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.
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