Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Are you really OK with difference?

An acquaintance of mine was telling a story about how, as a member of a recent-immigrant resettlement group, she volunteered to meet some newcomers at the airport as part of a team that would assist with the details of their immediate resettlement. She was surprised, and I would say unpleasantly so, when the men in the newcomer group refused to shake hands with any of the women who had come to greet them. There was a number of people present at the time she was relaying this story, and the variety of reactions that it elicited was quite fascinating...

One female quite strongly stated, “Well they can turn around and get right back on that plane then.” Another mused, “Maybe it is their custom not to shake hands with members of the opposite sex?” Quite likely IMO, so I added, “Surely, you don't expect people to leave their customs and culture at the immigration desk.” Another suggested that perhaps the men would react differently in a few years when they were more familiar with Canadian customs. Interesting. What was clear to me anyway is that a random sampling of assholes didn't get off a plane from somewhere and decide to flex their misogynous muscles by not shaking hands with women. No. There is some story of deeper culture here.

I'm happy to report that I have no recollection of where these immigrants were coming from because it is not my intention to encourage discourse or spread hate against any group of people. The reason I share this story is to pose the same question to you as has circled round and round in my head with regards to this story...Are you really okay with difference? Or otherwise stated, are you okay with real difference?

I ask this because I think often culture, from an outsider's perspective, is characterized by surface expressions such as food, language, or dress—all important aspects, but, let's be honest, these are no-brainers in terms of acceptance. You eat different food than me? Great, can I try some. I can observe that you are dressed differently than me. Fine. You view gender roles differently than me? Um... Your disciplinarian practices with your children greatly differ from mine? Uh...

The following illustration captures so poignantly what I am getting at:
Culture is SO much deeper than what we eat or wear or even what language we speak. Real differences in culture—stuff that might make you uncomfortable—is unlikely relegated to extremist groups, and the devil's advocate in me, when topics like this come up, wants to ask questions like...

Are you okay with men greeting women differently than women?

Do you think that the ideology behind such a practice might be further reaching? Are you okay if, say, daily relations relations with wives and daughters are enacted differently than you have come to expect in greater Canadian society?

What might an extension of the whole not shaking hands thing look like in a workplace? Are you okay with that?

How would it make you feel to know other women condoned, expected, even celebrated these types of gender relations?

How would you feel if similar behaviors were expressed or encouraged in schools?

If 10 or 20 years down the road, these types of cultural variations thrive (and I expect they will), how would you feel about them entering the political arena, say if male MP's refused to shake hands with female MP's? Or perhaps if Canadian law began to reflect these types of practices?

An answer I get often when I ask these sorts of questions is, “I'm okay with anything so long as it doesn't affect me.” But to me if the whole no-hand-shaking story tells us anything, it is that 'real differences' can, will, and DO affect you. Are you okay with it???