Sunday, October 24, 2010

How to change the culture, and how not to do so

This article in today's New York Times Magazine compares and contrasts the hugely successful effort to abolish foot-binding in China with the largely failed attempt to eradicate female genital mutilation in Africa. Queer and HIV activists would do well to heed the lessons learned.

Missionaries seeking to end foot-binding in China operated within a framework of respect for Chinese culture and cooperation with the Qing Dynasty's opinion makers; they succeeded in eliminating foot-binding within a generation. By contrast, those seeking to end female genital mutilation in Africa have often taken the attitude of "We're going to tell you how it is" and have been greeted with cries of cultural imperialism. The article concludes,
First, begin with a dialogue of mutual respect, free of self-congratulation. Second, when you have a core of converts, organize a program of public commitment to new practices, which takes into account the traditions of the community. To end one practice, as the anti-foot-binding campaigners grasped, you need to start another.
I believe that our own activists can draw the following lessons. First, activists attempting to engage the Christian community have often operated from a combination of contempt for Christians and willful ignorance about what Christians actually believe. Two particularly frustrating examples were the HIV activist who dropped the Eucharist on the floor of the cathedral and the compatriot who defended him because the Eucharist somehow represented the cardinal rather than Christ. Christians have responded by circling the wagons. That is not Christian nature, but human nature.

Second, attempts to educate men who have sex with men on the dangers of barebacking and meth abuse have often proceeded from a condescending attitude toward the target audience. Too often, those discussing the matter have come across as joyless puritans rebuking gay men for some sort of moral failure peculiar to gay men. Then those puritans wonder why they are not getting their point across.

1 comment:

Aardvark said...

Excellent. Problem is that Western "liberals" are seldom "free of self-congratulation."