Cultural Relativism Leads to Self-Doubt

Illich is troubling, no doubt about that.  Especially his point that we’re working with people who can’t tell us to go away—who are so disempowered that they can’t refuse well-intentioned meddling.  I’ve traveled extensively in my life, not only to western Europe and other tourist destinations, but to extremely poor countries.  I’ve been there as a tourist, however.  It’s been a different kind of tourism—a cultural tourism, if you will—but tourism nonetheless.  Recently I’ve developed a sense of dissatisfaction with just passively observing on these trips, and have started to feel a real imperative to actually do something.  Since I was young, I’ve wanted to do development work (my mother works in the field) without really understanding what it entailed.   But I’ve developed a real interest in people, and I truly believe that we are called to try to understand other people and learn from them as well as seeing what we can do to help them.  I can’t say that I have this all figured out.  Especially working within a cultural relativist framework as anthropology encourages has forced me to really question what I’m doing (or want to do) and how biased it is.  But I do truly believe that there is something I can contribute to the world, and that that needs to be in the realm of making people’s lives better.  At the very least, every human being has a right to some basic rights, and I believe it’s my mission to help that be a reality.  La Ceiba (I hope) will give me the tools that I need to do this in the longer term, but also allow me to get started on engaging with people from a completely different background and hopefully making a positive difference in their lives.  One of the things that I really am excited about is the amount of engagement with the community, because I’ve seen the development establishment and they often get so wrapped up in theories and models that they forget to ask people what they want—treating them more as subjects or patients rather than human beings, equal partners in a joint effort.  So I’m not sure why I’m here, but I am here, completely.

I think part of the reason I haven’t chosen to participate in “mission trips” or other poverty-relief “missions” in the past is the sense of disconnect that often accompanies them.  From talking with friends who have gone—really intelligent, caring people who truly want to make a difference—I often get the sense that in some respects, it’s more about them than the people they’re working with, or building meaningful relationships.  All too often, these upper-middle class teenagers come back and gush about how it changed their lives, never mentioning any significant relationships except with those that were also in the position of the donor.  And that’s largely what Illich is getting at in his critique that we can never truly engage because of the cultural gulf between volunteers and those they’re trying to help.  And certainly, there’s going to be culture shock, and times when it’s hard or even troubling to try to understand another individual from such a completely different background.  But I don’t believe that we can never understand each other, or that the differences should keep us from trying: we shouldn’t let the fact that it’s hard discourage us from trying.  I guess what I’m trying to say (extremely poorly—it’s much harder to write about something personal and emotional rather than purely analytical) is that economic development shouldn’t be about simply changing the lives of those we’re trying to help, but neither should it be about changing our lives: it should be about building relationships and a mutual process of learning about and from the others.  In talking with Ben Saunders recently, discussing the impacts of La Ceiba, it occurred to me that one of the most valuable assets we provide to the community is exactly a product of these relationships that I’m emphasizing.  At least in the US, sociological evidence has shown that one of the biggest class distinctions comes in attitudes towards those in positions of power.  Essentially, lower-class individuals tend to treat those in power (even to the extent of elementary school teachers) with a sense of reverence, making them less likely to successfully and assertively advocate for themselves.  And perhaps meaningful interactions and relationships can take some of the mystique out of wealth and power, driving home to both our clients and ourselves that we are all fundamentally human.

Without having any real experience as to my own actions and incentives, I can’t be sure that I’m not doing this to make myself feel good or alleviate some guilt for having a privileged life.  In fact, that probably makes up part of it, but I’d like to try to make it about something bigger than myself, idealistic as that sounds.  But I’m not going to give up that idealism, even if it is cliché.  I prefer to think of it as a drive, and because it’s bigger than I am, it pushes me to go farther and do more than I would need to for myself.  In anthropology, Durkheim talks about collective effervescence when referring to a religious or spiritual experience that comes from being a part of a social phenomenon.  I’d like to capture that sense of being a part of something larger than the individual in dealing with not only my own group, but with those who differ, precisely because they differ.

4 Responses to “Cultural Relativism Leads to Self-Doubt

  • russellscott
    14 years ago

    If you’ll forgive me being a nit-pick, there is one statement that I must take issue with, out of all that you’ve said which i find well said and agreeable.

    “At the very least, every human being has a right to some basic rights, and I believe it’s my mission to help that be a reality.”

    Not so much the latter part, but more the former–Basic Human Rights.

    I agree on principle, every Human Being should be treated with a certain dignity and respect, because we’re all on the same boat and have the same flesh and blood and theres nothing that could make one human different from another in the most fundamental standpoint.

    Its the practical reality which I disagree with. First, one must consider multiple factors that contribute to poverty. WHY is a country impoverished? or rather, why are its people impoverished? Is it culture, is it something else?

    In order to truly determine why one country is impoverished, we have to consider why we are not. What makes the United States different from Honduras? Its a matter of history that proto-Americans (british colonists) came to this land with nothing, and in a matter of 300-some years it has been turned into a world power–a superpower no less. We did this with blood, sweat, and tears.

    This is not to insinuate that Hondurans did not work hard enough to improve their national situation, but it refers back to what i said earlier–There is no fundamental difference between two different brands of human. So we can try to help all we want, but people that do not want help will not be helped. True capital-C Change can only come from within. Honduras must bear the workload of changing Honduras, we can only help make that load a little lighter, the distance to their objective a little shorter, but single handedly we cannot realize their goals for them.

  • I agree with your general argument, that we cannot come in and do it all for them. But to clarify, by basic human rights, I was referring to things like food, and I don’t see how history changes whether an individual deserves that. Also, in your brief history, you are neglecting all the chance circumstances that have helped us: we (the US) have certainly capitalized on those circumstances, but without, to pick one obvious example out of many, Napoleon needing money and so selling the Louisiana Purchase for a ridiculously low sum, our own actions would not have been enough. And that’s where I see us coming in, and I think you are leading to the same conclusion: we need to help create those circumstances that they can take advantage of.

  • From your post it is clear that you have an interest in development and the important moral/ethical issues that accompany work in this field. I found your description of working with La Ceiba- working with people instead of treating them as subjects, especially interesting and enlightening. I will note that I found your critique on “mission trips” a bit unfair. Who is to say that there is anything at all wrong with your friends coming back feeling “enlightened” after their trip if they did, indeed, make a difference? And I agree that it should be a common goal of La Ceiba to “always do the right thing”, to help, not hurt. In order to do that, I think we must all remember our principles class where we learned that people are self-interested, accept our self-interest, and realize that our partners in Honduras, too, are self-interested. Regardless of our reasons, in the end, our common purpose can lead us to success, and make everyone better off.

  • I like your point about taking the mystique out of power. As students and young people I hope that our clients will not be intimidated by us while at the same time realizing that we are dedicated and serious about our work. The fact that we are a student enterprise gives us enough naivete and youthful energy to work with the people of Honduras toward goals neither of us thought or currently think are possible.

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