Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Traveling America in Absence of American Values [Guest Post]

I'm happy to bring you one of two guest posts this week, both about traveling! The first comes from my new friend Kris. Enjoy!

Hello, readers of May’s Machete! I am Kris the Educated Vagabond of The Yellow Brick Road Trip and a very big fan of May.

Kris the Educated Vagabond

Like May, I often find a multitude of adjectives to describe some portion of myself, but have yet to find that one meaningful word to encapsulate who I am or my world view. When people ask my religion or outlook on life, I offer a variety of answers such as Bokononist, Integrational Polytheist, or more commonly Cultural Relativist. As a woman traveling in the 21st century, I think cultural relativism is the closest description I have found to encapsulate my world view.

Franz Boas, the Father of American Anthropology, originally explained the idea: “...civilization is not something absolute, but ... is relative, and…our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes.” It means our philosophies or dogmas can only understood in the context of our culture. To take this a step further, what we do and what we believe can not be understood outside of the place, time, and society where these beliefs are held.

Franz Boas, the Father of American Anthropology

Though this idea was first introduced by Boas in 1887, I find it is especially relevant in the shrinking 21st century. As I have traveled this country, I constantly hear the assertion of “American Values.” I assume people mean liberty, democracy, baseball, and Mom’s apple pie. But truthfully, I have never seen “American Values” as a unified concept.

We could divide it by red states and blue state. We could dissect it further and then separate the red states by Republican and Democrat. Then we could divide the Republicans by Liberal, Moderate and Conservative. Still further, we could divide the Moderates by their religious affiliation and from there by their income tax bracket. Maybe we keep dividing and separating until we get down to a group of five people. Are these people representative of the entire state? Of the entire country? Are their “American Values” the true “American Values”?

Quite simply, no, because there are no true “American Values.” And even if we were to define them we still could not set them in absolutes because how they are understood would change in their conception according to their context. Five moderate Republicans in Kansas do not speak for five liberal Democrats in California. So if neither can be right, it follows that neither can be wrong.

That is how I travel. I don’t attempt to impose my beliefs on anyplace I am nor allow them to impose their beliefs on me. I look. I observe. I see. And most importantly, I seek to understand. I can’t tell you how essential cultural relativism – or at least a sense of tolerance and open-mindedness – is to the lifestyle of an educated vagabond.

Read more from Kris at The Yellow Brick Road Trip.

Related posts:
Weight, Honesty and Obesity in the USA
My Trip Out of Republican Wonderland [Guest Post]
USA Should Open Borders, Open Minds

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The Neilitist said...

"...because there are no true “American Values.” And even if we were to define them we still could not set them in absolutes because how they are understood would change in their conception according to their context." Thanks, did you get that from your Introduction to Critical Theory course. So, if values cannot be set into absolutes, then they are useless? How does one set value into absolutes anyway?
And what does cultural relativism offer in the face of extremes such as female genital manipulation or the stoning of homosexuals in Sharia cultures? It certainly doesn't equip you to speak out against such things with any force.
Frankly, your post comes off as self-congratulatory regarding your own open-mindedness. I'm sure you possess many strong opinions, but cultural relativism leaves you without a base to advance them, especially since the culture in America has become so Balkanized that everybody can claim a different "context" and that leaves all ideas intellectually neutered.

Kristin Maun said...

You're probably right. I'm sure you're right about me having strong opinions and you're probably right this post was "self-congratulatory" and perhaps absolute rubbish. But I did enjoy writing it and developing the idea during a pleasant conversation one evening with a friend.

I suppose it was simply my own self-indulgence in a philosophical train of thought, which I am not usually given to. I'll be sure to attach your criticisms as an addendum to all future attempts to record such thoughts, lest I ever fool myself into thinking anything from an "Introduction to Critical Theory" course is ever actually relevant to real life.

Thank you for taking the time to read May's blog and to offer your criticism to my little guest post. I hope the imposition of my ideas has not forced your ideas to become "intellectually neutered," I imagine that would be quite painful.

P.S. - Thank you also for using the word "Balkanized," I had hoped to use it in a game of Scrabble the other night but was disappointed to be an "a" short.

May said...

I don't ever think it's useless to try to define one's ideas against the framework of one's culture.