From my High Horse, I Empathize with Thee (Web Event #3)
As an American raised reader of cultural literature, I often find myself empathizing when engaging with cultural distinctions. Empathy, according to the Webster-Merriam dictionary, is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner”. In Doris Sommer’s “Proceed with Caution, when Engaged by Minority Writing in the Americas”, she discusses how it is that “readers bent on understanding... press particularist writing to surrender cultural differences for the sake of universal meaning” (p 9). She argues that readers who empathize, “miss opportunities for genuine dialogue with texts and with citizens in public arenas, because presumptuous habits of reading cannot prepare us to listen” (p11) It is easy to see how “presumptuous habits” of reading by which readers claim to “know the Other well enough to speak for him or her”, can be problematic (p11).
Not only does the reader, in empathizing with cultural writings, assume to know the ins and outs of one’s culture without having had first-hand experience, but the reader also views cultural distinctions from a superior position thereby projecting his or her opinions and beliefs onto another and both neglecting and silencing what cultural relativists suggest to be a culture-specific way of being. Furthermore, as Sommers also writes we reduce both the reader and the writer to redundancy if we assume that the limits that the writer incorporates are non-existent. The latter is especially so, when it comes to cultural distinctions that are made about social problems, such as, teenage pregnancy and marriage, gender inequality, and similarly hegemonic masculinity. We assume that teen pregnancy and marriage, and gender inequality are “bad” because that is what we are taught to believe in American culture.
As American readers we often “mistake a privileged center for the universe” and not only impose our notions of ethics onto other cultures, but also stigmatize ways of being that have become identities. This is not to say that if a women were living in an abusive environment, that it would be relative to her culture, but rather to say that “differences safeguards particularist identities against seamless assimilation” (p13). In other words, it is not to say that what is “right” or “wrong” in American culture isn’t necessarily true in other cultures, but rather that it’s mere existence has both a different history of implementation and takes a different form in it’s implementation, and that in order to fully understand it in its entirety we must be open to it. If not, we expose that culture and the writer to a form of assimilation that strips them away of their identities and permit ourselves to act as saviors to their dismay, whereby we continuously sustain hierarchical relations between ourselves and others.
In her memoir, Rigoberta Menchu talks about the way that she was raised and how much of her lifestyle was based on machismo; that is the patriarchal gender relations in Latino communities in which femininity is inferior to masculinity. Machismo, very much similar to Connell’s hegemonic masculinity, functioned differently in her community. For her community, it was seen as a way of cultivating culture and expanding lineage than anything else.When discussing birth ceremonies, Menchu states: “When a male child is born, there are special celebrations, not because he’s male but because of all the hard work and responsibility he’ll have as a man. It’s not to say that machismo doesn’t exist among our people, but it doesn’t present a problem for the community because it’s so much part of our way of life...this doesn’t mean that girls aren’t valued. Their work is hard too and there are other things that are due to them as mothers. Girls are valued because they are part of the earth, which gives us maize, beans, plants, and everything we live on” (p14). Nonetheless, Menchu does acknowledge that machismo does exist, and that many a times people pray for more boys than girls. Thus, machismo, although negatively portrayed by American culture, maintains a different function in the Quiche culture. Therefore, what is considered ethically moral in one country or population may not be universal, but if it is, it may not necessarily play the same role in society.
Negating the multitude of differences in our understandings of cultural differences lends itself to the creation of hierarchical relations that bind us as readers to pre-conceived notions of particular subgroups and hinder us from fully understanding cultural literature and its purpose. As Sommer’s writes, we to learn to “respect distance and explore the socially enabling possibilities of acknowledging our own limits” (p13).