Other-Wise: The Case for Understanding Foreign Cultures in a Unipolar World

 

Leon E. Clark

About twenty-five years ago, I hit upon an exercise I have used around the world ever since, but mostly with high school and college students in the United States. I have come to call this exercise “The Forced Migration Game,” and this is how it works.

 

Imagine that your government has decided that a certain percentage of your nation’s population will have to move to another country permanently. (You might wonder why a government would want to do this. We don’t have time to go into all the reasons right now, but take it from me, your government is a benevolent government, and it would not ask people to leave if it weren’t absolutely necessary.)

Now, since your government is benevolent, it would like to make this forced migration as painless as possible, so it has distributed a form asking you to list the three countries where you would MOST like to live. Do that now. And remember, you will live in one of these countries for the rest of your life.

Do you have your top three choices? Good. Now your government wants to make sure you’ve selected these countries for valid reasons, so it has asked you to write, next to each of your three choices, a word or two explaining why you have chosen these countries. Please do that now.

 

The first half of the written exercise, focusing on positive choices, is now completed. (See an example of the form used with the exercise on p. 450.) The second half of the exercise runs as follows:

 

Your forms have been sent to your government’s Out-Migration Center and, much to everyone’s surprise, there is a problem. It seems this process is much more complicated than anyone expected and it will not be possible to send everyone to his or her country of choice. But your government, being benevolent, certainly does not want to send you to a country you would not like to live in, so it has asked you to list the three countries where you would LEAST like to live for the rest of your life. Do that now, and next to each choice give two or three reasons for making the choice.

 

At this point, I ask students to volunteer their responses. Any country that gets a minimum of five to eight votes, depending on the size of the group, gets listed on the board with its vote total. The recorded lists, positive and negative, along with the major reasons for the choices, serve as an overview of the group’s responses and the basis for discussion.

 

Countries Most Like Their Own

As might be expected, American students most often choose Western industrialized nations for their positive choices—countries most like their own. Over the years, the consistently most popular choices have been Britain and Australia, followed closely by Canada, Switzerland, Italy, and Sweden. One might expect Canada to be the runaway first choice of American students, given its similarity and proximity to the United States, but American students often say they think of Canada more as an extension of the U. S. than as a foreign country. The late Canadian writer Robertson Davies made a similar point when he said, “Canada is the attic of North America.”

The most common reasons students give for their positive choices relate to culture, language, economics, and geography: “lifestyle, language, strong economy” (Australia); “English, English, English” (Britain); “people are culturally similar to me, good economy, beautiful landscape” (Switzerland); “language, climate, beaches” (Australia); “I identify with the culture, the values, and I have family and friends there and speak the language” (Denmark); “familiar culture, proximity to family and friends in the U.S.” (Canada); “studied there and feel comfortable with the culture” (Spain); “I have friends there and know the language” (Germany); “It’s beautiful, I love Renaissance art, I speak some Italian, the Alps” (Italy); “friendly people, cool summers, open-minded society, English spoken everywhere” (Sweden); “quiet, peaceful country, high standard of living, similar culture and language” (New Zealand).

By contrast, students make their negative choices on the basis of political freedom, social order and—a distant third—poverty. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union (“communism, no freedom”) was the first negative choice of more than 80 percent of American respondents. When the Cold War ended, the USSR disappeared almost completely from students’ lists. During the 1970s, South Africa (“apartheid, racism”) was seldom mentioned, and then mostly by African Americans. By the 1980s, with the rise of the anti-apartheid movement in the U. S., a majority of students, both black and white, listed South Africa as a negative choice. When apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela became president, South Africa dropped off the negative lists entirely; it now appears occasionally as a positive choice.

Essentially, students’ negative choices appear and disappear with the perceived bad news of the day: Idi Amin in Uganda; the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran; Saddam Hussein in Iraq; flogging in Singapore; genocide in Rwanda; and war in Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Liberia, Congo, and Sierra Leone. Some negative choices are more enduring: China for its lack of freedom and the “foreignness” of its culture; India and Bangladesh for their poverty; and Saudi Arabia for its restrictions on women. Afghanistan, which almost never appeared before 1995, now appears with regularity because of its treatment of women.

(In the real world, most Americans, if given the chance, would not want to move to another country. In fact, a Gallup poll conducted in 16 countries in 1995 found that only 11 percent of Americans wanted to move; only Spain, at 10 percent, was lower. Perhaps not surprisingly, the top three countries of choice for the Americans were Australia, Britain and Canada, reflecting the same top choices among high school and college students over the past 25 years. [See the box including the Gallup poll results]).The Wish to Move

 

A substantial number of people would move permanently to another country if they could, according to an opinion poll in 16 countries conducted by Gallup in 1995. People in Venezuela appeared to be the most restless, with 45 percent wanting to leave, half of them for the United States. People in Spain and the United States were the least likely to seek relocation.

Country Percent who want to move Country of Choice*

 

Venezuela 45% U.S. (49%), Spain (7%)

Britain 38 Australia (24%), U.S. (16%)

Dominican Rep. 36 U.S. (69%), Puerto Rico (8%)

Chile 35 U.S. (23%), Spain (11%)

Mexico 31 U.S. (45%), Canada (16%)

Germany 30 Spain (17%), Canada/Australia (13%)

Taiwan 22 Australia (18%), Canada/China/Japan (14%)

France 21 U.S./Canada (14%)

Hungary 20 Germany (20%), U.S. (15%)

Japan 20 U.S./Australia (25%)

Canada 19 U.S. (37%), Netherlands/Australia (11%)

India 18 U.S. (39%), Britain (11%)

Thailand 15 Britain (40%), U.S. (27%)

Iceland 14 Denmark (29%), U.S. (21%)

United States 11 Australia (11%), Britain/Canada (9%)

Spain 10 U.S./France/Switzerland/Germany (10%)

 

*Percentages in parentheses represent the proportion of respondents who wanted to relocate to that country.

 

How the survey was conducted:

Gallup asked the question in April 1995; in France, the poll was conducted on May 18-20, 1995, just after the French elections. The sample size in each country was about 1,000 people, with the exception of Venezuela, where 501 people participated. The results should not be treated as representative of the entire world population.

 

“There Are No Immaculate Perceptions”

I use “The Forced Migration Game” to launch workshops or courses dealing with the study of other cultures. The purpose of the game, for me, is to help students or participants clarify some of their images of the world, so they know what mental cultural baggage they carry with them when they “trave#148; abroad. The purpose is emphatically not to make people feel guilty for the way they see the world–it is perfectly natural, after all, to want to live in a country similar to one’s own—but I do want them to realize they are not neutral in the way they approach “the Other.” As the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, once put it, “There are no immaculate perceptions.”

In discussing the results of the game, I ask students what this exercise has taught them, if anything. They usually point out that it shows, inter alia, their tastes, interests, needs, backgrounds, and values. There is obviously no gainsaying these personal, subjective traits and therefore no reason for anyone to feel guilty. (It also shows their life experience and their knowledge. Those who have traveled abroad have a richer store of experience to tap. And older students–college students versus high school students, for example–know more about the world and therefore can apply more reasons to more countries in making their choices.)

It is interesting to note what does not dictate American students’ choices. Religion, for example, seldom arises, except for the occasional Jewish student who lists Israel and specifically mentions religion as opposed to ethnicity or identity, the more common explanations. In 25 years of using this exercise with more than 4,000 Americans, I have never found a person selecting Italy because of Catholicism, England for Anglicanism, or India because of Hinduism or Buddhism.

To bring up the issue of religion, I tell students what happened when I used this exercise in Pakistan with a group of 14 women in their 30s and 40s. Each woman chose the same country for her first positive choice. American students almost never guess the right answer, until I give “religion” as a hint. Then they begin to zero in on Saudi Arabia, the home of two of Islam’s three holiest places, Mecca and Medina (Muhammad’s birthplace); Jerusalem is the third. The Pakistani women chose Saudi Arabia because it is the center of Islam.

It so happened that one American woman was observing this workshop and she said to the Pakistani women, “I can understand why you would choose Saudi Arabia, but as a woman I would have problems living there; I couldn’t drive or go to a restaurant on my own or dress the way I wanted to.” The Pakistani women, all quite Westernized, listened politely and then one woman spoke up and said, “Okay, I’ll make Saudi Arabia my second choice.” Everyone laughed. Clearly, we all hold multiple values and some are occasionally in conflict–in this case religion and social freedom-so we sometimes have to make compromises. It’s a good lesson for any course dealing with culture and society.

 

Implications for Studying “the Other”

The ultimate pedagogical reason for using “The Forced Migration Game” is to raise the question: How do our natural inclinations—our values, tastes, biases—affect the way we study other cultures? In other words, how open are we to countries absent from our positive lists or even on our negative lists? To provoke discussion, I sometimes share this comment that Eric Sevareid, the late journalist, made on CBS news in 1975: “The truth is that there is very little in most of the African and Asian nations worth anything in 20th century terms that was not put there by Westerners. The truth is that in spite of their talk about returning to their own cultural roots—remember Africanization—what they want to be is what the West already is.”

Students are always shocked by Sevareid’s statement; they see it as arrogant and ethnocentric in the extreme, as indeed it is. But aren’t we all ethnocentric? Don’t we all judge others by our own standards, albeit somewhat less harshly than Sevareid?

Students almost always raise the question, “What does Sevareid mean by “20th century terms?” and, of course, this is the key question. I suspect he means the advances in science and technology that marked the 20th century: the radio, moving pictures, television, the computer; jet aircraft and space exploration; or open heart surgery, organ transplantation, the discovery of DNA, the mapping of the human genome, and the advent of genetic medicine—in short, the electronic and bio-chemical revolutions, the two truly life-transforming movements of the 20th century.

It is true, of course, that Third World countries did not lead the way in these revolutions, but much of value in contemporary terms exists in these countries. Whole areas of human endeavor lie outside science and technology: religion, ethics, social organization, human relations, art, literature, and music. These fill and shape our daily lives. Surely, two-thirds of humankind has something to say about “truth, beauty and goodness.”

It is becoming increasingly difficult, however, to persuade Americans (and Westerners in general) that they have much to learn from the Third World. In the current sweep of globalization, the trend is almost exclusively in the other direction, with the South learning from the North. It is commonplace to say the world is becoming McDonaldized and to cite a litany of products from computers to blue jeans that are finding their way into even the most remote villages of the world. Indeed, it is not only material goods that are being exported in this global market. It is also the so-called “soft” products of the “Information Age”—knowledge, entertainment, fashions, lifestyle alternatives—that are reaching, some say “assaulting,” local communities, usually through the vehicle of the English language. It has been estimated that 5,000 of the 7,000 most prominent languages on earth are endangered.

In this environment it might appear that cultures outside the Western tradition are becoming less important to us, but one could also make the case that they are becoming more important, because they are more accessible, more a part of our daily lives. Communication, after all, moves in all directions in the digitized globe. American students, when compared to their parents, are far more likely to work with colleagues from other cultures, to marry someone from another culture, to travel around the globe to other cultures, and in general to have more options in shaping their lives because of exposure to other cultures.

Given this reality, it would seem reasonable to expect American education to prepare students for cross-cultural encounters by equipping them with the sensitivity to respect cultural differences and the analytical skills to understand cultural dynamics. In this age of globalization, at a time of redoubled emphasis on educational standards and accountability, would it be too much to expect students to pass a test of cultural literacy? And in a world where the majority of humans are bilingual, is it really beyond our ability to expect college graduates to pass a foreign language test?

 

Some Categorical Imperatives

At a minimum, the citizens of the world’s only superpower deserve a global education that serves their self-interests and, in the process, the interests of those affected by their power. With apologies to Immanuel Kant, the rudiments of such an education might be put in the form of three categorical imperatives: one intellectual, one moral, and one both personal and political.

 

1. Study other cultures for the sake of self-knowledge. While studying other cultures for their own sake can be invaluable, even edifying, the ultimate benefit can be the discovery of the self. Ask returning Peace Corps volunteers what they learned most from their experience and almost invariably they will say something like, “I discovered who I am. I learned more about myself than Africa.” Confronting foreign cultures creates a shock of difference that puts our own culture in sharp relief. It shows us who we are by showing us who we are not, triggering an internal dialogue, a reexamination of assumptions, that seldom develops within the context of our own culture.

As the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran puts it: “They say to me, ‘Should you know yourself, you would know all men.’ And I say, ‘Only when I seek to know all men shall I know myself.’” Ironically, the goal of a liberal education in the Western tradition, stated succinctly by the Socratic dictum, “Know thyself,” may be served best by studying cultures outside the Western tradition. T. S. Eliot described this process well in the “Four Quartets”:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

 

2. Study other cultures for the sake of moral redemption. Christian missionaries might interpret this imperative to be marching orders to bring the word of God to the heathens of the world. That is obviously not my meaning. Modern-day secular missionaries might see this imperative as a justification for bringing economic development to the Third World. That is also not my meaning—not quite. What I have in mind is conveyed well by a story told by Elie Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. The story goes something like this.

It seems there was a man who went to the temple every day and shouted to God at the top of his lungs, “God, this world is filled with evildoers: liers, slanderers, rapists, murderers. There is injustice everywhere.” The man would rant and rave this way all day long. After weeks, months, even years of coming to the temple every day and cursing the evils of this world, the man was finally confronted by the rabbi.

“My good sir,” the rabbi said, “you have been coming to the temple every day for years, ranting and raving about the evils of this life. Tell me, has the world improved during this time?”

“No, rabbi, it has not improved.”

“Then why do you keep ranting and raving?”

“Rabbi, you don’t understand. I don’t rant and rave to save the world. I rant and rave to make sure I don’t fall into the ways of the world.”

Ironically, it is precisely our study of the ways of the world–including the world’s economic inequities and social injustices–that can have a liberating effect on our own lives, freeing us, for example, from the infantilizing grip of Western commercialism and leading us to the cause of human rights (equally a part of Western culture and of increasing importance to the rest of the world). But like the man at the temple, our concern with global justice will benefit us more than the world. In one lifetime, we will never perfect human nature, but we might manage to keep our ideals intact. We may or may not be “our brother’s keeper,” but it will certainly be our brother who redeems us.

3. Study other cultures to avoid hubris. The character flaw that doomed most tragic heroes in Greek drama was that of hubris, the sin of excessive pride or over-confidence. As the largest economy and only superpower in the world, the United States in its foreign policies, and American citizens in their personal attitudes, are vulnerable to the temptations of hubris. Sitting on top of the hill has the effect of raising ethnocentrism to new heights. Chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A” or “We’re number one” at international sporting events, or the taunting, arrogant behavior of some American Olympians in Sydney, suggest to much of the world that Americans have already fallen prey to hubris. The study of other cultures can serve as an antidote to this drug.

On a personal level, when we study other cultures, we encounter lives lived according to different norms, different goals, different expectations–lives, in effect, with different meanings, or meanings constructed of different elements. No two cultures have the identical periodic table of social elements. Encountering “the Other” forces us to recognize the contingency of our own way of life, and to see that it is only one way among many. Such recognition can serve as a warning against hubris.

Ideally, cultural studies can be a humbling experience, in a positive sense, leading us to appreciate the accomplishments of others and thus become open to the possibility of learning from others. Can contemporary Africa help America solve some of its problems? Is it possible, for example, that initiation rites in Africa might teach us something useful in helping young people negotiate the transition from childhood to adulthood, a process that is often strained and ambiguous in the United States? Is it possible that societies that are often denigrated as “backward,” “primitive,” and “undeveloped” can teach us something about commitments to family and community? It’s a liberating thought.

Similarly, on an international political level, is it possible that the study of other cultures—from the inside, freed of American intellectual and historical assumptions—can inform U. S. foreign policy, benefiting both us and others? The case of the Vietnam war comes immediately to mind. If we had better understood Vietnamese culture, could we have avoided that tragedy? Did hubris play a role in our decision making in Vietnam? Is it a danger in shaping U.S. policy now? The most noble of U.S. goals for the globe–democracy, economic development, human rights—appear in the real world embedded in cultures. They are not Platonic ideas, as much as we like to reify them. And as well as we think we understand them, our chances of furthering them worldwide will depend upon our knowledge of “the other.”

 

Interdependent but Not Interchangeable

As these “categorical imperatives” suggest, the study of other cultures is a self-serving endeavor, not just an altruistic one. And in a world of instant, interconnected communication it becomes of service to everyone. The self, in studying “the Other,” soon becomes “the Other” as well. We are both subjects and objects simultaneously, interdependent but not interchangeable.

In the final analysis, and beyond all imperatives, we are drawn to the study of others because it is stimulating. We are fascinated by difference and bored by sameness. As much as Americans take pride in the spread of their influence abroad, they really don’t want the cloning of Uncle Sam. Cultural diversity is just as important as biodiversity.

We should all embrace migration—not the forced variety or the kind that takes us away from home, but rather the voluntary educational migration of our minds to other worlds that brings us home enriched.

 

 

Leon E. Clark is professor emeritus of sociology at American University, where he founded and directed the International Training and Education Program. He is the general editor of the CITE World Cultures Series and author of the just-published Through African Eyes, Vol. 2, Culture and Society: Continuity and Change.