Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Universalists and a case for culture

I was traveling around Europe by myself, as I have been wont to do for the last six or seven years; either because a) I had made a little bit of money or b) because work had sent me across the Atlantic and I was able to squeeze in a week or three of vacation time at the tail end.

This time I was in Switzerland, staying in a small village and a smaller hotel in the Swiss Alps above Interlaken. The hotel made a dinner and, like most of the people staying there, I bought a helping and sat down at the communal tables for wine and a chat before bed. Most of us were hiking in the morning, so evenings were, for the most part, quiet.

Sitting across from me was an American girl (twenty-something) who was traveling with her mother. The mother was a nurse by trade, and had rarely traveled outside of the United States. The girl, I think Jeri was her name, did most of the talking over dinner. She told me about where they lived (Idaho) about the mountains around them (Sawtooth). She told me about how she had a friend in Zurich that they had stayed with for 2 days and 2 nights. She told me about how much better it was to know someone when you visited another country.

Then the mother chimed in with a version of this conversation.
"You know," she said ominously, "they didn't use a top sheet."
"Excuse me?" I said.
"No top sheet. Jeri's friend's mother didn't use one. Ever."
"Not even in the summer. Just a bottom sheet and a blanket. Imagine. Ha. I guess there'd be less laundry. But imagine."
"I mean, I guess it's less work, but there's the blanket to consider, and then, just, I don't know, people sweat at night. They were well-off too. Their house was bigger than ours, and that's unusual in Europe."
"Don't get me wrong, they were nice enough. But no top sheet. That's just dirty."

At this, Jeri resumed talking about her friend and a night they spent in the barn rolling around in the hay. I drank another glass of wine with dessert and wondered if the mother was picturing the thousands of hours wasted on top sheet laundry, or the dirty Swiss she had just encountered. The mother didn't speak again until she told us good night.

This random conversation haunts me. Because the mother was really The Mother, like so many mothers I know from home. Because she was a good woman. Because I liked them both. And because of the pervasiveness of trivial and absolute judgements.  I rarely bash American/ Western culture in the way that is so popular these days because it typically seems futile and filled with stereotypes, and also because our English/Euro immigrant/African slave/American muttness has managed to produce Shakespeare, Milton, Hemingway, Zora Neal Hurston, and Tom Waits, all. But there is this particularly interesting aspect of American (and English) culture that seems to have been gaining strength over the last 200+ years that is interesting and possibly problematic.

This is the concept of the universalist, captured most succinctly in the phrase: Basically we are all the same.

It's a good thought. Humanist. It has spawned good ideas: Free speech, inalienable rights. But it has gotten out of control. It seems to follow, if we are all the same, then we should be able to understand other people's motives. And if we understand other people's motives, we feel justified judging them as silly, incorrect, insane, or dirty (No top sheet!).

It seems to me this universalist sentiment is an ideal haven for arrogance. At heart, the universalist idea allowed colonialism to unfold and to continue unfolding. If school-house style education, democracy, Christianity, sedentarism, three bedroom houses, market economies, and top sheets are good for us, they must be good for you too! So we will set about educating/liberating you!

The universalist sentiment is not relegated to any particular educational sect or political affiliation in the US. It encompasses many. It gains strength in the prevalence of brain scans; when I'm in love this part of my brain lights up. You must be in love the same way I am. It allows us to click that top part of our mouths behind our teeth and shake our heads when we hear about Haitian parents sending their kids to live with strangers; "I would NEVER do that to my child." Or when we give aid to combat HIV in distant places, "if people would just stop having sex until they were married, the problem would go away. What is wrong with them? They need more education."

It is much, much more complicated and requires incredible doses of humility to acknowledge: I have no idea what the fuck you are talking about, but that's probably because we come from different places and are totally different people.

I did not learn this lesson by myself. When I think about the hundreds of millions of stupid, idiotic things I have done in Western Alaska that were totally and completely culturally incorrect I blush like a red door. Sorry people. But somehow it was okay. There is space in White Mountain and Shishmaref for people to be different and not crazy, to be truly individualistic and still part of a collective. There is space for me to be culturally incorrect (though trying harder next time) because I am, in fact, culturally different. I cannot explain it well, but I recognize it when I am there and when I return to Oregon. There is something different about these two places and the worldviews inherent in each place.

We are not all the same. Ask people who speak two languages. I hope that this post is not read as a, 'we all create our own reality, man' sentiment. I also think there are real cultural truths, but people are complicated and in this dusk of globalization perhaps it's time to consider how we differ, not only how we are the same.

And to Jeri's mother, let me say, I stopped using a top sheet. Because it really does save time.