Do we have the right to tell other people that their culture sucks? As a full time traveler and former anthropology student, this is a question I’ve been struggling with for quite some time.
Obviously, no culture is all bad, just like none is all great. But if you just pass through a place for a few months, or even if you decide to move to a new country, do we have the right to tell others that we don’t like their traditions or habits?
Can I tell Colombian men to f*ck off?
Is it arrogant to roll my eyes at the supermarket cashiers in Colombia because they are the slowest people I have ever seen in my life? Is it okay for me to yell at Colombian men that are hitting on me (and every other woman, for that matter) when I walk down the street, and I feel disrespected? To be clear, I do the same if it happens to me in Germany or the US, simply because I am not a sexual object walking down the street, just to please a man (I do like compliments, but guys, whistling at a girl is NOT a compliment). Yet, I wonder: Am I right to feel upset, or should I accept this as a given of Latino culture and just let it go? Does it help anybody if I criticize their culture?
The two schools of anthropology
On a larger scale, this has been an important question not only for travelers, but also for anthropologists since the early days of the science.
The evolutionary school
One school believes that there is a certain rank to cultures, an evolutionary pyramid or more evolved cultures vs. less evolved cultures (that eventually will catch up). Since this theory came about in Europe, the countries that are seen as higher up on the evolutionary ladder are European and North American countries. This is also where the idea of dividing our world into a first and a third world comes from.
While this view is highly problematic, for obvious reasons of being euro-concentric, racist and also in many many cases inaccurate, as somebody who grew up with certain rights and ideologies, it is very hard for me not to see them as beneficial for everybody.
I notice this mostly in small things while traveling. For instance, it really pisses me off when I see how people use plastic bags for EVERYTHING without thinking about the environment (this is not a third vs. first world country problem, but simply one about being educated about our environment). So why should I assume that people in the US care less about their environment and simply accept it? Why should I let a Colombian man whistle at me when I feel it’s a sign of disrespect and a very antiquated view of the role of women in society?
The relativist school
On the other hand, there is another direction in anthropology, the cultural relativists. They believe that we cannot judge anybody’s culture if we are looking at it from outside, because we neither have the right to, nor can we fully understand it.
While this school seems very tolerant, it has also led to interesting interpretations. For example, in a 2007 court decisions in Germany two brothers were found not guilty for killing their sister because the judge decided that his culture was different (this decision was reversed by a higher court later). Never mind that killing siblings is probably not widely accepted in ANY culture, and that the brothers had grown up in Germany. Just the idea of saying “it’s okay that you violate universal principles because your culture didn’t let you behave any other way”, is very problematic. It is not only very condescending, but one also assumes that that person is not an individual that can make an educated decision, but is somehow completely controlled by his culture. This is also why a very typical Colombian statement “así es acá en Colombia” (this is how things are here in Colombia) that drives me crazy. It’s a way of absolving yourself of any personal responsibility. It’s like saying: “It’s not me who is responsible for doing a bad job with fixing your bathroom, but really it’s part of my culture, and I can’t help it.” (I did not make this example up, this really happened.)
Neither school seems to clearly answer my question. I don’t want to judge other people from a privileged position, but I also don’t want to assume that they can’t learn anything, and that cultures are so different that you can’t find any common ground.
Learn from one another
Where does that leave me on my travels? I am still not sure. Sometimes, when I talk to others about my problems in their country, they agree, and tell me about projects and people that are fighting to change this situation. Other times, they explain to me why things are done a certain way in their country, that it might not be the best solution in the world, but that it does make sense in their context. Other times, I am just talking against a wall. Also, many times, I see foreigners that came to live in a new country, and build something wonderful because they didn’t like the coffee or the bread in that particular country – and through their initiative inspired others.
The one thing I can say though is that it’s important to keep an open mind. It’s easy to see everything that is better back home, but it’s much (mu)ch harder to acknowledge that other people have great ideas, too and even do things better. So maybe it’s okay for me to yell at the Colombian men, but it’s probably very close-minded of me to make fun of Brazilian men in speedos. I believe that this is one of the many ways in which we can grow from traveling, and ideally not only from traveling, but also from daily encounters with people that think or behave differently.