Monday, February 8, 2010

Dialectics, History and Cross Cultural Communications

Posted to my Com class message board. A dialectic perspective of history and it's impact on communications across cultures was the topic and we needed to include an example of something we learned that turned out to be wrong. Here is a concise explanation of the dialectic perspective of communications for context. Thanks to the University of Maryland for what is turning out to be a very handy reference for this class.

It is often important to understand other cultures, from the perspective of their history because it forces us to take a more objective view of their present. An excellent example given in the book is the role that history has played in black/white race relations in the U.S.

It is very easy to forget that our present and the present of others are ultimately the current culmination of what our ancestors passed down from generation to generation. This is both a progression of traditions and heritage, as well as the transmission of changes each generation made in the face of the perceived cultural failings.

Without the considering that this progression happens in every culture, it is all too easy to judge the cultural practices that we find distasteful in others from our own progression. While there is no question that regardless of the cultural context some cultural practices are absolutely repugnant, any attempt to foster change in those cultures must take into account the history that brought about those practices. When one can communicate from the context of this other culture and it's history, it creates a communication paradigm that this other culture will be far more receptive to.

I think a very good example of this, is the history of interactions between native Americans and the European settlers. Many of those of us who were educated in public schools were taught that the Europeans did really horrible things to the natives of this land. But what we were taught actually paints my ancestors in a much better light than they deserve. It is a lot like saying that Nazi Germany mistreated the Jews.

What actually happened was nothing less than a systematic attempt to entirely destroy the cultural heritage of all native Americans. From outright genocide, to removing children from their parents for re-education, often beating children who spoke their native languages or attempted to follow their spiritual heritage. Just 120 years ago, we still thought little of gunning down 200 natives. Just 37 years ago, intolerable conditions on a primarily Lakota reservation, led residents of that reservation to take over and occupy a small town, leading to a major standoff with federal officers.

And just 18 years ago, two native Americans lost their jobs and were denied unemployment benefits for having participated in a religious ceremony involving the ingestion of peyote. While many of us assume that the exploitation of native lands ended a long time ago, even today we refuse to allow the reservations the autonomy they were promised by treaties made and broken over the past two hundred and some odd years. Attempts to assuage our guilt by allowing native Americans to open casinos on their lands is ludicrously inadequate.

I learned the Disney version of the history of interactions between European immigrants and native Americans more than twenty years ago. I have learned the considerably more horrifying truth of it mostly over the past ten years. Yet this understanding is essential to understanding just why many native Americans are extremely angry. For nearly three hundred years they have been subjected to the whims of mostly European settlers and their antecedents. Entire native cultures have been irretrievably destroyed, all others threatened nigh to extinction.

As the conquerors who wrote the history, we learn something less shameful than the reality. Our ancestors (those who have roots extending back) committed horrible atrocities, atrocities that many wanted to forget. What was passed through our generational progression was slowly changed to something far less egregious that it was. Making it easier to ignore much of the suffering this nation was founded upon and to ignore our continued subjugation of native Americans.

Native Americans have a generational progression as well. One that carries the scars of cuts hundreds of years old, given stark clarity by the wounds suffered by each generation since. Without understanding both our own history and the history if native Americans - a history that stretches for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans, it is very difficult to understand the anger, the sensitivities of natives taking offense to things that most of us would otherwise consider trivial.


Anonymous said...

This is a little off subject but somewhat related. I am reading a book titled "Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche"

The books premise is that we Americans export our ideas about mental illnesses without any consideration of the culture we are dealing with,and as these standards become popularized in foreign cultures people in those foreign cultures begin to mimic the symptoms to be found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In some cases the psychologist will in fact persuade the patient to conform with the symptoms in their questionnaires.

I believe your post involves ethnocentrism.

GTG take care of yourself

Very interesting book.

Anonymous said...

I own a book titled American Holocaust by David Stannard that must be read in relatively small doses lest the exhaustingly detailed perfidy of the European settlement of the Americas make me crazy.

Winthrop Jordan wrote a book called White over Black which deals specifically with slaves and freed slaves, from 1550 to 1812.This book requires me to take breaks as well. Both works document the sometimes delicate dance around the humanness of the various Nations and Tribes that were uprooted/destroyed.

I comment rarely but like most of your stuff. I'm too much of a contrarian to pretend to agree with all of your positions but you make me think. This is always more important to me.

Christ Davis

DuWayne Brayton said...

Actually, not only does this post involve enthnocentrism, that book and the discussion of cultural relativity in psychology is very relevant to this post. The reason I am so very intent on taking the classes I am involving language and culture, is because I am studying psych and linguistics. While it is my intent to work in academia, I also will be doing a lot of clinical work and research.

This inane idea that the expression of mental illness is universal across cultures is patently absurd. It isn't even universal withing U.S. culture. Women tend to express mental illness quite differently than men. Different people may present different symptoms for the same neurological issue - thus why some diagnostic criteria are rather expansive.

No, this is quite relevant - albeit on the application end...

Christ -

To be honest, it sometimes turns out that *I* don't agree with all of my ideas. Other times, I have been known to write about things I am still forming an opinion on.

In this particular case I have formed a definite opinion, but I have had that opinion for a long time. I did not however, really understand it because I didn't have to language (in this case jargon) to fully consider it.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, Yeah! I like that piece about not having the language to fully consider an idea being examined.

Christ Davis