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Cultural Liberation: East-West Biculturalism for a New Century
by Steve McCarty
Professor, Kagawa Junior College, Japan
A new kind of human liberation is dawning as global communications shatter the complacency of monoculturalism. This nascent worldwide emancipation from monoculturalism towards multiculturalism may merit the term cultural liberation. Here it implies a liberation neither from culture itself nor from any particular culture, although the latter may be possible to an extent through creativity and metacultural awareness. This essay aims more modestly to show how the development of cultural pluralism at the societal and individual levels is emancipatory. Insofar as this is true, uniting East and West within individuals can be proffered as a 21st Century approach to human evolution, providing a new perspective on the challenges now facing humanity.
At the societal level, cultures cannot meet uncompromisingly anymore, the powerful or wealthy absorbing others into their own imperium. In a one-superpower world the danger is now unilateralism. Even world peace, if enforced on American terms, would meet with not only appreciation but also wariness. At a more deliberate pace and with a consultative approach, more lasting results can be achieved by multilateralism.
In a pluralistic world, different groups need to find a middle ground outside of any particular cultural framework, and to meet in mutual respect for there to be genuine communication. This cultural neutrality could be based on the recognition of universally human traits and aspirations. These aspirations are reflected in United Nations declarations such as those aiming to safeguard the global environment or linguistic and other human rights.
Another approach to a middle ground would be to synthesize elements of different cultures, even while each culture is preserved intact. International or multicultural organizations operate with parliamentary procedures that are culturally biased, such as _Robert's Rules of Order_. These procedures could be reformed, for example to reflect effective Asian social practices that emphasize consultation, saving face and avoiding confrontations. Such reforms would represent biculturalism or multiculturalism instituted as an explicit policy, for the purpose of constructive collaboration among peoples of different cultures. Multicultural organizations would be more democratic if their very procedures reflected the cultures involved, and international organizations could work better to make peace and solve problems facing the world.
In multipolar global forums, each group will have to recognize the multiplicity of valid cultural viewpoints involved. Issues such as the rapid development of cities can be seen very differently depending upon whether the viewer is rich or poor, or upon cultural differences in the proxemics of personal space. In any international forum, while a _lingua franca_ for discussions is needed, it is incumbent upon native speakers to see that the views of non-native speakers are registered.
Regional or economic blocs must not be overgeneralized into cultural monoliths, for example lumping Asian cultures together under the rubric of Eastern thought, any more than one would mistake the European Community for a cultural monolith. Within Asia there are striking contrasts even between neighboring cultures such as Korea, with its passions and bright colors displayed, and Japan, with its restrained subtlety and preference for subdued colors. Each country or ethnic group in Asia, as elsewhere, calls for a certain recognition of its cultural heritage.
So-called homogeneous societies such as Japan's, with relatively little cultural diversity, are prone to a sort of monoculturalism, a collective selfishness not essentially different from the individual kind. Whereas in so-called multicultural societies, such as Australia's, the mere juxtaposition of different cultures does not guarantee a relationship integrating them into a single society. There can also be a sort of competitive gridlock among constituent subcultures, as with Korean- Americans and Afro-Americans in Los Angeles in effect keeping each other down.
Every society could therefore do more to counter ethnocentrism with multiculturalism and internationalism. The world citizenship of individuals is hindered at this stage by nationalism, so grass-roots initiatives must show the way to globalism. At face-to-face conferences, for example, American and Chinese scholars meet in friendship without waiting for their governments to reconcile. As people in most countries gain Internet access, furthermore, discussion lists and other forms of computer-mediated communication are accelerating the direct dialogue between citizens of the world.
Turning to the individual level, the ethnocentric monoculturalist is a person who takes relative customs and beliefs for granted as absolutes. A certain religion may serve to maintain ethics among its community of believers, but trouble often occurs when other communities are expected to follow the same rules. Monoculturalists from different cultures can meet and similarly damn each other as barbarians, ironically. Monoculturalism is often simply the result of having little meaningful contact with people outside one's own culture.
An individual can generally become aware of having a certain cultural background only through the comparison afforded by contacting members of a contrasting culture. An American man may think of himself as an individual, but traveling abroad he finds himself categorized as an American. He is expected to represent American culture, and even in resisting it he is forced to confront the role of representing a culture. This may not be so pronounced when traveling to Montreal or Paris, but arriving at an Asian airport he knows he is not in Kansas anymore. He gropes for reassuring signs like Macdonald's, only to find that it is a horse of a different color under the same golden arches. If this other culture is so obviously different, yet it works, it raises the whole question of cultural relativity, that there might even be something arbitrary about one's own culture.
Not only does an East Asian language differ from English in semantics, syntax, and writing system, but the differences in communication style reflect the East-West contrast in cultures. Yet even cross-cultural misunderstandings can have the value of demonstrating the limitations of monoculturalism. Vastly outnumbered abroad, it is difficult to keep asserting that everyone else is doing things the wrong way. Then one may try approaching a problem differently, more like the other culture, and see surprisingly good results. Adopting Asian-style politeness, gratitude, humility, a sense of reciprocity, becoming a good listener and more cooperative generally, may even make one more popular back in a Western country. In any event, the facts of cross-cultural experience tend to lead one to see the previous monocultural status quo as narrow-mindedness, a handicap in self-development as well as in international interpersonal relations.
Cross-cultural encounters reveal that even commonsensical assumptions differ radically among cultures. Foreigners in Japan, for example, face stark cultural differences which have nevertheless proven viable for the country itself. Just as individualism results in high productivity in the U.S., group-orientation does so in Japan. Each individual in Japan struggles to make the system work precisely because they are individuals and it is a hard job to adjust oneself to others. Americans could conversely be viewed as working in groups or conforming to fads. Cultural differences are a matter of degree among universally human possibilities.
Just like driving on the left side of the road, as in Japan, the system works because people agree to it. They agree that evasiveness or humble gestures defuse hostility, while self-justification is counterproductive, therefore social reality works that way in Japan. At some point a Westerner's native sense of certitude is liable to collide with another based on quite different assumptions, so certitude itself is called into question. This is a college of hard knocks, as adjusting to a contrasting and relatively impermeable culture like Japan's can constitute a stage even beyond mastering one of the world's most difficult languages.
Nevertheless, foreign language study must be recommended, because monolingualism is a gatekeeper of monoculturalism. Foreign language education explicitly for intercultural communication, if unbiased and free of stereotyping, can open the door to cosmopolitanism. There is a genre of ESL textbooks ostensibly for this purpose, some of which free students--who can read very difficult English--from stereotypes, while others--with simplified English--tend to reinforce stereotypes.
Textbooks for learning Japanese tend to be more traditional thus far, so there is much that learners must intuit from experience with native speakers. Generally speaking, learning the local language--and not relying on English-mediated knowledge or foreigner-handlers in the case of Japan--is a more effective approach to intercultural communication. Intercultural training that advertises itself as an alternative to language learning can be justified for sojourners, but after several years in a country, not knowing its language becomes increasingly difficult to rationalize.
Some degree of bilinguality is instrumental to cultural liberation, but does not guarantee its seal. The respective cultural systems behind each language need to be held in mind for biculturalism and intercultural communication skills to develop. Then such communicative competence would have to be applied by the individual with equivalent ethical competence.
There could be monolingual exceptions who discover cultural liberation intuitively. The Bronte sisters never traveled far, but their minds did. Now self-education and a degree of liberation need be no further than the nearest library or online computer. By living in different regions of a diverse country, an individual may be led by the facts of experience to transcend provincialism. By dint of study or introspection, it is possible to recognize the arbitrariness or relativity of one's culturally-based assumptions. In an ideal scenario, one would be able at will to take off one's culturally colored glasses. But learning foreign languages generally certifies the effort needed to meet other cultures halfway.
Despite Kipling's adage that "the twain shall never meet," East and West are beginning to unite within individuals, though the trend may not be recognized until the 21st Century. This emergent social movement is largely thanks to the efforts of Asians and other non-native speakers of English who are adjusting themselves to core Western cultures. There is also a small but significant movement reciprocating from the side of English native speakers.
My bilingual survey of nearly 200 adult bilinguals in Japan has not yet been published, but the results support many of the points in this essay that may seem abstract. Shigeo Imamura, whose academic career has straddled the U.S. and Japan, switches languages, communication styles and cultural personalities like gears. Because of the link between language and gestures, there have also been cases of Westerners in Japan bowing on the telephone when speaking Japanese, but not when speaking English. As there are already such signs of a biculturalism that bridges oceans, a widespread multicultural awareness could someday result in a reconciliation of the world's cultures.
Communication based on mutual respect does not threaten the cultural heritage of either side, but adds knowledge and coping skills to the cultural repertoire of those involved. Clearly both sides have much to gain and mainly false pride to lose from intercultural alliances. It has proven possible to part with mutually exclusive national and cultural allegiances. Some of those born with dual nationality, for example, have had no difficulty identifying with both cultures. Biculturals can be both, and be cognitively enriched in the process.
Cross-cultural comparison and self-reflection, far from uprooting individuals culturally, shed light on their roots and the whole context of the field in which their roots are embedded. Without relinquishing cultural differences, the boundaries thereof can be transcended via awareness of cultures as such. Mentally healthy individuals can stand to be emancipated from the unconscious and hence involuntary processes of cultural identification that limit them and cut them off from the majority of humanity.
East-West studies of comparative culture may find a surprising number of traits to be universally human. It may even be found that the self-realization process is universally human, but just manifests differently according to the culture. If this were recognized about the so-called collectivistic societies in Asia, and by Asian individuals themselves, great impetus would be given to grass-roots globalism. Just as a seed is directed intelligently towards its potentiality as a full-grown tree, the self-realization process could be considered universally human.
In summation, cultural liberation is fostered by learning about other cultures and communicating with their members. It begins with the self-awareness to see one's own culture as such. In recognition of a pluralistic world, it develops by stages into biculturalism and multiculturalism. This is not a liberation from culture itself, as individuals would bring their culture(s) even into isolation from human contact. It is rather a liberation from identifying exclusively with one's own cultural entity and its members. One's cultural identity can instead be consciously developed towards globalism and further needed stages of human evolution.