A few years ago, I read a mystifying discussion on the subject of Sub-Saharan African development. Side A claimed that SSA was inferior because it had no significant development; Side B claimed that “development” was a cultural value that SSA cultures simply didn’t share. It is true enough that SSA has never had much in the way of “development”–cities were few and far between, and even today, some parts are virtually impassible. (This is a fantastic, wild story, btw, about a couple attempting to cross the DRC by truck. I strongly recommend it.) But how could valuing “development” be culturally relative? Didn’t everyone want development?
A couple of weeks later, I happened, (by total coincidence,) on Liedloff’s The Continuum Concept. This is the kind of book that only tends to appear to hippie parents, but if you’re interested in parenting from an evolutionary perspective, I recommend it. In the book, Liedloff goes to live in a “stone age” village in the Amazon Rainforest. At first she is annoyed by the difficulties of life in the village–for example, there’s no running water. Why don’t the people rig up some sort of system to bring running water to the village so they don’t have to trek down to the river every day?
Then Liedloff has a revelation: the villagers like walking down to the stream every day. It’s a pleasant walk, the stream is nice, and they enjoy having a swim together while they’re there. Is it any better to have running water if you’re less happy as a result?
This is what Side B meant. Not everyone wants to live in skyscrapers. Some people are perfectly happy in huts.
Genetics provides one explanation for why cultures are as they are; gene-culture co-evolution a more refined one. But you don’t have to believe in genetics to understand that cultures are a result of the people who make them.
People like to pretend that culture is nothing more than different clothes and fancy foods. This is Culture for Children, the sort of thing you see at an elementary school Culture Fair.
Food is nice, but that’s not what culture is. Culture is the sum of the personalities, values, even neuroses of the people involved. Some people incredibly driven, super-hard workers. Some people are relaxed and easy going. Some are shy. Some are warm. Japan is Japan because the Japanese made it that way; the DRC is the DRC because the Congolese made it that way. No, the Japanese aren’t perfectly happy with their culture, and neither are the Congolese, and neither are we, but each is still the result of the people in it, and people generally want to keep the parts of their culture that are important to them.
We tend to assume that everyone out there secretly wants to be like us. If we just give them democracy, they’ll start acting like us, we think. If we let them immigrate, they’ll act like us. If we just send them to more school, they’ll start acting like us.
Then we are confused when they don’t.
To this day, the Indians are still pissed off that white people sent them to school to try to impart white culture to them. “Cultural genocide” they call it. And they have every right to be pissed–they didn’t want to be white. They had their own culture. They were perfectly happy with it.
So let them be them and you be you.