Last week I read Orson Scott Card’s 1986 sci-fi Speaker for the Dead (one of the sequels in the Ender series). The climax of the book hinges on an extraordinary dialogue (visionary writing) in which two different sentient species (one of them humans) negotiate a treaty to live together respectfully and peacefully on one planet. One of my favorite things about the treaty negotiation is the place of mutual respect created by these two species. Both species are shocked to learn that things they thought they had understood about the other were completely wrong. Their struggle toward truth in their conversation is an exceptional model for cross-cultural communication. A wise and ancient being guides the exchange. As I read, I found myself thinking about the invasion of North America by Europeans and imagining how things might have gone if this wise and ancient being in the sci-fi novel had facilitated encounters between indigenous peoples and colonials. What a colossal missed opportunity for human evolution.
I remember the metaphor from Amy Tan’s novel Saving Fish from Drowning, about a group of Western tourists who become lost in Burma and spend several weeks living with a remote, secretive mountain tribe. This book was also about bridging cultural divides and learning from one another; about looking again at what we think we see and seeing differently. On the spectrum of prejudice, there is full-blown blatant racism on one end and the innocent (yet often harmful/hurtful) assumptions made in oblivious ignorance on the other. In Saving Fish from Drowning, Tan relates a tale about a group of people from the long-ago who had never seen fish. When they saw fish for the first time, they were dazzled. But they felt sorry for the fish, who they thought were dying (because they were under water). So they “rescued” them by removing them from the water so they could “breathe” and of course the fish died. The tale is an allegory for cross-cultural misunderstandings that lead to dire consequences. The people were assuming that the fish breathed air like them. Understanding that different people have widely diverse perceptions about life and that others do not necessarily think or feel as we do is fundamental to diversity awareness.
How many times have I heard people say, “We are really all the same so we should live together in peace” (or something to that effect). I take exception to this simplistic view. I think we must realize that we are not all the same and that’s the whole point. We should learn from one another and quit making these assumptions that others think or feel like we do. Some things about us are the same and some are different.
Many years ago I participated in a diversity training called Barnga, and subsequently I became a Barnga trainer. Barnga is a simulation game that invokes an “aha” moment in players as they experience insights into cultural difference during the course of participation. It’s a complex game, but the short explanation of how it works goes something like this. (I’m going to spoil it for you. After you read this, you will never be able to play it.) Players are divided into groups of 10. Each group sits at a table. There are perhaps 6-10 different tables. Players are instructed not to speak. At their table they find instructions for a simple card game. They read the instructions, the instructions are then collected and removed, and then they play. After a few minutes of play, a bell rings, and two or three people from each table are tapped to move over to the table to their left. The bell rings again. They resume play. After a few minutes there is again a player rotation. What the players don’t know is that the instructions for the card game were slightly different in the beginning at each table. For instance, one group of players read instructions that said that higher numbers take lower numbers, while another group of players read instructions that said lower numbers take higher numbers. Thus players are playing by several different sets of rules. I remember when I first played Barnga, before I knew the trick. Another player took my king with a three. Gosh, everyone knows a king is more powerful than a three in cards. I was shocked. But I didn’t say anything. I thought, “Oh well, I’ll let it go. I guess she doesn’t know how to play cards.”
Think about everything inherent in my assumption. I know how to play cards. She doesn’t. I’m right. I’m being generous by just letting her take my king. I’m being patronizing and superior. I’m assuming that I am right and she is wrong, that I’m smarter than she is. Even though I’m not making an issue about it, I am thinking that I know better than her. When in truth, she is playing by different rules. She could be thinking all the same things about me. When translated into real life cross-cultural dialogue, this experience demonstrates that we must never assume that we know the right way, the true way. We know our perception. That is all. And there are infinite pathways to truth, infinite pathways to enlightenment, infinite pathways in our perceptions about the world.
As a Jew, I have always had a particular aversion to proselytizing. It has caused the slaughter and persecution of my people for centuries. Jews pretty much don’t proselytize. We want to be left alone to believe and worship in peace. Ultra-orthodox Jews likely think everyone else is wrong in their beliefs, much the same as Christian fundamentalists and Islamist extremists. The difference, as I see it, is that extremist Jews don’t try to convince everyone else to have the same beliefs as themselves. They just want to be left to have their beliefs without persecution. Whereas Christian extremists seem obsessed with convincing everyone else to believe what they believe. Islamist extremists seem convinced that anyone who does not believe what they believe is evil and should be eliminated. Seriously, the Taliban, the Westboro Baptist Church, and ultra-Orthodox Jewish Israelis who aggressively settle on Palestinian lands are all operating from the same us-and-other brand of extremism.
And am I so different? I would like to think I am. But in truth, didn’t I think to myself that the woman who took my king with a three didn’t know how to play cards? Opening the doors of our perception to the perceptions of others is work and requires conscious effort and continued vigilance. We must keep questioning our assumptions and keep communicating with others. We must remain open to the possibility that others will change who we are, what we think, and what we believe. We have so much to teach one another and so much to learn from one another. Tough work. Astounding rewards. What lies ahead is unimaginably magnificent.