Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Balancing Empathy and Action: Thoughts from an Ill American

“But yesterday you said you’d go to the next family.”

“I’m really sorry. I was really tired when you called yesterday and wasn’t assertive enough about my situation.” Yesterday in the haze of fatigue and pain I had failed to maintain a firm stance in advocating for my health and fell back to an old pattern: it had sounded like trying to take some time off would be a huge nuisance, so I had agreed to go onto the next family. After laying very, very still for several hours, I had realized that I needed to be firm on this matter—I needed a chunk of time to “rest aggressively” and if I were to have a chance at preventing the decline from getting really out of control, I needed it now.

With this new resolve developing too late for a phone call, I sent an email. I really think I need to take this time off so that I can be a fully engaged and energetic participant for the rest of the program, I explained. And in classic Danica manner, I didn’t want this to be a problem or extra work for anyone, so I assured him that I had figured out all the transportation and accommodations I would need to carry out aggressive resting.

It is the following morning when we’re on the phone again. “Because you said yesterday that you’d go to the next family, they are prepared for you to arrive. They are waiting for you. So you need to go.” What he says is true, reasons one part of my brain, I should stick to my word and not expect last minute changes to wor—I really try to hold it together. I really do. But my defenses are worn thin, and frustration seeps through ever-widening cracks.

“I don’t understand why yesterday afternoon it was a possibility to take time off, but now just half a day later it’s not,” I say through tears. “I know it’s rude to not arrive when people are expecting me. I’m sorry. But if I go to the family, I’m afraid it will also be rude to only rest in my room and not interact with them.” My mind is crowded with disparate, competing thoughts and feelings. I need to stand my ground, I think. Health is a priority. But the fatigue and pain gnaw at the edges of my resolve and encourage unflustered assessments to balloon into emotional appeals. On top of this is my acute awareness that such an emotional outburst is, according to Chinese culture, quite inappropriate.

So here I am. Making demands. Being loud and emotional. And being completely aware that I must be filling the “ugly American” stereotype much too well. I am really, really embarrassed.

I recognize that I'm kind of hyper-aware of behaviors that might be tied to rude or inconsiderate foreigner. On a day-to-day basis I may go a bit overboard trying to counteract any notion of the “ugly American,” because I so strongly wish to be a flexible and respectful visitor. Because I have to refuse a lot of food due to gluten (and I’m afraid that will come across as being “picky”), I am willing to eat anything else. Really, anything. When people with whom I have no previous connection welcome me into their home and an organization has gone through the effort to plan all sorts of events, I feel like the least I can do is be willing to engage in whatever they have in store for me. The phrase you’ll hear coming out of my mouth more than any other is, “都可以 (dou1ke3yi3).“Anything/Either/All will do.” 
But in this instance, I feel pretty sure that hyper-awareness is not at all necessary to see this as a stunning performance of a foreigner being ignorant of or insensitive to local cultural norms. I can see how his arguments are valid when backed by the norms and expectations of behavior here—that actions I would deem small social gaffes worth doing for the sake of my health may feel much bigger and more important to others. I can see how the coordinator’s agreeing to my requests could reverberate negatively through his professional relationships. I don’t necessarily understand the all the details of why it’s so important to follow through with meeting the next family or how it might affect the “face” he has with other people involved, but I can see that those things are there. And I want to respect local norms, to do no harm to anybody’s social networks.

Yet I can’t abandon the commitment I’ve made to my health. My previous efforts that fell within the boundary of appropriateness—requesting a less busy schedule, triaging language study time for rest time, meditating to reduce pain and to maintain a more distanced perspective on the situation—had helped but were not enough. I’ve made mistakes about trying to ignore limits set by the body before, and I'm not about to repeat those mistakes. Thus, even while I am aware of the damage my adamant position has the potential to cause, I find myself sticking to it.

And for that, I feel ashamed. It might be one thing to be ignorant of what my words and actions were doing, but how can I continue that path if I am aware that my words and actions are asking people to disregard social values and to risk adding tension to some of their own social connections? To be unwittingly disrespectful or harmful is unfortunate, but to be knowingly so feels...well, kind of immoral. Or at least mean-spirited.

Now, just you wait a minute. Before you all get up in arms about assuring me that advocating for my health is not the equivalent of being an “ugly American” (don’t worry, my parents have taken care of that), you have to understand that all experiences for me involve multiple layers of thought and feeling. So while I felt embarrassed, ashamed, and like an “ugly American”—and those were all very real feelings—I also had the trusty, mostly-rational part of me that can keep sight of all of the reasons why advocating for my health in whatever ways are effective does not make me a horrible person. The point of writing about this experience isn’t to berate myself or to apply a negative label to myself. Instead, I felt compelled to write about the inner turmoil I felt in this encounter because navigating a new cultural environment as an “ill American” returns to a dilemma I encounter often but that always seems to leave me confused.
Anthropologists call it “cultural relativism”—that all “cultures” are worthy of respect and that we ought to suspend our judgment as we try to understand another “culture’s” worldview. I guess I prefer “empathy,” so that we can apply this attitude on any scale from individuals to whole societies.1 Whatever the name, to be willing to set aside whatever preconceived notions you might have, to suspend judgment, and to truly try to understand a view that is different from your own—even when that view might contradict something you feel vary deeply to be “true” or “right”—is a good first step to encountering difference positively and to resolving conflict.

But then what? It’s just the first step, and while empathizing may improve future steps by reminding us of the human in each other, unless the second step is for those who hold different views to isolate themselves from each other, something has to change. And here’s where I reach my dilemma: Empathy allows me to “see where a person is coming from” even if their “conclusion” on a matter is drastically different from mine. When it comes down to acting, compromise is sometimes a solution, but there are some cases where I remain confident in the position I held before empathizing and want to act accordingly. I can see how being vocal and stubborn about my health can be disrespectful in my host culture and could result in tension between some of the people involved, but if that’s what it takes to keep myself out of an emergency situation, I’ll do it.2

I get the same feeling when I try to communicate with people about climate change. I work to understand why people take the positions that they do and try to communicate that I respect that opinion, but in the end, I am not only still confident that scientific evidence points to anthropogenic climate change, but I also want to educate those very people about why they might want to reconsider their view. Heck, I’m a climate change proselytizer if there ever was one.
To empathize but then not to budge. It feels to me that any “relativism” is lost. It’s like, “Okay, we had our moment. I suspended my judgment in attempt to understand your perspective, and I may have really felt your view and your reasoning. But now I’m going to make a judgment that my perspective is better/more accurate than yours.” In the moment that shifts from non-judgment to judgment, I feel that something is lost—doors to particular kinds of relationships are closed as people realize where others stand.

And then quickly the counterarguments come marching in, pointing out that being steadfast in one’s support of something “right” or “good” is a sign of strong moral character. And, aha, spend any amount of time reading anthropology blogs on the matter and you’ll find that many see a distinction between methodological cultural relativism and moral cultural relativism. When one goes “into the field,” one’s research should be bracketed by cultural relativism, but that doesn’t mean one must relinquish all one’s own senses of morality. (Of course, distinguishing between the two doesn’t prevent the role of the researcher and the degree to which he or she practices cultural relativism from getting much muddier when he or she encounters something that feels immoral.) That is, to be willing to suspend judgment to understand others’ worldviews doesn’t mean one has to engage in complete moral relativism (the idea that there are no absolute morals).

I get that. While morality is complicated, and there are certainly some behaviors that are tied to morality that I don’t think should be, there are also instances where I have absolutely no doubt about what is moral or immoral. In cases where people’s safety, well-being, or dignity are being threatened,3 there is no “dilemma.” It’s easy to shift from putting myself in the perspective of the perpetrators to ask “Why would they do this?” to taking a resolute stance against violence and harm. (Sometimes too easy, which is why I think it remains important to take a moment to empathize, to recognize that another’s view is reasoned from beliefs and information just like my own—if only to remember that they are human, too, and have that affect how I interact with or think about them).

It’s the issues that don’t seem to have a clear “right” answer that cause the paralysis. Sometimes the matters are small, such as the case of traveling as an “ill American.” In fact, I think I could argue to myself that it’s small enough that I’ve completely overthought the situation. Alternatively, some would argue that deciding between being culturally appropriate and prioritizing my health should not be a dilemma at all. If often feels like a dilemma, however, because it’s not always clear what “needs” to be done. Living with a long-term something (illness? or...? could we call it something else? give it a name?) that can sometimes be debilitating but is probably not life-threatening means that I, at least, give some weight to other factors. It’s not like the flu where if I’m feeling miserable for a few days, it might be okay to be kind of irritable and self-interested for a bit. Such behavior would not translate well into the long-term. It wouldn't be fun for anyone else, and I wouldn't feel like myself. I still have to be “me” in whatever way is possible at any given moment, and that means the factors outside of “prioritizing my health,” like how my behavior represents 4-H or which actions would be good for or kind to others involved, do count for something.

Sometimes these matters are larger—cases in which no matter what decision is made somebody or some group will be harmed or in which the decisions made affect everyone, including those who disagree with the decision. There is surely still a benefit from understanding the other view—at the very least it allows whoever had their position prevail to continue empathizing, to understand that accepting or adapting to the prevailing view will be difficult. But the action that follows empathy may not be clear. What helps one community may harm another. How do you “weigh” the harm done against each other? (Here, what comes to mind is the way that DDT has been used to reduce malaria in Africa but those same chemicals concentrate in Inuit food sources in the Arctic. A hopeful sign that such dilemmas might be solved is seen in how Sheila Watt-Cloutier addressed the issue of these pollutants, showing how we might change perspectives so that we don’t have to weigh one harm against another.) When is it okay to make people go along with something they disagree with for the “greater good”—for instance through policy that regulates pollution, or carbon emissions, or health insurance—and when is it not?

I wish after writing, reading, rethinking, and revising this whole brain jog I could have something to say to you that ties it all together or reaches a moment of realization. Sorry, folks, I don’t have a final snappy comment on this matter. To be honest, I still feel nearly as bad about playing the part of the “ill American” as before I started writing, and for me the tension between being truly empathetic and ultimately sticking to my own views and understandings is not yet resolved. What do you think?

Empathy and relativism are good, but using what is learned from those attitudes to take action that is both “right” and effective is not always (perhaps “is rarely”) straightforward. I may not have clear conclusions to write here now, but there is something about being able to identify what is going on in that tension between non-judgmental empathy and unavoidably judgmental4 action that makes me hopeful that maybe with time I will find a balance between empathizing with people’s differing views and values and advocating for my own.

As usual, the experiences arising from this illness (please can we give it another name?!) continue to push me to consider and grapple with new thoughts and perspectives. What a dedicated teacher it is!

1. Some might say that I shouldn’t conflate cultural relativism and empathy. Certainly a relativistic view involves some kind of empathetic approach, but perhaps in tying the two together my personal understanding of cultural relativism involves more “putting yourself in another’s shoes” than the mainstream definition of the concept intends. For now they remain intricately tied to each other in my mind.

2. I want to be clear that I do not want to convey anyone here as being “insensitive” to my own health needs—let’s be real, there were several instances last year where the same kind of “breaking point” had to be reached before the necessary people would take action. With “invisible” health challenges, it’s hard for people to really know what you’re dealing with until you reach such a point regardless of what “culture” you’re in—it’s just that here, an emotional outburst seems to carry more disapproval than in places I’ve been in the U.S.

3. In a lot of ways, my views align with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I know that some have argued that it is a distinctly Western-biased document, so I can imagine how my being raised in the “Western” context could make me unaware of other angles. I can’t tackle that right now while still trying to hold together this other train of thought. Perhaps another time.

4. By “unavoidably judgmental” I don’t mean judgmental in the pejorative sense but rather in that sense that any decision requires some sort of judgment. For example, me taking advocating action to address climate change involves judgment but (I hope that) it doesn't necessarily mean I have a "judgmental" attitude toward people who do not share that position.

1 comment:

  1. I hope that the week "off" helped your health.


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