Stereotypes and Cultural Relativism: Nothing is Definitive

What does it mean to be a Mundusian?

With a purpose largely centered around getting my head straight for this exam essay topic set yesterday and due over the weekend, here is another prolix post on some recent observations around the Mundus programme.

I tend to over-think and over-analyse everything.  Actually everything.  I go into a grocery store (especially in the States), and get a little shell-shocked at all of the options, spending what is probably too much time comparing prices to portion sizes and what is/not in season.

The same habits have followed me into this programme.  I am always sifting through every thought and opinion I have before I voice them, wondering how American do I sound?  How female do I sound?  How well-spoken or articulate is this thought I am currently verbalising?  I feel like on at least a couple of occasions, fellow Mundusians in Group A may have chalked up some of my ill-spoken comments to their own slight misunderstanding of english (my sincerest apologies for that; I am not the best off-the-cuff speaker, and we’ve all seen how well I read aloud – ha).

There are things about me that are very American, and specifically Southern American.  My use of the words ‘goober’, ‘hash’, ‘blinker’, ‘biscuit’; my tendency to put condiments on everything (e v e r y t h i n g); my preference for Jack Daniels and Cherry Coke.  There are also some nuanced differences I have noticed between myself and many Mundusians and others I’ve met, things that are more culturally-ingrained than intentionally employed.

I cannot put my finger on many specific examples; the differences are small, and involve ways of speaking, eating (“How is that you’re holding your fork?”), communicating with others, initiative to do things outside the program.  What hits home the most for me is how Americans are perceived, particularly when someone meets me, doesn’t realise I’m from the US, learns I’m from the US, and suddenly speaks to me differently.  Sometimes it’s more critically: asking about my thoughts on the former Bush administration, the poor handling of health care in my country, my perceptions of Muslims, everything.  Other times I get the feeling that the person just wants to pat me on the head and say “bless your heart.”

Nothing incredibly negative has been said to me, in fact very little has been in one direction or another.  It’s just a lot of observations, a lot of dialogue, a lot of comparing viewpoints from back home to the collective (dare I say it? respatialised) perspectives here.  Example, we had an awesome lecture on terrorism last week by one of our professors (the American one, no less), during which several points were raised that could never have been uttered in most of my classes back home, even my upper-level political science and international studies courses.  While the lecture centered around the professor’s personal definition of terrorism, I felt that his conception of it was fair enough, and covered the necessary bases.

This definition opened the door to the existence of state terrorism, something I had discussed little in previous classes.  To summarise, this lens causes one to look at actions like the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of WWII as actions of terrorism.

[Collective gasp from some of my American readers, and my sister jokingly calling me a dirty hippie.]

But basically, yeah, it’s something to consider.  It’s something I had pondered before, loosely, in essays centering around revolutionary movements, political agendas, and state-specific actors; yet until recently, I hadn’t been able to explore it as thoroughly as I could have.  So that was an interesting experience.

Bringing it back to cultural relativism, I remarked to some of my colleagues about not being able to discuss the idea of American terrorism before, and a good lot of them were surprised.  Sweeping generalisation alert: the majority of your average Europeans are probably, overall, a tad bit more open to a greater depth of critical thought than the majority of your average Americans.  Which is sort of an ironic thing to say, given the extent of the 1st Amendment in the US.  Just yesterday I read an article from the BBC (here) about how a guy was given jail time for writing threatening Tweets to an MP.  Yes, his Tweets included threats to rape her, but even with that, I seriously doubt he would have gotten more than a slap on the wrist in the USA.  (Not that I believe he got anything less than he deserved.)

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with one of the Danes about ideology of identity, comparing it here in Denmark to back in the US.  In Denmark it seems to be sort of a negative thing to stand or single yourself out, and this is seen in everything from the makeup of the welfare system to patterns and styles of dress.  (Wearing more than one or two colors, like my affinity with tie-dyed shirts, apparently is considered quite strange.)  People are taught from an early age a kind of all-for-one-and-one-for-all mindset: we are all the same, we must help each other.  It is nice, and mostly efficient, but as with everything there are critics.

Enter the United States of America, home of unique and special snowflakes.  For my generation, our whole lives we were taught that everyone is different, and to each his own ability.  But this falls slightly short of the idea of a community of fate, in that we are expected to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and survive, our neighbors be damned.  Welfare is stigmatised, race is polarised, and society in general falls short of being globalised.  What government-sponsored safeguards do exist are largely inefficient, and at times just not enough.  Again, there are exceptions.  Small-town communities (as in rural areas) and liberal-minded cities (like Asheville, NC) have extensive interconnectivity where “help thy neighbor” is key.

While I do appreciate the European welfare systems in place — particularly in Denmark where you’re paid to go to school — I take issue in that I feel some people may take it for granted.  Individuals may not realize how good they have it here, despite all the potential failings of different parts of their systems.  I am not ashamed to say I’m over $60,000 in debt for my education (next year not included); I am merely exasperated when people here (and while I was abroad in Swansea) complain about things with their funding.  I felt the same while studying in the US, when a roommate my freshman year would complain about how her Daddy’s check just wasn’t enough to cover all of her outings that week.

Yet I feel I also take being American for granted sometimes.  Overall I love my country, but I would be quite okay with spending most of the rest of my life abroad.  When I met a guy from Poland a month ago and expressed this thought, he was absolutely incredulous and could not believe I would ever leave the USA in the first place.

Guys, we don’t know everything about each other.  We don’t know where we’ve been, what we’ve experienced, the days we felt like dying or the days that were all sunshine and rainbows.  It all can come down to whether or not we believe Jan Aart Scholte is right in the head or full of shit: trying to step away from the pulls of our nationalities, our state- and experientially-inspired outlooks and see each other for who we are, getting to know each other, getting respatialised in our perceptions of how we (and others) fit on this little planet.

Though I imagine that this week, who we are is a bunch of college students running on too little sleep and too much coffee figuring out what kind of drugs one has to be on to come up with the word “supraterritoriality.”

One thought on “Stereotypes and Cultural Relativism: Nothing is Definitive

  1. Alison Haywood says:

    It’s so interesting reading your blog! Even though we’re both Americans and both doing the same program, it’s funny what different things stand out to us and what we get out of the experience at the end of the day.

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