Cultural Norms… And Good Things That Come From The Ground

By Donnamarie Leemann – Head of Marketing at Adarve Translations

Russia Gay ProtestAnti-gay proponents in Russia are portraying their position as a natural outcome of their historical and cultural heritage.

The Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan portray their stance against the education of women, and women’s integration into the larger society, in similar terms.

I am neither a scholar nor a philosopher, but I wonder to what extent people of other cultures and heritages should or must respect the positions of anti-gay Russians and anti-female males in Central Asia.

I am mindful of the American experience. My father’s father arrived in the USA decades after the Emancipation Proclamation and so cannot be held accountable for racial strife in my native USA. My mother’s family arrived a couple of centuries earlier, in a British colony at a time when women had few rights and black Africans had none at all. My mother’s family lived in Virginia and some of my ancestors were almost certainly slave-owners. Unlike the Russians and Central Asians who celebrate their cultural history, I do not celebrate the misguided perspective of my ancestors, I regret it.

The colonial, and later the American, culture permitted indentured servitude, slavery, and denied voter franchise to women. That was the cultural norm. We Americans could have jealously, vengefully, guarded those cultural norms. Like the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, we could have run for all we were worth to stay in the same place; a place that denied basic rights to people other than the white men who were in power. But we didn’t. We rose above our cultural norms.

Maintaining Cultural Values and Traditions

There is a lot to be said for maintaining cultural values and traditions. As long as the culture and value system is a closed system, it might be maintained indefinitely. Once the outside world encroaches on such a closed system, that system can either adapt to the greater world or retreat into itself and try to shut out the greater world. Or attack it, as both the Russians and Central Asians appear to be trying to do now.

These reactionary positions are but blips in the greater scheme of things. There are and have always been homosexual people in every society, everywhere and every when throughout history; they make up a tiny percentage of the population at large, and any society that attempts to slap them down or eradicate them thereby identifies itself as being both intolerant and insecure.

The position and status of women is in another category. Patriarchal societies worked well enough for a long time, right up into modern times. In modern times, half the population cannot be consigned to harems; women cannot be hidden away and prevented from contributing to the common good and to their own good.

As a sidebar here, it should be mentioned that women in patriarchal societies are hidden from view, have many co-wives, and produce prodigious numbers of children. From Africa in the west to Indonesia in the east, the greater part of the population is under 30 years of age. Males are given pride of place, women are hidden and discounted, and the excess of young males—many of whom are unemployed or are unemployable—has created a very unstable environment.

What is a normal cultural condition?

Young MalesIs the excess of young males a normal cultural condition for African and South Asian societies? If it is not, what effect does that excess have on neighboring cultures and societies? Does the excess of young people in African and South Asian cultures have a knock-on effect on neighboring cultures and societies? To what extent does this population explosion affect neighboring cultures?

How much respect must neighboring cultures and societies accord the burgeoning growth of cultures that cannot create livelihoods and jobs for their progeny? How concerned should we be by this uncontrolled population explosion? I think that we should be very concerned indeed.

Me, I’m cool with homosexuality. I’m straight, but I want everyone to be happy, even if their idea of happiness if different from my own. The issue of homosexuality and gay rights is a no-brainer for me. It’s none of my business what consenting adults chose to do behind closed doors and the issue doesn’t fuss me at all.

The issue of women’s standing is much more complicated, though in fact it should be as simple. The Day of the Patriarch is over. The Day of the Power of Putin is closing in on the twilight. The day of the power of the Arab Sultans and Princes is fast reaching its dusk. Half the world’s population—the women of the world—cannot forever be held hostage, in servitude, in submission, to the will of the men.

The imbalance between men and women has gone a long way towards being resolved in Western society. Yes, there is still the “Glass Ceiling,” yes, there are still many inequalities. But we turned the corner long ago. Women vote. They work. They can go out into the world without covering up their faces and bodies as in many retrograde African and Asian societies, and without hiding their sexual orientation as in Russian society.

I can appreciate the enormous inertia in traditional societies that jealously guard their ancient cultural imperatives. Perhaps, if integration into the greater modern world might cause those primitive cultures traumas that they cannot overcome, we might find a way to sequester them in cultural enclaves apart from the normal life of the modern world. Perhaps we can rope off the murderous ideology of the jihadists, grant them a corner of the world where they can knock their lights out by subjugating everyone within their sequestered corner of the world to their particular ideology, and free the greater world at large from their indiscriminate violence.

Warring Concepts in Modern Times…

Picture a landlocked, mountainous, resource-poor country that has little arable land and a very harsh climate. Picture a land that has larger, much more powerful neighbors all around. Picture a land that has many languages and religions, a place on a continental divide, a crossroad on important trade routes, a place that has been a point of conflict since very ancient times.

There are two countries that the above picture describes. One of them is one of the poorest, most worn-torn and violent places on the planet: Afghanistan.

The other is one of the most prosperous, peaceful and beautiful countries on earth:  Switzerland. Given the similarities of geography and history, why is there such a great difference in the current situations between the two countries?

Swiss women did not get the right to vote until just a few decades ago, and the society remains rather patriarchal, but that’s not the main difference.

There is a cross on the Swiss flag and religious differences still matter here, but that’s not the main difference, either.

The main difference is one of reconciliation and tolerance. There were many inequities perpetrated against the Swiss by its more powerful neighbors. Rather than maintain a position of anger and revenge, the Swiss embraced a position of understanding. Having embraced that position, they went one step further and dedicated themselves to neutrality in international affairs.

The Swiss have always taken care to protect their sovereignty as well as their neutrality. The care the Swiss  have taken care that has led to an evolution of Swiss society that includes Swiss women and, increasingly, refugees and asylum-seekers.

The Swiss don’t blow up their neighbors. They do not seek revenge. If a Swiss has a problem with someone, he adjudicates it. The Swiss accord fellow human beings—even those from different cultures—the benefit of the doubt, and they do not apportion guilt by association.

The warring parties in Afghanistan and Pakistan can continue to follow their vendettas and revenge. They can thereby continue to be poor, violent and part of a failed societal plan. (I’m here to tell them that the Swiss plan of understanding and reconciliation is a much better idea.)

The Russians can continue to promote their retrograde idea that there is something abnormal about homosexuality, even though all societies throughout the world since the beginning of humanity have had homosexuals among them.

PrideSwitzerland is a tiny, intricate society. Since 1291, we’ve worked hard to be tolerant of others. We haven’t always succeeded in the past and we often don’t succeed today, but we have made major efforts to be tolerant of and accommodating to visitors in our land who are different to us.  We abhor xenophobia. Sometimes we are unwelcoming to cultural intrusions, we are after all a tiny little land, a proud land, and we do not want our culture to be usurped or inundated by people who do not share our cultural pride.

Donnamarie Leemann –  La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland

About the Author: Donnamarie Leemann is an artist and writer who has for many years contributed to the BBC and to many other public forums, and who collaborates at present with Adarve Translations as Head of Marketing.

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