Our cultural comfort zone

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India: the good, the bad and the puzzling

2013-12-08 comfort zone

This is not a travel blog; it is about liberty therefore I will not bore you with too much detail about our trip which was, by the way, quite fascinating. We did not go this deep into the Hindu culture in our previous trips.

It started with the flight. We were flying with Saudia, changing plane in Jeddah. Both on the flight from Toronto then back from Jeddah we were the only two white people on the fully loaded plane of about 500 people.

On a flight of about 14 hours there is little else to do but watching movies. All movies on this Saudi airline were “edited for content.” Uncovered legs, shoulders and décolletage were blurred out, words such as ‘beer’, ‘bless you’, ‘for Christ’s sake’, or even ‘God’ were bleeped out. I found it all both silly and very offensive. ‘God’ is simply an English word corresponding to the Arabic ‘Allah’ and vice versa, but apparently, in a Saudi universe we are not allowed to use the word in any language other than Arabic.
I can understand that there is a prayer room on the plane, I understand that the Saudis are very religious people, but isn’t this a little too much? I can understand that they do not serve any alcohol, but bleeping out the word ‘beer’ in a movie?

The degree of cultural intolerance demonstrated is incredible.  Yet the question I asked myself was not about their intolerance but about our willingness to tolerate it. Not only not responding in kind (because we are better than that) but not responding at all. By accommodating the intolerance of Muslims.

We tend to live with the illusion that people come into our world because they like what our culture represents but could it be that they simply like the easier life? The better security? The benefits of our advanced economies without giving damn about the values that made them possible? Traveling with a Canadian passport is definitely better than with a – let’s say – a Jordanian one, but we have to ask what makes us Canadians, we have to ask to what extent this mixing up of cultures is possible. We have to define ours and we have to make sure that we understand what defines theirs and whether it is compatible with ours. It is not possible to do that unless we step out of our own culture, unless we are willing to submerge in another one.

This trip was the furthest I ever wondered from my own cultural comfort zone. To places where we were the curiosity, where people were taking pictures with us so that they can show to their friends that they did indeed stood next to a white man. To places where it was pointless to ask for cutlery. To places where our culture made about as much sense to them as theirs does to us.

The importance of such excursions is to put our own world into perspectives. To realize that talking about liberty and natural rights would make about as much sense as trying to explain colors to a blind man. Not that these ideas are not, would not or could not be important to them, but they simply live in a world where these notion cannot make sense yet.

Culture is far deeper, far more fundamental to our existence than we care to acknowledge. We would like to see political ideologies such as libertarianism as a beautiful, logical and rounded entity that is universal in its scope and it needs no further validation then the coherence of its logic, but it is not that simple. Freedom cannot exist without a generally supportive cultural environment.
Can Muslims really understand freedom? Can they advocate it and still call themselves Muslims? Can you have free will and submit yourself to the will of God at the same time? Can a Brahmin understand equality and still call himself a Hindu? Can a system that is fundamentally corrupt appreciate the sanctity of contract and the value of reputation? In a world of homo hominy lupus, does it make sense to talk about universal principles?

I don’t know if I can possibly convey my experience but then this is the point I am trying to make: I don’t think that it is possible. We can talk about the developing world and its problems but YOU cannot understand them until you are willing to submerge in it. In the end, even then, you will end up mostly with questions.

In my next few posts, that is what I will do. Ask many questions.

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