WAH’s latest post on the uniquely Japanese parts of anime brings a cavalcade of insistent commentators out of the woodwork.
Before I get to my responses, let me just point out that the inherently arbitrary mental constructs that form culture and identity are very, very difficult to look past. I am sympathetic to that difficulty, but I don’t think that it really excuses willful preference. Getting over yourself is a vital skill when understanding other cultures, and if you don’t have it, you will fail.
“There’s a difference between “oh, that’s just their culture” and batshit insanity/stupidity . . . It’s like when I was told that in Egypt, driving with your headlights on at night is considered rude. It just crosses over the line at that point, y’know?”
Actually, whether or not it crosses over the line is not the point at all. Understanding other cultures is not best done with the attitude, “I’ll accommodate them to the point where I don’t agree.” Rather, try, “that’s how they do things and an outsider has no right to judge.”
Yes, outside of any cultural context, a simple refusal to use lights when it is dark is probably maladaptive. If, however, you really were primarily interested in understanding Egyptian culture, your response would have been, “That’s curious; why is that?” rather than “Ugh, that’s sooo stupid.” Because you went in with the assumption that it would be productive to judge another culture, you closed your mind as soon as you ran into something you couldn’t instantly understand.
I’ve never encountered the headlight issue, but let’s look at an example from America: Hasidic Jews in New York had days of debate over whether or not to adopt a closed loop over a few fences, which symbolically would have made a public space into a communally owned space. The point of this? On the Sabbath, they are not permitted to work, and their interpretation of ritual law is such that they cannot carry purses or wallets outside the home, because that could lead to significant purchases, which would constitute work. The ultimate end of this loop would be to allow them to walk outside their houses with their wallets, a privilege the average American enjoys without thinking twice about it.
I imagine this falls within the category of things that some outsiders simply cannot understand. However, even if you cannot empathize, “that’s batshit insane” is not a productive attitude to take. For reasons you cannot presently understand, they have rules that they wish to follow. What good does it do you to scream and call them names? Are you here to understand them, or try to force them to do things in ways that make sense to you?