Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Culture Clashes

I've been back from vacation for just over a day now, but my first day at work yesterday was such an exercise in "hitting the ground running" that I had little opportunity to collect my thoughts, much less get around to writing anything down. I may be a bit hit or miss for a few days yet, but at least have some ideas for future posts that will keep me going for a little bit, provided I can find the time to type them out....

For the holidays, my wife and I traveled to a couple of different places in the Midwest to visit friends and family. On the whole, it was a very enjoyable break. But there were a couple of occasions when we both felt very much out of our element.

Here in Southern CA, diversity is simply a way of life. Whether you happen to be liberal or conservative, you simply have to be able to deal with people who have different backgrounds than you do. Whether the differences are political, racial, or cultural, you simply cannot ignore the fact that people in Southern CA are diverse in many ways. This creates a bit of culture clash when I hear a statement such as when someone mentioned that all the black people in that person's experience are in jail or headed that way. Although I can't categorize such a statement as anything other than racist, I must remind myself that the person who made this statement lives in a part of the country that is almost universally white, and that it's entirely possible that he has made this generalization on the basis on what are probably only one or two black people that may well fit his description. It's still unfair in the extreme, but how is the person to know any differently? This is a person who, in most respects, is a very good person, and a positive influence on those around him. But in this area, he is clearly wrong, and has said something hateful (although he wouldn't see it as such). He is no doubt influenced by the culture in which he finds himself, which is unlikely to actively challenge such racist assumptions given the fact that there are so few people of any other race within a fairly large distance. These are people who live fairly comfortable lives in areas that have little experience with the outside world. What information they do get from the outside world usually highlights the crime and otherwise negative aspects that exist in more diverse areas. How does one challenge racist assumptions in this context?

But lest we be too ready to make allowance for people with racist ideas, I'm reminded of the tapestry we discovered on display at a flea market while visiting one of these areas (different from the area in which the above statement occurred). It proudly displayed Nazis on the march, complete with swastika flags waving. One might argue that there is some historical significance to such a tapestry, but what positive use could such a tapestry serve outside of a museum that clearly conveys the context of such a display, making clear how horrible these people were? And we really can't say that anybody in America in this day and age "doesn't know any better." That would be far too generous.

These frustrations aren't limited to issues of racism, but also involve discussions we had with several people concerning issues of politics and secular morality. What's especially frustrating about all this is how heavily tied these provincial ideas are to people's idea of Christianity. People see non-Christians acting in ways that non-Christians have no reason not to act in, and they think that this is an attack on Christianity. How are they to be told any different? Their perceptions match up rather nicely with the little slice of reality to which they have access, and their provincial religious authority figures tell them in no uncertain terms that anyone who makes any kind of allowance for non-Christians to continue to act in non-Christian ways must be "compromising" their faith, and are more concerned with "political correctness" than being faithful to God (the idea that such "compromising" people may actually have a strong sense of the need for evangelism of non-Christians, seeing them as potential converts rather than as enemies to be opposed, is completely lost on the "provincials").

In the midst of all this, I'm remind how this very frustration displays some of my own provincial bias. I take it for granted that people have to deal with these issues in a far more nuanced way in the culture in which I live. To be confronted with the fact that people in other areas simply don't think this way, and have no basis for understanding concepts that I take for granted, shows how influenced I am by the province in which I live. While I don't think that my ideas are wrong, neither do those with whom I am frustrated. On what basis do I discuss these differences with them? At best, we reach an agreement to disagree (this is the situation that seems to happen most often, thankfully). At worst, we degenerate into an argument in which relationships are damaged. I would definitely pray for greater wisdom in this matter.

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