Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Cultural Relativity

I have to admit that I still struggle in explaining to people the real reason for this sabbatical. There are multiple reasons I've probably covered before: more time to share as a family; learning a language; taking a break from the rat race… But the one that's most important and most difficult to relate is hoping to give our kids a better perspective on our own culture by leaving it and seeing what else is out there.

We've seen loads of preteens with mobile phones texting so they don't have to "deal" with whatever (church, class, dinner guests); young girls wearing shorts with impossible geometries providing uncomfortable revelations; boy scouts earning merit for mastering video games. And yes, it is our responsibility and power to educate, discipline, and control our children, but I think it's just naive to think our parental influence has trump power over the wicked stew of hormones, mores, and opportunities “kids these days” are exposed to. We are all human—kids more so. And we rationalize our environments by what we see before us. Children have no perspective and will realize that whatever wisdom we seem to have, whatever experience we claim, whatever authority we wield, everybody else in the world [as they know it] is doing and telling them something different.

The evidence and influence is stacked against us...here. There (and in this case There is Ecuador) we have two things going for us. First, it's different and not quite so bad culturally in many of the ways we believe the U.S. is. They just don't have the wealth to escape reality as we do. Not as much anyway. But it does, as any culture does, have its problems. But our second advantage is that it is foreign to us, or we are to it, as you like. And that, we have heard many families who have gone this route say, creates a stronger bond, a greater need for each other. Our daughter might still see a twelve-year-old walking down the street with her butt cheeks popping out of her shorts at every step while she talks on her mobile phone crossing a busy street. She might still see lots of them. But there she is much more likely to see that as an oddity (as she will likely see most things) rather than an aspiration.

Or at least that's the bet.

But I have recently found a quote from Kurt Vonnegut that says very well what I seem to have trouble saying to people, at least so that they get it.

And it is...
"I've often thought there ought to be a manual to hand to little kids, telling them what kind of planet they're on, why they don't fall off, how much time they've probably got here, how to avoid poison ivy, and so on...and one thing I would really like to tell them about is cultural relativity. I didn't learn until I was in college about all the other cultures, and I should have learned that in the first grade. A first grader should understand that his or her culture isn't a rational invention; that there are thousands of other cultures and they all work pretty well; that all cultures function on faith rather than truth; that there are lots of alternatives to our own society. Cultural relativity is defensible and attractive. It's also a source of hope. It means we don't have to continue this way if we don't like it."
Thank you, Mr. V. And if you still don't get it, you're perfectly fine where you are: we'll send pictures.