Staring Diversity in the Eye

The French Parliament has passed a resolution condemning the wearing of veils, as reported by feminist blogger Aimee Sea in an article pointing out the tremendous irony in the idea that women must be saved from oppression by the government telling them what to wear.  To impose a ban on wearing veils, she declared, would be an infringement upon freedoms of expression and religion, amounting to cultural imperialism.

Some commenters made remarks to the effect that they saw nothing wrong with expecting people to conform to the majority culture, that anyone who wants to wear a burka can go back where she came from, and that it is disrespectful to cover one’s face instead of making eye contact.  In response, Aimee Sea mentioned that in some cultures, eye contact is considered rude and aggressive.  The fact that some people find eye contact uncomfortable for neurological reasons wasn’t mentioned, but that also raises issues of respect and its differing interpretations.

I live in an area of the United States where some conservative Christian women cover their heads and wear long dresses.  They are not perceived as far enough outside the mainstream to trigger a xenophobic response.  It’s more the sort of place where a woman might be criticized for not dressing modestly enough.  Many years ago, I was walking along the sidewalk in a tank top and shorts when somebody I’d never seen before rolled down her car window and hollered at me, “Put on a bra!”

Although I must admit that I felt startled at the time, there’s really nothing at all unusual about being the target of a drive-by cultural conformity attack, in one way or another.  We learn from an early age that we must not look or act too different from others or else we’re sure to be ridiculed and shamed, as Mark Stairwalt discussed in his post on Monday.  The messages are all around us, constantly.  Put on a bra, but stay away from those strange women who wear veils.  Look me in the eye.  You can’t get a tattoo because nobody will hire you for a good job.  Sit still and don’t fidget.  Stop flapping your hands like that—you wouldn’t want people to think there might be something wrong with you, now would you?

In the simpler world of the not-so-distant past, it was possible for many of us to maintain the social fiction that everyone who looked superficially alike was in fact alike, while packing off to the jails and institutions those who inconveniently broke the illusion.  But now, in our modern interconnected world, people often find that their comfortable old set of social expectations isn’t a match for what they are actually seeing.  They can’t fathom how to deal with it, and they feel very threatened when they begin to realize that we’re all wearing metaphorical veils or masks of various sorts.  Their first reaction is to condemn what they don’t understand, to rip off the veil either literally or figuratively, and to demand that the deviant individual behave exactly the way they expected.

Theory of mind—which encompasses the belief that it is possible to look into others’ eyes and know intuitively what they must be thinking—has started to break down.  To put it another way, there’s just too much diversity walking around on the streets of today’s world for that social fiction to be maintained.  It’s no longer as effective to apply a simplistic set of cultural algorithms, whether found in the official DSM criteria or in a schoolyard bully’s thought processes, to determine the extent to which someone has failed to conform to an arbitrary concept of the normal person and must be coerced to do so.  Instead a new recognition of diversity is taking root, a respectful awareness that the human mind is far more complex and includes far more possibilities than can be accounted for by such calculations.  We are relearning the humility in the face of the unknown that our ancient forebears once took for granted.

on 05/26/10 in featured, Society | 2 Comments | Read More

Comments (2)


  1. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Mose Allison imagines what you’re talking about as a done deal:

    Ever since the world ended,
    I don’t go out as much.
    People that I once befriended
    Just don’t bother to stay in touch.
    Things that used to seem so splendid
    Don’t really matter today.
    It’s just as well the world ended —
    It wasn’t working anyway.

    Every since the world ended,
    There’s no more bible belt.
    Remember how we all pretended?
    Going ’round, lying ’bout the way we felt.
    Every rule has been amended,
    There’s no one keeping score.
    It’s just as well the world ended —
    We couldn’t have taken much more.

    Ever since the world ended,
    There’s no more black or white.
    Ever since we all got blended,
    there’s no more reason to fuss and fight.
    Dogmas that we once defended
    no longer seem worthwhile.
    Ever since the world ended,
    I face the future —
    With a smile.

    End of the world? “Apocalypse” after all at root means simply a disclosure or uncovering of truth….

  2. Gwen McKay says:

    Yes, that’s often how things go… what might be a wonderful discovery for one person looks like the end of the world to another.

    Jazz sure has a way of putting things in perspective.

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