Cultural Awareness Shouldn’t Preclude Cultural Critique

Olivia Gilbert, Columnist

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What does it really mean to be “tolerant”? How about “culturally sensitive/aware”, or “inclusive”? These words and phrases get passed around on campuses, in classrooms and among the broader public as cultural currency. They reflect the rising concerns for the respectful treatment of everyone and emphasize the importance of not imposing a single cultural standard across the board. Sometimes, however, this sensitivity morphs into something other than tolerance, something like fear—fear at misspeaking and causing offense, fear of being labeled politically incorrect and “judgmental,” fear of crossing a fine line between criticism and intolerance.

Such ethically ambiguous situations often present themselves most starkly when we travel and come face-to-face with different cultures. Recently I had the opportunity to visit China through Whitman’s Silk Roads program. Half of our two-week trip was spent in China’s Xinjiang Province, an agricultural area that sees very few Westerners. One day we attended a local market on the edges of a small town called Khotan. As we waded through the section of the market where sheep were sold, the suffering of the animals disturbed me: sheep were stuffed in carts and backs of trucks, bound at the legs and packed so tightly many were clearly struggling for breath. I even saw one, apparently unconscious, hanging limp by its neck from a rope attached to a railing. I saw another led by a man fall to its knees, unable to get up again despite the man’s urgings.

Now, many of my classmates agreed with me that this was a disturbing sight. A few students, however, reacted differently. They described the scene as “just different,” something not to be assessed but rather accepted as “the way things are” in this particular place. There is no doubt these are intelligent and sensitive individuals. I have faith that they recognize the difference between relatively innocuous cultural practices and harmful ones. None of them would be so obtuse as to call the practice of female genital mutilation “just different.”

When taken to its logical conclusion, glossing over of cultural practices as “just different” presupposes critical discussion. It simplifies the political, historical, and environmental complexities that give rise to cultural practices. Customs and habits have genealogies, and sometimes this lineage can reveal insidious influences (Western imperialism, capitalism, religious extremism, I’m looking at you). What more a triumph of the hegemony of ideas like these than to gloss over the potential influence they might have?

The notion of “just different” simplifies a people into merely a product of their culture, itself simplified into a product of vague “differences.” Such a reduction is surely the antithesis of ‘cultural sensitivity;’ it acknowledges that differences exist but refuses to investigate their origins or implications. Indeed, it is by refusing to allow what bothers us to pass off as simply “just different” that we show respect to other cultures. We must allow others and ourselves the freedom to hold cultural practices up to the scrutiny of critical thought and discussion. By engaging in critical discussion with them and about them, we demonstrate that we take them seriously enough to discuss and challenge them.

It is the very judgments we come to about ethics and morals that give meaning to the notions of inclusivity and tolerance. Who or what are we being ‘tolerant’ for when we refuse to engage in thoughtful conversation about what is acceptable and what is not, thus rescinding our ability to help shape what we consider to be a better world in which to live? Is it not racist to glance over the objectively wrong practices of other societies as unchangeable, to see them as unworthy of the same critiques to which we subject ourselves?

I do not claim to know how to perfectly navigate the many complexities involved in discussions about culture. But I do know that my gut reaction to this specific situation was, this is wrong. And while our first reactions should not always be trusted, they should be acknowledged. They provide a window into something important—something very human that comes from our deepest sense of right and wrong, of justice and morality. They can act as guides that lead us to uncover the reasons behind “just different,” thus leading us to a more holistic wisdom and cultural understanding— if we are up for the challenge.