Friday, July 27, 2012

Must you tolerate another culture?

Eric Raymond related an interesting historical tidbit from Britian's colonization of India.

In the 1840s, Sir Charles Napier was the commander of the British forces in India. Hindu priests approached him, upset that they were no longer allowed to burn widows alive on their husband's funeral pyres, a practice known as suttee or sati. Sir Napier responded:
Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.
This incident is related in the History of General Sir Charles Napier's Administration of the Scinde¹ (the book is now in the public domain and can be downloaded as an ebook).

Women in Afghanistan wearing a burka
Cultural differences or oppression?
Photo Wikimedia Commons
Or consider the famous case of the Etoro tribe of new Guinea. Young boys (as young as 12) must perform oral sex on the older men of the tribe to receive the "gift of semen". This gift allows them to grow up to be strong men.

Now think about examples closer to home. Saudi Arabia denies women the right to travel, study, or work without permission of a male guardian. Gay rights are non-existent in Saudi Arabia and churches are not allowed because freedom of religion is not tolerated. In Niger, though slavery is still technically illegal, it's still practiced openly. Iran still puts people to death for being gay.

Regarding Eric Raymond's posting of the interesting story of the Hindu priests, I think we can all agree that Napier's response was brilliant, but it also shows the absurdity of too much multiculturalism. While I strongly support multiculturalism, there does come a point where we have to draw a line in the sand and say "enough!" There are limits to tolerance. Even if you were open-minded enough to dwell among the Etoro and and accept their culture, how would you feel if you were presented a little boy and told to give him the gift of semen?

Yeah, that's what I thought. It's OK  to say "I can't do this." That's not too far removed from "I can't support this."

But where do you draw the line? I can't tell you that because it's different for every person, but I can tell you one thing: cultures matter more than even the most tolerant of us would think. Specifically, the further a culture is from your own, the more likely it is that you will not succeed as an expat. If you want your dream of living abroad in another country to live, then you will need to research carefully if you get a dream opportunity in a place you've never heard of. Some expats discover that merely having too much bureaucracy is enough for them to hate a country. Discovering that you will be served bugs for dinner might be too much.

I suspect this is why almost 40% of respondents to my last expat survey said they wanted to move to Europe.

Update: Simon Cozens is a missionary in Japan and he recently made an excellent blog post about his cultural experience there. Very relevant!

1. Sinde, in this case, appears to refer to Sindh, one of the four modern-day provinces of Pakistan.


  1. Excellent post. Very good links. This has been on my mind recently. I grew up in the U.S. and my parents were hippies. Much of what I experienced would have the most open-minded of my French friends in a state of shock. Adults, they say, can do as they like but when it comes to children, they draw the line.

    Another example would be the American women I know working in French companies. The culture is very different and things happen that would definitely be considered sexual harassment in the U.S. That they are not in France is a real shock to them. Is it fair to tell these women that "This is France. Deal with it?" I used to say just that. These days I'm not so sure and with the passage of new legislation against sexual harassment passed unanimously by the Assembly the waters are even muddier. No answers here and I suspect I'll still be thinking about this when I am old and grey and living in a French nursing home. :-)

  2. An expat ought (in my opinion) to draw the line in the place where he lives or visits, not where he doesn't. He doesn't need to judge the customs of the Etoro or the uncivilised parts of Iran, or Saudi Arabia, if he isn't there. If he IS there, then he should have found out about the relevant customs before he visits; if he hasn't done that, he must leave as soon as he discovers them. He doesn't have to adopt them!

    I well remember backpacking in some odd places in the 1960s, and have written about some of them in my blog. Even then, a callow youth of 24, I knew not to judge foreign customs, however bizarre. I learned that foreigners were not just people who didn't speak English. Rather, their tribal customs and cultures had been different from mine for ten thousand years or more. I should no more judge them in their home than they should judge me in mine.

    That opinion has become firmer over the years. We can smile at Napier's cleverness, but he was in the wrong because he was a foreign invader who had no moral right to judge the customs of the people whose home he was in at the time. Burning widows is not a nice thing to do, but nor were the British atrocities in the lands they invaded. Persecuting gays is a disgusting tribal custom; so is bombing villages from drones. We Westerners can legitimately try to stop the latter disgusting custom, but we have no moral right to force the Saudis to stop the former.

  3. Plus one on gordon above,
    British strongly believed their's was the superior culture and they looked down on any culture they conquered.
    While suttee is a good example on how sometimes it led to a positive change. But this was not always the case. To illustrate how might is right did some good but more damage I think we need to look at a few more examples.

    The best example how the assumption of superiority lead to regression in the society is how the "nakedness" and "sexual liberation"(erotic/Sexual education texts etc.) in Indian culture were looked down upon. English during Victorian age regularly criticised and often penalized as "Vulgarity" what many today would describe as sexual liberation.

    Its funny if you listen arguments in diverse cultures how if you stay in culture long enough all culture seems to give a fairly convincing argument that their's is the right way. Today the western culture is dominant so most of the world's "right" confirms to what the west thinks as right. The truth is quiet gray.

    I would also like to reflect on african practice of Young boys performing oral sex on the older men of the tribe to receive the "gift of semen". While in most parts of the "world" it might be considered severe child abuse, I doubt a secluded African culture would be exposed to such ideas.
    Its quiet possible that the young boys of the tribe who do it look at it as a celebration and might look forward to it and its not a traumatising experience of sexual abuse for them like it would be for someone else.
    In a isolated tribe oral sex simply might not have the same connotations that it does in the western world, maybe oral sex for them is like having a lunch, maybe its no big deal at all!

    Of course I still believe there are a few areas where we should have firm beliefs(maybe I am not that open minded). If a person is knowingly hurt(physically or psychologically) against his will by a particular act its definitely something we should stand against like suttee(if done against the wish of the woman), drone strikes or slavery.
    For me rest everything is a grey area.