This YouTube video illustrates some of the surprising ways people can offend each other through differing cultural perspectives. Think about a time when this has happened to you. Have you ever accidentally offended someone in another culture as a tourist in a foreign country? Or have you ever made an incorrect assumption about a person from another culture when you first met them? I know that I have done this more than I would like to admit. I think this results from the most simple and obvious of truths–we interpret the world from our own eyes.
One of the first things that babies learn in the process of developing consciousness is the ability to distinguish themselves from the world around them. They begin to recognize that their needs can be satisfied by things outside of them (and they cry when they recognize that their needs are going unsatisfied.) If you’ve ever babysat, you know that toddlers say “me” and “mine” quite frequently. The fact is that the development of some sense of self-awareness is necessary for any other learning to progress because all of the information we receive as humans is interpreted through our perspective–through the experiences, biology, beliefs, and cognitive schemas that make us who we are.
In The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin describes a civilization he encounters in Tierra del Fuego. While some of the things he says, like his greatest hope for the civilization of the Fuegians is “some shipwrecked sailor being protected by the descendants of Jemmy Button and his tribe,” show how self-centered, or perhaps English-centered, his entire view of the people of Tierra del Fuego is, Darwin does show an attempt to portray the characters of the Fuegians in his narrative that was quite progressive for his time. In fact, many of the ways we approach other cultures today have not progressed as far from Darwin as we would like to think. In world politics, nations approach each other for trade agreements and treaties with the primary interest in their own country as top priority. Even with philanthropic efforts like those of the World Bank and the IMF, many times ulterior motives of nations who control the purse-strings (the U.S. in particular) result in more economic benefit to the country giving the aid than the country receiving it. The U.S. is notorious for having rude and culturally insensitive tourists–we expect people in different countries to speak English, to not be offended by our constant picture-taking, and just to generally accommodate us when we are the visitors in their nation.
I wonder if we have changed that much since Darwin. We have developed vastly better ways to communicate with, gain information about, and visit other cultures since Darwin’s time, yet we still often maintain self-centered and our-nation-centered views of other cultures. In many ways, our lack of cultural understanding is actually worse.