David Cogswell | April 01, 2015 1:00 PM ET
Cultural Relativism is Good Medicine
Spending last week in Brazil altered my thinking subtly. I’m just sorting it out now, the effect of spending a week in a foreign culture.
I would hate to think that I am becoming apathetic, but when I am home I have more or less separated myself from the domestic news channels. With occasional exceptions, I’ve shut out their noise, their frenetic frequency, their hysterical vibe, their negativity, their superficiality.
There are better ways to inform oneself than watching TV news. And there are other ways to think about the world than the way the TV news channels present it. You may get more genuine insight from a few minutes of The Daily Show or The Onion than from hours of the repetitive hammering of TV news.
Broadcast news presents a certain frame of mind. It’s not only in the content, but in the styles of presentation, the format, the attitudes, the commercials, and the will of the sponsor over the content. It’s not the kind of atmosphere or mental environment I want to spend much time in. It’s depressing.
My personal recommendation: if you are ever subject to the dampening of mood that may take place in the presence of broadcast news, I’ll tell you the best antidote there is. You need to give your cultural conditioning a good shake.
Cultural relativism! It’s good for the soul. Pull yourself out of your customary cultural envelope and try on a different one.
Cultural relativism is something you can experience in various ways: by reading, watching movies, talking to people, moving, changing jobs, etc. But there is no better way to experience a zap of cultural relativism than by taking a trip to a place where the culture, the consciousness of the place is different.
What a refreshing jolt it is to see everything you are used to with a different twist. All the familiar kinds of things that you see at home but done differently, thought of differently.
The entire globe today is more intimately entangled than ever. The Internet has brought Marshall McLuhan’s global village into an ever more concentrated reality. But while we are more connected than ever before through electronic media and transportation systems, the countries of the world still have their own individual histories and cultures rooted deeply in the past.
All the countries developed with some relative amount of isolation from other cultural systems. The farther back you go, the greater the isolation.
Today, as McLuhan warned, the electronic connectivity of the world has caused world cultures to collide with one another, creating a massive implosion. And the effects of that connectivity are not all benign.
But while we witness bewildering effects of this implosion in the increasing frequency of bizarre and unprecedented atrocities, it also brings us within reach of the great richness of cultural diversity around the world. This is what the travel industry makes available to us today.
Sometimes when you feel run down, in a rut, burnt out -- you just need to get away, to just change everything around you. Change your stimulation. Put yourself in a situation that will force you to change your habits, most of the time through pleasure and not pain.
It’s so refreshing just to see things that are different. All the different countries’ histories are intertwined with other national histories, but each one also has its own separate thread. There are parallels among them, and there are contrary notions.
Last week I was seeing things through the cultural lens of Brazil. It’s a place that used to seem rather remote from the U.S. Neither Brazilians nor North Americans in the mainstream knew much about each other or had much engagement. But with every year that the international media web has expanded, that isolation has dwindled.
The U.S. and Brazil are at different points in their respective histories. In 1964 Brazil had a military coup that instituted a military dictatorship that lasted 20 years.
Brazil is one of a number of Latin American countries that emerged in recent decades from dictatorships and returned to more democratic systems. This historical movement contributes to the exhilarating atmosphere you experience traveling in Latin America today.
Brazil, Chile and other Latin American countries have gone through their dark nights of the soul. They suffered under harsh dictatorships. They struggled through it and now are in their periods of awakening and emergence.
Over the recent decades I have been saddened by some of the changes I’ve seen in my own country’s evolution: the decline of the middle class, of civil rights, educational opportunities, civility in government, tolerance …. Sometimes it feels like progress went into reverse. Like polio, racism isn’t something you welcomed back. But that’s another story, as they say, for another time.
I have often been outraged by political developments and tried to fight against the things I don’t want to see taking place in my country. But increasingly I get the sense that these are large historical developments, probably beyond my capacity to affect.
The point I’m trying to make is that in spite of whatever bad news may dampen your mood at home, in other countries different things are happening. It’s refreshing. When you see the troubles they have that we don’t have, you are reassured that there are problems everywhere. No place, no society, no government is perfect. Their different styles and modes of imperfection can, in fact, be entertaining.
When I was in Brazil I heard about many progressive government policies and services. Free healthcare. They all get free healthcare! Waiting times? Yes, but not bad, according to people I talked to. People over 65 can ride the buses free, and they have a pretty comprehensive public transportation system.
I had thought of Brazil as a developing country. How can they provide universal healthcare when we can’t in the U.S.? In China, India and Brazil, the middle classes are growing, strengthening. In the U.S. the middle class is falling through the cracks in large numbers. It’s grim news, but it is refreshing to see that the problems you have may not be problems in other countries, and vice versa.
When I was riding around Salvador with my guide Alfredo he told me of many good things that are happening in Brazil. It was encouraging. In many ways their society seems to be going the opposite direction of ours. Many of the developing countries are on the way up, and the U.S. is by many measures, unfortunately, on the way down.
I told Alfredo it was comforting for me to see the progressive changes in Brazil because so often I feel that my own country is moving in the wrong direction.
And then Alfredo told me something that really struck me.
It’s like a wheel, he said. Each country has its own history and its own historical cycles. “Sometimes you’re at the top,” he said. “But you can’t be on top all the time.”
Alfredo is a Brazilian for the last 30 years or so, but he was originally Italian. He came to Brazil, fell in love with it and stayed. He married, had children and became a Brazilian.
But Italian! What a perspective! When he talks about historical cycles and says that no country can always be on top, you’re hearing it from the heart of what was once the Roman Empire, the greatest empire the world had ever seen, or so it seemed.
But like Alfredo said, no country can stay on top all the time.
To soothe our pride as citizens of a declining empire, we are endowed as 21st century human beings with a new kind of universalism unparalleled in history. If you think of yourself as a citizen of the world, and identify with the human species more than to any particular national system, you can live that out in a more tangible sense than ever before. You can travel to practically your entire domain as a human being.
It’s only when you pull away the familiar cultural lens and superimpose a foreign cultural lens that you can begin to discern the universal platform in which all cultures are rooted, the common ground that connects us all.
So when the same old routines are getting you down, giving you the blues, when the spark is gone, pull up your roots and take a trip. Go abroad. See the world from a different cultural perspective. It will do you good.
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