Sunday, May 01, 2011

Overcoming our narcissism

In many collectivist and high-context cultures, self-interest is not valued.
--Barbara Budjac Corvette

Why do some cultures seem to be able to organize themselves into nonviolent disciplined masses and some cultures seem to have problems maintaining order and willingness to sacrifice? Why do some cultures seem randomly able to offer nonviolent witness but cannot handle a common focus and agreement to act in concert?

Intercultural experts point toward the cultural differences in power, time, orientation, context and other factors. The power differentials in some cultures afford authority, respect and obedience to leadership that most Americans find interferes with their deep sense of autonomy. "I do what I want!" is the national battle cry, which means collective discipline is poor.

So we are an individualistic culture and agreeing to a common discipline is extra hard for us. Unlike some cultures, we have a low value on social harmony, so even though it seems possible to dissent, we can't generally seem to organize it effectively.

This also relates to power differential. In some cultures, authorities are afforded obsequious levels of compliance and respect. In the US culture, even accomplished authorities in various fields of study and achievement are treated like just another beer drinker. There is often a seemingly conscious level of disrespect for those who may advanced degrees, who have written books, who have founded and run nonprofit organizations, or who may hold positions that in years past might have been given high levels of respect. While a flattened hierarchy is a great thing, successful nonviolent struggle requires each member of a movement to step up and earn everyone else's respect, not to assume that just because they are fellow air breathing creatures they should have equal say in all decisions. With shared power comes shared responsibility.

So we are in a low power differential culture and that is sometimes a great thing and sometimes quite dysfunctional.

Ending violence, ending war, and transforming destructive conflict is a special cultural challenge to our low-context, low power differential, individualistic culture. The only thing more maladaptive than trying strategic nonviolence in our culture is not trying it.

Corvette, Barbara A. Budjac (2007). Conflict management: A practical guide to developing negotiation strategies. Upper Saddle River NJ: Pearson Education.

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