I've been going round-and-round recently about something. The latest issue of National Geographic (out this weekend) has for the cover story a rather recursive story about the finding of the 'Afghan Girl', the most celebrated cover photo in recent Geographic history. If you haven't been paying attention, there is was a cover photo of a green-eyed girl from an Afghan refugee camp in 1985. Subsequently, she disappeared, and even as the photo became an historic image and people began to search for her, no clue as to her whereabouts was known.
Well, they found her, all grown up, in Afghanistan. And, unsurprisingly, she's a typical Afghan woman - wears a burka, lives in a dirt-floored hut, fetches stream water to wash and cook with. She'd never seen the photograph which sparked the interest of so many millions.
Which led me to thinking about the status of women in Afghani culture. Which in turn led me to wonder - why people in other cultures are willing to accept that sort of thing. Sure, the obvious example is that the people with the guns like it... but that doesn't really cut it. There are examples both of situations where the people with guns accept things that one might expect they wouldn't and examples where despite the desires of the people with guns, change has happened.
At any rate, this time my musing took me down the cultural path. And I postulated - perhaps the 'will to question' itself is a cultural thing. Perhaps Western culture is unusual in that it values and advocates questioning. Perhaps the Enlightenment and scientific turn that European thought took is not shared by other cultures, which substitute questioning (which in this case implies alternatives) with wondering (which merely seeks to understand, but not to offer other possibilities).
And, of course, I am referring to the modern West. Pre-enlightenment Europe (and Spain until about 1980) looks remarkably like the rest of the world in it's acceptance of people challenging the status quo. Which is an argument for the theory that questioning is a trait embedded in the culture, not in simply being human.
Because children, which I think we can assume are similar across cultures (before nurture really sinks in) are always asking 'why?' - but they don't necessarily ask 'why not?'. And it's 'why not' that gets you in trouble. If you ask why you have to be covered head to toe, they can tell you. And as long as you never deny what they tell you, everything fits together. But the first time you think 'maybe God doesn't become surly if I wear shorts' - that's when you are in trouble.
And I don't know whether that is a Western trait or not. It's possible that other cultures are just good at silencing dissent. Lord knows the West has spawned quite a few variants that were really focused on that, although they largely died in the 20th century. (Not that that was a sure thing. Some poor alternate you is living in 1984, forever.) But it seems more likely that other cultures simply don't value questioning. People are not taught to ask why things are the way they are, instead of some other way. They simply dont think 'well, what if we try doing this other thing' - because valuing that thought is a cultural trait.
Obviously, not that people in other cultures never question the dominant paradigm. But it's the 'man on the street' that may be the most important. The average person. The green-eyed girl in the photo. Do they ever ask 'why' - that's the societal difference. And I don't know. I have a deep cultural knowledge of exactly one culture. And it's not even that broad within that one itself.
Still, you have to wonder if perhaps that is true. And in wondering, are you separated from a big chunk of the species?
- Sun Ra
Columns by Sun Ra