What is culture? Culture can be defined as the the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.
In the Bible there is a story about the tower of Babel. It goes like this – the ancient people who had one language and a common speech wanted to build a tower so high that it would reach the heavens. They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar to build a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, to make a name for themselves. This was also done to prevent themselves from being scattered over the face of the whole earth.
While they were busy constructing this tower so that they could be gods – it is said that God mixed their tongue so they will not understand each other. It is believed that the God scattered them from there to over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. This city was called Babel because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world forcing them to be scattered over the face of the whole earth. This story doesn’t happen only in the Bible but in many ancient cultures having different forms of the same story. Gradually these people who now spoke different languages were shaped by their interactions with each other and of the world they interacted with.
Later in Christianity it is believed that the arrival of the Holy Spirit following the death of Jesus was an attempt to bring all the cultures together in spirit – a more religious way at approaching the problem of divergent cultures. The religion of Christianity that was setup soon after that was able to have more than half of the world’s population under its fold. However as science, industrialization and individualism grew, religion started to diminish because these new logical and rationalized concepts contradicted its existence.
I was born in the United Arab Emirates, an extremely oil rich nation with a sparse population of native tribes amalgamated into a federation of 7 emirates. Due to these inherent factors and the desire to build a modern society, the country needed external help, however they did not want to compromise on their rich Arab and ancient Islamic heritage. Instead of providing immigration, these ‘expatriates’ worked contractually for a fixed period after which they would have to leave the country – this applies to even business people who invested capital there. The motto was simple, you come here, make money and then leave. Due to a zero taxation culture at that time, living in the Emirates was lucrative for decades. Growing up there I was exposed to a cultural melting pot of people from Europe, North Africa, South East Asia and the subcontinent. This gave me a solid foundation at an attempt to understand people and their cultures that defined them.
When I moved to Kerala for my higher education, I was exposed to extreme tolerance, another key aspect in being sensitive to cultural norms. This helped me understand and appreciate how much one needed to understand the point of view of others. If you study Kerala and the migrations to the state, you can see Arabs, Jews, Muslims and various Indian nationalities living peacefully, some even to this day. The key here is tolerance.
When I came to Canada with its immigration policies, one can clearly see how this country embraces the right people from different cultures and countries with open arms, accepting newer customs into their culture and realizing that the Canadian culture will be formed eventually through generations by a process of acceptance and assimilation. The same applies to the US as well, however with a caveat – racism.
US has a chequered history partly due to its inability to heal racial divides and stubbornness to actually move on from its obsession with racism and never ending victimization. You cannot deny there is racism in Canada, but it is more passive in nature and not as deadly as seen in USA. I have had bad experiences multiple times during my visits to USA, partly due to the color of my skin and also my place of birth – UAE, which with its Islamic roots was the place where some of the 9/11 attackers actually came to USA.
To summarize, the various cultures that roam around this earth are formed by the conditions that the earth has exposed them to from time immemorial. We should make all efforts to ensure that we respect various cultures, have tolerance and be patient with them – because with a prolonged global pandemic still raging, the general populace is not going to tolerate outdated assumptions and cultural insensitiveness anymore.
Photo by Robert Metz on Unsplash
Being culturally insensitive is no longer a choice.