Cutting through the bullshit: the reality of engaging with other cultures
I realised I was encountering something radically “other.” This guy was from a culture so radically different from my own that it was really hard work for me to understand him. I realised that I had never before encountered a person so culturally different in a Unitarian setting. I realised that frankly U*Uism is not multicultural at all, despite all the talk. For two years in America I was not once challenged to work hard to understand a different culture in U*Uism. Even though I was in a different country, it never felt that much like a different culture, and never felt like more than one culture. In two years I always found Boston society, religion and education to be very monocultural. I find Birmingham to be infinitely more diverse, in every way.
I’ve been thinking a lot about why I get cognitive dissonance when I try to get my head around the American anti-racism/ anti-oppression work in UU communities. I’ve started to become quite confident in my conclusion that it really does not apply well to Britain. Of course there’s race issues, and racism in this country, and in Unitarianism, but I think it’s very different for a country that’s only been properly multicultural for 60 years. The story of America is essentially the story of the interactions (perhaps not a strong enough word to encompass genocide amongst other things) between Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans. That story is still playing out, and affecting all race conversations in America. And America has such a strong culture that seems to absorb all other cultures.
But in Britain there was a number of similar tribes living on these islands, until the time of Empire then the peoples of the commonwealth coming in since the Second World War. The conversation is much more about what it is to be British and how we deal with different cultures and religions.
I’ve realised that AR/AO work in UUism starts with the assumption of common language systems and ideals, and that represents a problem. It’s not multicultural because it starts with the assumption of American liberal values. But if we really want to deal with diversity we can’t be dominated by that.
You know what I realised? Two years in America and I never really sat down with a Republican, anti-abortion, anti-queer rights, pro-war southern American and really talked with them. I heard a lot of people complaining about such people, I did myself a lot, but I never actually sat down, prayed, and talked with someone like that. And I want to. Even though I may fundamentally disagree with them about a lot of things, I want to engage. That is the multiculturalism that needs to be engaged in America.
Do we really want to engage with someone who really is radically different from us? If not, then what’s the point of all this AR/AO/multiculturalism stuff? What’s the point if we’re talking to ourselves? Shouldn’t we actually be talking to people we disagree with?
How much do we really engage with what is disturbingly different? It always seemed to me that the Greater Boston Interfaith Organisation was made up of liberal Christians, liberal Jews and UUs. And frankly, there’s not a great deal between those folks (I’m open to be corrected, as the website does not feature a list of members, but the religious leaders petition here seems to confirm it to me). If very conservative Muslims (hell even very conservative Christians) were included, wouldn’t it be a different conversation?
My Rastafarian friend began to speak about abortion last night, saying it was murder basically. Neither of us engaged with him and he moved on. And you know what, I’m sure he’s completely homophobic as well. But I’m glad he’s there, and I want to pray with him, and I want to talk with him, and I want to disagree with him, then I want to pray with him again. I agree with the man about a lot of things, but not everything, and that’s what it really should be dealing with multiculturalism and doing interfaith work.
That wasn’t a very systematic collection of thoughts, but I needed to think them.