outside of our own heritage and traditions.

The more I travel, the more I realize that everyone I encounter has something of value to ¬†offer in terms of how I view myself and larger communities. Rather than reduce other cultures to some sort of comparative “We’re better” or “they’re better,” perhaps we can begin to delve into the situations and conditions that give rise to both differences and shared humanity.

There will be times that I might say, “Hey, this is cool! I wish we could do things that way,” and then there are other instances where I might provide an analytical critique of what may or may not be working. In the midst of that, it’s important to understand that different cultures are not always relative. Some things don’t translate. And some comparative interpretations are subjective, depending on one’s perspective.

The challenge is to try not to fall back on the crutches of superiority and exceptionalism (or the inverse inferiority and relativism). I might push you a bit to consider new ideas, but it’s not intended to put anyone in a defensive mode. Let’s stretch together!