One of our SASAH classes focused on an age-old dilemma, one that Western culture has dealt with and will have to deal with for the foreseeable future: how can we be respectful of other cultures but also constructively lead them to a better future?
Allow me to provide the context in which this question arose. A guest lecturer came into class to speak about being better leaders, which included being more inclusive, sensitive, and all-around ‘holistic’. The lecturer was interesting, and she had some great tips for leadership technique. What I found most interesting about her lecture, however, was an activity in which she had the SASAH students break off into smaller groups and discuss solutions for a simulated dilemma.
The dilemma was this: The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake has just struck and we, as SASAH students from Western University, are being dispatched to rural areas along the coastline of Thailand to help rebuild their infrastructure. We have infinite resources, but very little time, and we have to think of ways we’d spend those resources.
While discussing our answers afterwards, I had the overwhelming sense from the class that we, as “missionaries” of the “Western Culture”, had to, above all, be respectful of the local Thai culture, and conduct extensive research so as not to permanently change their area’s culture with our supposed aid. I found this sentiment to be unappealing, however, for a number of reasons:
Firstly, I believe good infrastructure should look the same no matter the culture, be it transportation, communication, sewage, water or electric systems. For this reason, I think that focusing too intently on achieving a good grasp of the culture beforehand is a waste of time as not only is it unnecessary to our purposes, but it is even a detriment to our timeliness.
Secondly, the reverence the class showed for cultures not our own concerned me.
Romanticizing other cultures–simply because they’re “other”–can lead to moral quandaries. Thailand, like many other cultures, has its fair share of daily injustices and morally ambiguous practices; how would SASAH students deal with these realities on the ground? If we discover that a community leader partnering with us to rebuild Thailand’s infrastructure happened to have been an influential brothel owner before the tsunami–perhaps with quite a few child prostitutes, which is a rampant problem in Thailand–how would we change our working relationship? Do we decidedly turn our attention and our resources elsewhere, trying to build educational centers for other children instead, or is this moral question the exact sort of Western cultural interventionism that we in the Postcolonial era are so afraid of?
Cultures can have wildly different customs when it comes to moral codes, law enforcement, and the amount of freedoms, safeties and rights that its people are afforded, and it’s beyond difficult to evaluate a cultural practice from the seat of historical power that is the domineering Western culture.
The post-colonialist guilt we are burdened with in the classroom and in liberal media sources makes us see Western culture as an ugly, arrogant, and abusive machine that hides its brutality and distaste for others behind the sheen of marble pillars and waving flags. Other cultures, however, we are taught to view as beautiful, mystical, fragile, but precious ways of life (see the Noble Savage). We are instilled with the fear that any judgement or interference from us will squash these delicate butterflies and undo years of reparations for our arrogant Western ways.
This permutation of exoticism, however, is far from a perfect alternative to the Western manifest destiny. It’s time we stop carrying the burdens of our ancestors, and give ourselves permission to provide aid and actually move forward.