Thursday, October 28, 2010

For social and cultural change

Yesterday, I was at an extremely interesting debate on Concurrent Sexual Partnerships hosted at the World Bank. The debate was basically over the evidence or lack of that concurrent sexual partners have a large impact on the spread of HIV in Africa and therefore whether large amounts of resources should be devoted to it or whether these should be used for other forms of prevention.
But the debate itself is not what I want to write about. I want to write about a question posed by a member of the audience to the panel. I will have to paraphrase, but basically it asked whether concurrent sexual partners were not a social and cultural norm in Africa and therefore whether trying to change this was not a form of neo-colonialism.
The person who answered the question gave a perfectly reasonable answer: we should look for the positive social norms which can can be bolstered in an attempt to reduce HIV/AIDS. He gave the example of the culture of 'male responsibility' offering the Brothers for Life campaign as an excellent example of this.
I have sympathy with this viewpoint, but it at least partly avoids the question. There are still social or cultural norms which you wish to see disappear - and I, at least, have no problem in stating this. Using other already existing social norms to achieve this is simply the means of making other cultural aspects disappear or curtailed.
Culture is a fluid thing. It changes all the time, and so it should. Else it is back to the caves for all of us. We should not fear cultural change simply because it is change.
And anyway, what if a cultural or social norm is destructive? In a sense, I feel that a society has every right to keep Multiple Concurrent Partners (MCPs) as a social norm. Fine. But know that there are consequences. You will die of HIV (or not, depending upon which side of the debate you are on). This is a perfectly reasonable choice to make.
In the same way, you can choose to keep an excessively 'laid back' attitude as the norm and spend a large part of your time 'relaxing'. This is fine. But you will be poor. Your children will die young and grow up uneducated, unhoused and unclothed because you are not working hard to produce these things. There is no problem in making this choice. So long as you accept the consequences. You can't have it both ways.
An issue arrises when the people who are keeping the social norms alive are not the ones who suffer. The children suffer the parents' laziness and maybe women suffer from men's desice to keep MCPs.
Personally, I have no problem in saying that outsiders have a responsibility to intervene (a) to explain the consequences of a given cultural norm and (b) to protect those who suffer but who may not have as much say in the choice to keep that cultural norm.
Many people in Lesotho wish (or at least say they wish) to protect all aspects of the culture. That presumably includes not educating young boys because they should become herd boys. Interestingly, the same people who say this don't seem to have any issues embrassing western clothes or mobile phones, tv's and other nice consumerables.
I would suggest that they are suffering partly from delusion, but also partly from something endemic in developed countries: a desire to keep alive 'interesting' cultural aspects of life because they have a value for you to see and know exist. But few of us choose to actually live like that. I can only deem such values incredibly selfish therefore.
Culture changes all the time - I don't have the same culture as my parents who don't have the same culture as theirs. I differ even from my own siblings in many aspects. That makes culture and social norms rich, beautiful and interesting. To prevent it changing for our own curiosity is stupid and destructive.
Besides this, changing culture in no way makes every culture the same. London is not the same as Paris is not the same as New York is not the same as Berlin is not the same as Tokyo is not the same as Saoul is not the same as Singapore is not the same as Melbourne etc. Yes, there are certain traits - because these are what make people better off. But the idea that every city or country will become the same is ridiculous. Cultures can and should keep their own unique identity. But that should not in any way prevent changing destructive aspects of their own culture.
Rant over :)

1 comment:

  1. Another cultural norm that can be interesting to mention was hooliganism amongst British football fans. Obviously only a minimal number ever participated but it was tacitly accepted as part of the culture.

    Somehow, no one ever felt that this destructive behaviour should be safeguarded or protected in any way. And people from outside (either the country or the footballing world) felt perfectly justified in criticising it and intervening to prevent it. I agree with them.

    The same people should also feel at ease criticising social norms elsewhere or in other sub-cultures too.