Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Judging Things as Foreign

One aspect of Tattooing the World that I found particularly interesting was the way in which tattoos were, and to a certain extent still are, assumed to be deviant from the norm. Commentaries on early tattoo claimed that it was in someway “an aberration from an assumed norm,” indicating things like criminality, sexual deviance, and lunacy. While I don’t think these are qualities we still attribute to tattoo, I think the idea of treating something as inherently deviant or abnormal (in a negative sense of course) just because our culture isn’t used to it is still a relevant concept today.

Doing service often involves working with a group very different from our own specific culture that we’re used to. For example, going to Cristo Rey, I experience a high school environment radically different from my own. At first these differences and the otherness seemed overwhelming, and overshadowed things that I can relate to. I think this is similar to many westerners’ views of tattoo as Dr. Ellis describes it. “Because they will not allow tattoo to designate home, they cannot be at home with tattoo, and the tattoo becomes a sign of the foreign, while the tattoo wearer becomes a wanderer or an exile” (27). Rather than seeing the tattoo as a different way of expressing values that exist in their societies as well or trying to understand the meanings and rationale behind the tattoo, visitors simply labeled it as foreign or other, something they could never possibility relate to.

This mentality that everything one doesn’t immediately relate to is foreign and other, and therefore has no relation to their own culture, is a mentality that can create problems because it impairs our understandings of one another. At service it’s easy to see the kids a Cristo Rey as totally different from myself in everyway. The week before last was dress down day when I went and the things that some of the kids were to school were crazy, like four inch heels for example. And the way that I saw some of the kids treat their teacher was a shock to me too; they talked to her like a peer, at times giving her attitude and not seeming to respect that she was in charge of them. It is obvious how easy it would be to label these kids as foreign to the culture I consider myself a part of and therefore deviant to a norm, since what we are most used to personally always is what seems the most normal to us.

However, I think the example of tattoo points to the problems with this approach and also the way in which it unfairly assumes that one culture is superior to others. It seems that whichever culture is the reference point or norm that other groups deviate from is seen as ideal or superior. Dr. Ellis points out that even though early tattoo was described as aberrant, the societies that practiced it did not see it in this way and rather saw it as a beneficial and important aspect of their societies. The book points out just how easy it is to get sucked into the mentality of otherness and foreignness as deviant and encourages us instead to learn all we can about these other cultures and even incorporate aspects of other cultures into our own. This is a concept that really ties back to service.

The only way to benefit from service is to get away from seeing people as other and instead learn about what makes them unique and why, and through this relate to them as individuals. In a way, this relates to the Jesuit value of Cura Personalis as well. The Jesuit’s want us to recognize the merits of every person, and instead of treating people as groups who are different from ourselves, we should interact with them and treat them as individuals who likely have characteristics both similar to and different from our own. It seems that in order to get away from judging things prematurely, we need to travel through the foreign. By traveling through that which is foreign to us we can not only grasp a greater understanding of it, but also understand how the foreign relates to us and therefore is not really so foreign or abnormal after all.

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