Recently, we had our mandatory “Taller Intercultural” meetings. At first, I wasn’t sure what that actually meant. All I knew was that I was going to have to spend at least 2 hours of my Friday afternoon cooped up in a classroom about an hour from my house.
I later found out we’d be talking about cultural difference. At first, I thought the dialogue was a bit corny and boring. However, once I dropped the “too-cool-for-school” act, I realized how much I appreciated having a safe space to think critically about some of these ideas. In fact, for me, the discussion has, at the very least, sparked further individual reflection long after the session ended.
During these sessions, we talked about the many nuanced differences between Spanish and American culture, such as how the idea of personal space is a bit different here—as in it doesn’t exist. People don’t mind getting very cozy with you. In addition, people also don’t apologize when they bump into you on the street or in the metro because it isn’t seen as necessary. Very much along the same lines, the PDA here is quite frequent and explicit. We also discussed how efficiency is not the ultimate goal in Spain—something that I think has definitely bothered all of us capitalist Americans at least once. For example, the madrileño way to do group work is to socialize while doing work, as opposed to focusing on the task at hand first, and leaving the fun for later. The Spanish way might take longer, but for them, it’s about enjoying the experience. Likewise, the school cafeteria is also not organized with efficiency in mind. When you go up to the counter with your order, there is no line to stand in. You push your way to the front of the crowd, and the amount of time you wait to put in your order is at the mercy of the waiters who come to your part of the massive horde of people when they feel like it.
These conversations on cultural difference have only given me more to think about, since one of the concepts I’ve been toying around with lately is the idea of cultural difference versus absolute truths. Is cultural difference compatible with absolute truths? Are there any absolute truths? Is it possible for absolute truths to exist in a multicultural society?
For instance, one of the things we discussed is how the idea of “political correctness” doesn’t exist in Spain. Therefore, if someone says something that we Americans perceive to be rude, we shouldn’t be offended because there was no malicious intent. However, if you still end up deeply offending someone, does intent even matter? Or, does taking offense just signify a lack of cultural sensitivity on the part of the American?
These issues seem trite at first, but when digging beneath the surface, it becomes evident that the answers one could potentially uncover have serious ramifications for society.
This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered these questions. In my Women’s and Gender studies classes, we often apply these ideas to broader contexts. For example, during one class, we examined how America frequently invokes the supposedly universalist language of human rights, but in very selective ways. The War on Terror is case in point: our country often discussed the invasion of Afghanistan as a liberating endeavor to “save” the women of the Middle East from their “uniformly oppressive” regimes – as if the U.S. doesn’t discriminate against its own women.
On the other hand, in these same classes, we have also investigated how culture can be deployed as a way to morally absolve oppressors. For instance, in my opinion, culture cannot justify the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). Even though FGM may be a tradition in certain countries, it not only severely harms women’s wellbeing, but also has no medical benefit, and the origin of its practice is rooted in misogynistic worldviews. I therefore don’t think culture is a good enough explanation to validate this dangerous tradition.
All of these thoughts make me wonder: what does it mean to be oppressed? And who gets to decide who is oppressed?
I’m not sure if there’s a right answer to any of these questions, but I look forward to pondering more questions on cultural relativity as I continue to explore all facets of Madrid.