Monday, October 08, 2007

Multicultural Counting

As this is the official observance of Columbus Day, it seems appropriate to say a few words about where I was last week -- the 23rd Wisconsin Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies Conference which had the theme “Multiculturalism, Pluralism, and Globalization.

Seventy-one people were on the list of attendees. Forty-two were from various universities and colleges around the nation; two had traveled from Uganda. Three were from the community school district at La Crosse, WI, where the conference was held; they were interested in how universities taught multiculturalism and whether any techniques might be useful at the pre-college level.

One of the speakers drew comparisons between surface and “deep” elements of culture. The latter are the elements on which people build relationships -- those things that people share, that build trust. In other words, what is “beautiful and good is interior.”

In her view, European-based cultures, which include the U.S. and Canada, tend to pay more attention to or even to be obsessed by “surface” elements. Skin color, yes, but more than that -- everything associated with “surface beauty” or, to boil it down to one word: “cosmetics.”

Another common term for this is materialism, which has as its objective (and thrives on) the accumulation of objects rather than on building relationships. And of course, if what is “good” is the acquisition of things, then Euro-centric cultures will also be obsessed with counting things.

On returning from Wisconsin, one of the first things I read was an on-line article which pointed to the Pentagon’s obsession -- despite consistent denials -- with “metrics.” Everything has to be quantified -- boots, bullets, bayonets, bombs, and bodies, to name just a few categories. And where specific numbers cannot be determined, charts and graphs will be made to show “trends” and comparisons without any numbers. There is, it seems, no other way the Pentagon can convey to itself or to others that “progress” is being made -- until the shooting stops and all the armies go home. It is when progress cannot be so defined, as in Iraq today, every bit of data possible is brought forward to justify further loss of life and further loss of national treasure to war fighting.

This I find interesting as in most descriptions war is termed an “art,” not a “science.” The formal title of the senior year study of war at West Point, for example, used to be “History of the Military Art.”

This need to count, to stay on the surface, relieves us of the need to delve into relationships, of the need to deal with others as individuals rather than as objects. It is one of the legacies of the western scientific mindset, for the language of science is mathematics -- the language of counting.

The point of all this, I suppose, is not that either the relational or the numerical culture is “better” but that we understand clearly the limits of each system. If science and counting are indispensable for living, even more so are relationships. Unfortunately, both can prove deceptive, intentionally or unintentionally -- particularly when multicultural settings form the backdrop for conflict.

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