Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Blindness of Being

Rural Alberta, Canada
There appears to be an uptick in profiling and marginalising others based on ethnicity, religion, orientation, or otherwise in recent times. It's sometimes so hard to make sense of of it all, but reaching back to my beginnings, at least for me, most often leads towards a path of understanding.

I am the son of a farmer’s son, of a farmer’s son. When I was just a boy, my little home town of Two Hills, Alberta - population 1000 - was the whole wide world; little did I know what fate had in store for me. With that said, no one could never have foreseen the less than ordinary journey of my life that began with the beautiful simplicity of a little white farm house perched upon a big green hill on Range Road 130, just north of town. I spent the better part of a decade and a half living overseas and travelling the world. Every summer however, I still returned to the humble and sheltering sanctuary of home.

One thing I learned from my global odyssey of more than 40 countries is that, no matter what the culture, life unfolds upon a predetermined playing field, complete with a ready made set of rules and regulations. By the time we humans begin to live out our first recorded memories, the environment in which we do so is simply a part of our societal matrix and our daily empirical ballet is instinctually accepted as the definition of life itself. We entirely submit to the breadth and width of the field upon which we play, never viewing such boundaries as limitations, but simply as the allotted availability of space for the daily game of living a human life. By extension, we are all the cultural software of social conditioning, and the instillation of pre-conceived learning mechanisms drive nearly every part of our looping daily program.  From the moment we get out of bed in the morning, nearly all of our actions are manufactured. The time we wake up, whether we shower or brush our teeth, the clothes we put on, the food we eat for breakfast, and all that plays out over the course of a day is largely pre-determined. Everything, from what we do for a living to the forms of recreation we participate, in is an element of culture. The all-encompassing power a culture wields is very much responsible for how its membership behaves and judges the behaviour of others, as well as the patterns of thought and the modes of communication that are used in everyday life. Thus our hopes and dreams, our fears and insecurities, our goals for the future, and how it is we go about achieving them are all products of acculturation.

Life, however, is changing.

Today the world is smaller than it has ever been at any point in human history. Only about a hundred years ago the power of flight had yet to be mastered, satellites did not exist, and the Internet was an unfathomable science-fiction fairy tale. Life was much more isolated, fixed, and concrete compared to the communal, ever-shifting, and porous experience of today’s very accessible sphere of influence. In the massive scope of time, it was until only yesterday that an individual was born into a culture and spent a lifetime knowing little, or nothing at all, about the many other civilizations that make up our world’s diverse and colourful population. We were born, raised, married, and lived out our entire lives within the same geographic region, amidst the same people, and same values until finally passing on. In fact, many still do the same today. With that said, we now find ourselves in the midst of an extraordinary time where the sum total of human knowledge, past and present, from cultures the world over is readily available. The normative and cognitive alternatives of societies from virtually every corner of the planet are now a point and click or a plane ride away. By extension, a newly eclectic and incomprehensible form of acculturation is now at the dawn of creating a never before imaginable planetary matrix for the inhabitants of our global village. What the result will be is still unknown, but the world is evolving at a faster pace than it ever has before and quite simply, it’s an amazing time to be alive.

With the newly forming global village in a culturally embryonic state, our out-dated Cold War, binary conflict perspective of the human endeavour still desperately grabs a hold of us as we step further and further away from the past, in hopes of continuing to dominate our psychological approach to that which is different. Although we ravenously ingest daily doses of information and see more and more everyday that there are indeed alternatives to the world that is our own, our collective egocentric narcissism often impedes our ability to accept and understand. The mass media, television, and film industries in every corner of this cultural war program their masses with the stereotypical images of the other, the result often being that the unknown is seen as strange, confusing, mysterious and inferior. We instinctually judge competing alternatives of life by our own standards and unfortunately, such an attitude is as human as human can be. Ethnocentrism is a term that describes the condition of judging, often in pejorative terms, other cultures according to the usually taken for granted assumptions of one’s own society. Ethnocentricity is a feeling that one’s own group has a mode of living, a set of values, and a cache of adaptation patterns that are superior to others and although not always, is at times combined with a generalized contempt for members of other groups. We are all indeed ethnocentric to varying degrees due to the inescapable fact that we are born into a culture and cling to its ethos as a safeguard against chaos and disorder. It seems we all need to know where we come from, who we are and why it is we believe. Moral psychology aside, touchstones are an important part of the human experience.

Perhaps, the most common expression of ethnocentricity is the belief that one’s own standard of values is universal and that the other is the only group being programmed with pre-determined information.  The unspoken and usually unrecognised assumption implicit in any kind of cross cultural analysis, is that the values and practices of the culture which the individual writer or researcher happens to belong to are objectively better, or at the very least the standard, against which others are to be judged. By extension, when we immerse ourselves in cross-cultural comparison via living within the walls of another way of life we constantly make assumptions. We are not even aware that we are being ethnocentric, as we cannot understand that we indeed cannot understand. Even when we recognize the ignorance of our own ethnocentric tendencies and genuinely attempt to be a non-partisan and open-minded agent operating within the program of a foreign culture, things are no less difficult to accept. Our social conditioning cannot be removed like a suit of clothing, as it is as much a part of our internal hardware as the blood that flows through our veins. A transfusion, however, is possible.

I have learned that patience, willingness, time, and simple exposure to the elements of life will always bear the fruit of freedom, as the reflection of ourselves can be seen in almost any human soul. In the end, the post-modern world presents us all with a rich and many-sided reflection of human totality and exposure and experience will always bring hope and understanding. The borderless realm of our new world makes for some never before possible unions of thought and circumstance. Such a perspective offers an all-inclusive freedom, as identity, community, and even reality are no longer restricted by the controlling definitions of yesterday. Post-modernism critiques the controlling grand narratives of our past, which at one time, readily controlled our ideological world.  Today, things are so very different. We are now no longer simple and concrete agents, but complex figures of difference and identity. As the world becomes smaller and smaller, how it is we define ourselves entails an infinite number of substitutions and possibilities. Cultural analysis and the definition of identity itself can no longer focus on culture as the making of history, but on the unchosen conditions which fuel the very process of history’s production.

Those working within the Canadian settlement sector are privileged with being safely nestled within the comforting embrace of our own culture, while still absorbing the world and its vast cornucopia of values, mores and customs each and every day. And despite this, and even with my being an international citizen, I still sometimes have to remind myself to look through the lenses of another when seeing what lay in front of them, when searching to understand just what they see and feel and hope. But that's a good thing, I've decided; it's what draws me to the work I do and as an inverted reflection, it is what draws people from around the world the doors of my country, the home I am so proud to call me own.

In the end - and to boil this long and at times abstruse rant down to its simplest form - I continue to have faith in the betters angels of our nature. I continue to hope...

Rural Ethiopia, Lalibela


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