"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

On Changing Cultures

Near the end of the book the author speaks of a personal friend Ro, "short for Dr. Rochunga Pudaite (b. 1927), [who] believes in transforming negative aspects of every culture. He believes that all cultures reflect human goodness as well as baseness. He comes from a tribe of headhunters - the Hmars of northeast India. And he has played a critical role in the transformation of his people."

The author then shares about the Hmars. These "ferocious warriors" in the British opinion, were able to take 500 British heads "during a single raid on a remote tea plantation."  While the author says some may celebrate the Hmars for their abilities to resist the British colonizers, people like Ro were suffering because his people died from treatable diseases and unsanitary conditions, were very poor and had a culture of solving problems with violence. "Women and children were the primary victims of those evils," and alcoholism destroyed those who survived death by lack of nutrition and violence.

He tells the story of the Hmars and how this tribe was transformed.  Then he mentions how many cultures were violent and many still are.  Lest you think he only picked on the Hmars, he mentioned Assyrians, Romanians, Germanic Goths and even supposed "civilized" cultures today who kill its own "almost-born babies" as examples of those who have "indulged in macabre enemy dismemberment."

He asks, "Even if it were true that all cultures rest on violence, the question remains: Is a tribe really better off if it retains its isolation, beliefs, and values that keep it poor and vulnerable to preventable and curable diseases, at the mercy of uneducated witch-doctors and warrior-chiefs?  Were the Hmars wrong in desiring fundamental change?"

Later in the chapter he writes:  "Ro thinks that it is no virtue to romanticize the miseries of a primitive tribe that lives at the mercy of natural elements, germs, demons, and unscrupulous, authoritarian priests.  The Bible set his imagination free to dream what his tribe ought to be -- educated; free to interact with neighbors and enemies; able to overcome hunger, hate, and disease; and ready to contribute to the world.  Some advocates of 'multiculturalism' condemn people to live in the Stone Age.  Ro believes imagination that sets us free is a component of our distinctly human gift - creativity. ... Ro became a linguist because he believes that language links our minds together to make us the only culture-creating creatures on this planet. It enables us to store and transmit ideas and to improve upon existing ideas." 

I rather liked the idea of transforming the negative aspects of every culture although I'm sure what is considered negative would vary depending on whom you asked. Think niqab debate for starters! But if the negative aspects are identified from within and those people wanted to change "for the better," why not?  Does this mean we should allow change to happen only from within? Or do you think it's our obligation as, say, richer, more technologically-and-medically-advanced nations to introduce things such as disease prevention, medical help, sanitation devices and such? Or is it none of our business and we should not meddle ever ...until perhaps someone from within contacts us?  Thoughts?

quotes from chapter 19, The Book That Made Your World by Vishal Mangalwadi


Amber said...

It's a tough call, I think. Forced change, from the outside, always leaves certain aspects of the culture behind, creates discomfort and unrest with the new way of life. Even if we go in with good intentions, it is impossible to change one aspect of a society or a culture without impacting the other aspects of it. But can you sit back and watch people die, unnecessarily?

As you said, who determines which aspects of the culture are negative? Those on the outside, who are uncomfortable with it because it doesn't match their culture? Or those from within? Change, if it is going to come, needs to be internal.

Lat said...

"Some advocates of 'multiculturalism' condemn people to live in the Stone Age"

May I know what the author was referring to when he said this?

Language is definitetly a powerful 'weapon' to use to link and galvanize support.I know it as a Tamilan.But this has to come from within.I don't find it suspicious or wrong for changes esp to health conditions to come from the outside.But those whose livlihood stands on the line will 'fight' against such changes.And the author is right.Such scenarios are very much happening in India and in other parts of the world.And changes that bring in positive impacts also bring in negative asoects too.Thus sometimes changes esp thru' Westernization even in medical fields are frowned upon because the cultural setup is disturbed and people don't like that.

Susanne said...

Amber, yes, I think this is why I especially loved this example since Ro was a Hmar member and so the change came from within the tribe. Still, what about those within who resist change? It's tough to know what to do sometimes!

Susanne said...

Lat, no specific example. I think it was just a statement that if cultures are left to old ways when new ways (advances in medicine for instance) could help, then multiculturalism wasn't doing any favors to the people dying early from easily-preventable diseases for example.

Thanks for sharing what you did. I really appreciate your point of view on this topic!

Becky said...

I really enjoyed this post Susanne!

I think it's definitely very important that we are hesitant to judge what is negative. However, I also think when it comes to things such as medical advances, I think it is more often an issue of money, than an issue of respect, that keep these breakthroughs from getting to benefit everyone.

Also, for me, one clear line is when something is clearly harmful, to someone who are not able to make that decision for themselves. Here I think about foot-binding in China, female genital cutting (I stopped saying female genital mutilation, as this condemns the women who have had this procedure done, as being mutilated), etc.