If you’re here, you’re likely wondering why I did not post last weekend. For reasons mostly relating to my workload at school, I have decided to simply do a double post this weekend instead of following the normal format. However, this blog will follow its regular format when nothing else gets in the way. Strangely enough, these two posts will likely have nothing in common, but bear with me. This post was inspired by a one-panel comic I saw months ago but which I can no longer find myself. It depicted two women, both looking at each other and the differences they saw on the outside. One of these women was dressed in a skimpy bikini and sunglasses with bleached blonde hair, holding a small purse with an even smaller dog on the inside, and sandals on her feet. The other woman wore a traditional Islamic piece of clothing which covered most all of her body, from head to toe. Very little could be seen in the comic, at least beyond her eyes. However, both women thought the exact same thing: “What a horribly oppressive, male-dominated culture must rule over her life.” The comic speaks the truth; our cultures divide us so, because we often have trouble viewing anything with a different perspective than our own. As such, we cannot see eye to eye, and this can cause serious issues both on the domestic and foreign policy stage. I intend to show why culture matters so much, and what can be done about it.
Anyway, I feel it necessary I explain the comic I just described for those who don’t understand it. It’s easy for any Western citizen to see why the Islamic woman may appear to be oppressed by men. This is especially true for nations which force women to dress conservatively such as Iran. We see it as stifling freedom of expression and choice of dress, something we can easily take for granted in a country which only keeps us from dressing too little (and even those restrictions are small). We see a society entirely different from our own, one where sometimes women are not allowed to drive or leave the house without a man, in the case of Saudi Arabia at least. We see a woman that longs to dress as she pleases, and we think how horrible it must be for her there. But then we always forget to take a look from her perspective towards ourselves. If you’re born in Saudi Arabia or Iran, chances are you’ll grow to appreciate and enjoy the values these countries espouse if your personal situation doesn’t suck. This is especially true of those who are very religious. While we see the hijab and think of misogyny, many can see it as a form of protection towards a woman’s modesty. Many religious women in this part of the world view conservative dress as a way to prevent men from objectifying them, a value which we simply don’t share because it is not a part of our culture.
Our culture is a very liberal one, and I don’t mean politically liberal. I mean that we have much freedom of choice in our clothing and speech, and we very much take that to heart. Women are objectified constantly in our media, written and digital, so we are desensitized to it. It happens so often, that we are now used to it. However, if you were to stick a religious Iranian man in New York, I bet you his eyes would cringe and he would turn away upon seeing some of the billboards there. If he were to watch just about any successful movie in America, I’m certain he’d be unhappy at the amount of sexual content, whether simply referenced to or directly shown. I myself hate how much sex permeates our society, but it’s not something I can change. It is a part of our culture now, and it would take years and the collective will of everyone in order to be changed. Therefore, it will never happen.
However, there are some drawbacks to such a society. Because women are objectified so much, it becomes very hard to define when a line has been crossed. This is why sexist jokes pop up on television so very often; whether directed towards men or women, it will almost never go “too far” in our collective opinion. If it’s any consolation, we know that we at least have a line we don’t cross, and it showed when Todd Akin espoused his comments about “legitimate rape” ([link]). Unfortunately, the very fact that our elected representatives have sunk this low and lower should be a good indication of how poorly our society can reflect on us. Even though we almost unanimously directed hate against him after his statements, this doesn’t change the fact that there are likely many people out there who agree with him, logic and science be damned. And we must realize this: that only in a culture like our own could something like this happen. We might not have the highest amount of rape in the world (that title belongs to the Democratic Republic of the Congo), but we do get hundreds of thousands of victims of sexual assault each and every year here. And I’m certain that making sexism a joke definitely won’t help us to make those numbers go down. So the next time you’re out in public in a revealing outfit, with eyes on you, remember this. The thoughts going through people’s minds about your outfit likely aren’t thoughts which you want to hear, but the fact of the matter is that our culture is mostly okay with those thoughts (unless they’re about rape, of course).
Cultural differences extend beyond our choice of clothing, and can have a much more pronounced effect on our policy towards other nations. Let’s take Russia as an example this time. For Americans, Russia is an example of a government system we don’t want, even though communism has been removed as the status quo there. Russia still exhibits a government which gives stronger power to the executive branch and where corruption and cronyism are a common thing under Putin. We look at such a way of life and wretch, despising the thought of such little freedom. But many Russians don’t see it this way. Unlike Saudi Arabia and Iran, I do have some contact with people in the world’s largest country, and I am given some perspective of why Putin still receives wide support there. Russian culture and society has very much become used to powerful rulers over the years of the past, and these ways have not changed much today. Having a strong central power which keeps Russia afloat can be seen as more important to Russians than having an absolutely free society. Having a working and growing competitive economy can be seen as more important than having a competitive electoral process. It’s no secret that Putin has a death grip on power in the Kremlin, but as long as Russians don’t see their country spiral into authoritarian economic depression, it’s unlikely he’ll be yanked from his position. But this is why we can’t understand how the protests in Russia prior to his election not so long ago didn’t become nationwide; we can’t imagine living in a place where freedom isn’t a top priority, and this is why we were still disappointed when he won the election. We may see freedom and electoral cleanliness as being incredibly important, but the same can’t be said for Russia, at least not yet. While opposition to the current Russian model is anything but small, it would take quite a change for the entire thing to be flipped to a model like our own.
Meanwhile, there are likely many Russians looking outwards towards us. Many of them likely had no idea why any of us would be so upset that Putin became president; sure, they understand the argument that it’s not an entirely free electoral process. But the thing is, a good amount of Russians just don’t care that it isn’t. Many would rather see Russia prosper economically and educationally than see one person voted out of power to satisfy a sometimes-ally country. This is a reason for our tension; what we can’t understand, we attack. We do this out of fear or hate, but either way the result is the same. Neither side gets what it wants, and we end up bickering over small things that should never get in the way of international progress.
You may be wondering why all of this matters, if as I have said culture and values are notoriously difficult to change. If it would take decades for us to change, then why worry about it? If problems over cultural divisions are bound to occur, then what is the point of my argument at all? My answer is as follows. While it is true that we cannot change our own culture and values quickly or properly, we can certainly change how we view other cultures and the values they espouse. It’s not easy, but I invite all of you to try it. Any time you see an issue pop up in a nation other than your own and you develop an opinion on it, try viewing it through the eyes of a native in the country in question. For example, look at France and its ban on wearing religious clothing ([link]). I bet it’s hard to why people would protest such a ban, but think about from their perspective. Their religious expression is at stake because of the values of a society not entirely their own. Is such a ban justified by values different than those the law applies to? Think about it.
That is all for now, and once again you are encouraged to comment here with your thoughts. My email firstname.lastname@example.org is always open, along with my Facebook, Google+, Steam, and Twitter. Good night, and this is KnoFear, signing off.