Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

August 11, 2017

Other ways than ours

Filed under: Culture,Op-eds — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:49 am

Just the other day I had a delightful conversation with a chance met acquaintance at our local family pub.

This elderly fellow (by which I mean my age) was wearing a T-shirt that he’d acquired in Monrovia, Liberia. A young (college-age) man asked if Monrovia was in Europe somewhere.

Well no, it’s in Africa and it’s the capitol of Liberia. And in fact it’s named after President James Monroe. Because the country was founded by the American Colonization Society in the 19th century as a nation for freed American slaves.

The Americo-Africans formed a local aristocracy that ran things until a coup, followed by a purge, followed by two civil wars.

At any rate my new acquaintance is a retired small-town police chief who was recruited for peace keeping duties in Liberia after he retired from the police force.

In the ordinary course of events one might wonder what we found to talk about, our backgrounds in America having so little in common. He was a cop, I a journalist. He had lived in Africa, I in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Quite a lot actually. We talked with the easy familiarity of people who share a common language. The language of people who know there are other ways than ours.

Most Americans really don’t understand this on anything but an intellectual level, and oddly enough we’ve found those who are loudest in their appreciation of “diversity” understand it the least.
Unless one has lived in a truly foreign culture, and by lived I mean for at least a year and acquired a functional knowledge of the language, one cannot really appreciate that not everybody thinks like us.

We are a W.E.I.R.D. culture: Western Educated Industrialized Rich and Democratic. A term my new acquaintance had never heard before but understood instantly when I mentioned it.

For example, he told me the story of conducting an investigation into an accidental drowning in a village out in the bush.

How do you think that would go in small town America?

A tragedy for sure, and a terrible loss for family and friends. I know, I’ve covered such stories and taken some heat when people thought the press had been too intrusive.

Would you ever think it would result in murder though?

What happened was the investigative team spent the best part of the day trying to convince villagers that this kind of thing just happened, that it was nobody’s fault. Because they were about to take it out on the least popular most vulnerable villagers. Because in their culture they did not believe there was any such thing as “death by natural causes.”

And he really doesn’t know what happened after they left the village.

I mentioned an experience in the Middle East when I got some of my news from an English-language newspaper, The Arab Times.

I was reading an advice column, but not exactly the kind of advice Dear Abby used to give. A reader wrote in to say he had a beef with a neighbor and was thinking about getting even.

He was going to get even with black magic.

The advice columnist sternly warned him that using black magic was strictly against the Koran.

Well, it’s strictly against the Bible too but it doesn’t come up very often in Sunday sermons these days.

Understand, the columnist was in no way denying the reality or efficacy of black magic. He was warning that it’s against the law.

How quaint. To think such things still exist in odd corners of the world. But of course that kind of thing doesn’t happen here anymore. Not since colonial days and the Salem witch trials.

Think so? If you were to go to the Navaho reservation and talk to the Navajo tribal police you’d find they take accusations of witchcraft very seriously. Because yes even in the 21st century people could get killed over that kind of thing.

This is what experience of other cultures teaches. That while yes, we are all human beings and share a common human nature within that common humanity there are a lot of different ways to be human.

Note: The title of this column is an allusion to Robert Heinlein’s book “Podkayne of Mars.” It’s the title of a book the titular heroine’s archeologist father wrote about the native Martians.

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