Thursday, January 2, 2014

Differences can indeed inspire, and not frighten...are we up to the task?

It's a New Year, but the same old stories about "ethnic cleansing" are erupting in many regions of the planet, prompting this scribe to wonder about the motives and the "framing" of these conflicts.
Israelis and Palestinians are attempting to find an accord that will permit them to live in peace, amid stories of ethnic cleansing on the West Bank. The African continent is rife with stories of more 'ethnic cleansing' and distaste for the "other" continues in some futile yet incessant attempt to render the "other" expendable.
Attempting to make any region pure from "others" who do not belong, who were not born there, who do not worship at the same altar, who may not even speak the same language or dialect only shouts more vociferously the fears of those attempting this futile "cleansing".
While there are clearly some advantages to a spirit of nationalism that bring some people together, those advantages are far outweighed by the dangers of "a superiority" or a special status for those whom we consider "native" indigenous.
We have all manner of means to distance ourselves from "the other" including body language that demonstrates our distaste for their very presence, language of racism that includes monikers like "alien" or "DP" or "foreigner" or "Paki" or "slant eyes" or....and the list takes on the narrow parochialisms of each region on the planet.
Sometimes, these differences go far back into a distant past in which a tribal incident saw someone "stealing" the prize female from another tribe, and the insult continues for decades, if not centuries.
Long before there was writing and books and newspapers, people told "tales" of those who offended the honour of  "our culture" by some kind of invasive measure, by some insult, or even attack, or robbery or ....fill in the blank. And, predictably, humans never forget!
And we carry our grudges over into the succeeding generations, like spiteful, and "wronged" children.
Also, the manner of the telling of those stories is too often from the victim's perspective, as if the insulted party had no part to play in the rupture. This kind of telling of our stories is often the case in marriage and family breakdowns, in which the "dumper" is touted as the criminal or the wrongdoer especially by the "dumpee", the one whose perceptions of the state of the "union" were that nothing was wrong and that it would last until death. Victims are the loudest voices in our human communities, and they are often the voices that shape the culture of the family, or the tribe, the village and even the nation.
Having spent some time in a "foreign" country, although the differences between the U.S. and Canada are minimal, on the surface, having been seen and called an "alien," I am familiar with being the "outsider" the one who does not really 'fit' into our way of doing things. Canadians are not regarded in many U.S. quarters as much more than boutique "socialists" who are tarred with the brush of a national health care system, that most Americans consider the most dangerous of all forms of governmental interference. Canadians are also reputed to have originated the violent game of hockey in which fights break out frequently, and blood is spilled on the ice, and people pay good money to watch such an indecent spectacle.
On the other side of the coin, too many Canadians rush to Texas as their example of everything American, Texas where everything has to be larger and louder than it is anywhere else in the world, and they conclude that Americans are all boastful braggards full of their own importance and their own "specialness" that the world needs in order to be more like the U.S. In fact, much of American reputation around the world comes from the Texas stereotype, as does the American version of the Canadian culture find itself spread around the globe.
Both countries are guilty of this kind of parochialism, and "otherness" in order to preserve some vestige of national identity, national pride and national distinction on the global stage.
However, subsuming our differences, in order to accommodate the best interests of each is the task of both education and diplomacy. Exchange programs of university and college students, even between the U.S. and Canada are not as frequent as are those of Canada with Australia, for example, when the costs of such programs would be significantly less if Canadians and Americans were more "open" to each other. Canadians probably feel they would be drowned by any joint project with American colleges and Americans probably consider Canadians beneath their standards, as compared with, for example the Brits, or the Germans.
With all countries, there are also groups who suffer indignities because of their differences with the "majority" culture; among these groups are blacks and Hispanics in the U.S. and First Nations in Canada. For all the propaganda about being advanced and developed countries, both Canada and the U.S. have a long way to travel to acceptance of their own people, especially those "different" people whose demographics are the fastest growing demographics in both countries. The next century, hopefully, will witness a much more authentically integrated culture on both sides of the 49th parallel.
And if such differences continue to plague both Canada and the U.S. with little if any progress over the last century (notwithstanding the election of the first black president!) imagine the deep cultural and ethnic divides that plague countries whose people are deprived of even a modicum of education, decent work, adequate health care and enough to eat. Their many poverties can only exacerbate their cultural and linguistic and religious differences.
Humans are going to have to "grow" the length and the breadth of their "mental landscape" if we are to achieve any kind of harmony on the political and diplomatic issues facing all countries, especially those issues that are becoming common to most if not all countries.
We will have to find those things that unite and that inspire us about the "other" and not just those things that keep us finding ways to remain apart and separate and at odds with those differences.
Imagine a world in which all people thought, perceived and believed in the same way about everything and one incarnation of HELL!
No one would consider such a world even barely interesting and all of us would succumb to its boredom.
However, on the other side, managing and employing our differences to the advantage of our people, including those whose lives are different from our's is a task so monumental, if our history is our guide, that our education system will itself have to transform into a kind of mini United Nations, in each classroom, in order for our children to come to the place where they can, without fear, prejudice or enmity, accept the gifts of "the other" as part of the beauty and blessing of living in a complex and often frictional, and not fractious, world culture.
And our politics will have to lead the way, through more Charters of the Rights and Freedoms of all people in each country! (Just a little hubristic national horn-blowing from a Canadian perspective!

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