This month we look at an intriguing study that demonstrates just how differently people from different cultures view reality; and we review a book exploding the myth that workers must choose between jobs and a clean environment.
Editor: Anuradha Vittachi
See what I mean?
About Understanding: Ideas and Observations on Cross-cultural Communication
by Andreas Fugelsang
Dag Hammarskjold Foundation, Ovre
Slottsgatan 2, Uppsala. Sweden
Paperback US $12 incl. postage
Television and cheap air fares have demonstrated that the world is full of people ‘different from us’. Andreas Fugelsang’s About Understanding shows us that outward appearances may be the least part of these differences, for it discusses the fundamental differences in ideas, assumptions and ways of looking at reality which characterize various cultures. Writing primarily for Westerners working in adult education, health care and nutrition in the Third World, his starting point is that there can be no helpful communication between development workers and village communities until the former understand and overcome the Eurocentric assumptions they carry around with them.
Thus, Aristotelian logic is not a necessary tool for understanding the world: it is no more than a social convention ‘valid only for those who adhere to that convention’. The reasoning patterns of Third World peoples are not ‘illogical’ just because they are strange to us; rather they grow out of different value systems and are tailored to different environmental conditions. And the time spent sitting around and talking, which to Westerners appears wasted, is seen by the people concerned as an essential allocation of time to developing good social relations (a point we in the West. with all our social problems, might do well to consider).
Our assumptions about ’real’ culture and achievement being material — the Acropolis, a Michelangelo sculpture, a Cruise missile even — are questionable. We fail to appreciate the no less important heritage left to the world by oral civilizations with their deep knowledge of human and social relations. Archaeologically our emphasis on material objects which have survived —the weapon or stone axe of the male — and our neglect of the transient baskets and digging sticks of the female has completely flawed our understanding of the role of the two sexes in the cultural development of our species. But perhaps the greatest injustice is that, ironically, we judge the intelligence of peoples reliant on and skilled in oral expression by their ability to communicate in a second (or third) language.
Although occasionally bogged down in jargon (English is not Fugelsang’s first language either) this theoretical part of About Understanding. enlivened by vivid examples, is constantly stimulating. His discussion of education and health care brings the theory into even sharper focus. Education systems, for example, exist to pass on the values of the dominant society and thus perpetuate the power structure. By introducing institutionalised learning systems the West makes this easier to achieve. It creates an elite who define reality for the poor. telling them ignorance is the cause of poverty. ‘The purpose and result of such systems is to distract attention from the need for structural change in society and a redistribution of wealth.’ Fugelsang does not deny there is much goodwill among development workers but argues that we need to study more carefully the mechanism of domination which constitutes the major blockage to any development effort.
The last part of the book, based on Fugelsang’s own work around the world, is a detailed look at how workers in education, nutrition and health care can improve communication with the people. With a series of photographs, for instance, he shows how people from different backgrounds, looking at the same picture, will see very different things. He indicates which types of visual aids are useful and which types may achieve results opposite to those intended. It is a valuable and practical extension of his arguments.
In striving to correct the usual bias, Fugelsang can appear to be less rigorous in questioning Third World customs than Western ones. But certainly, we in the well-fed West might do well to withhold judgement until we have first made the effort to understand the complex social arrangements of groups maintaining a delicate hold on survival.
Fear at Work Job Blackmail, Labour and the Environment
by Richard Kazis and Richard Grossman
Pilgrim Press (pbk) $10.95 (incl. p&p.)
Bulk rates available.
‘Between six and eight million Americans are injured on the job each year, including 2.5 million disabled and 14.000 killed another 100,000 die each year because of job-related diseases.’ Meanwhile, between 1,200 to 2,000 chemical waste sites in the US pose dangerous risks to human health and the environment, while another ‘1.2 billion pounds of pesticides are annually dumped onto American farms and forests jeopardizing some 5 million farmworkers’.
These are just a few of the devastating figures revealing how corporations in America have successfully managed to resist worker health and safety and environmental protection regulations. Worse, workers and environmentalists have been left with the unsavoury option of having, as their choice, either jobs or their health and a clean environment. This ‘choice’ amounts to a type of ‘job blackmail’ which authors Richard Kazis and Richard Grossman outline in their new book. Fear at Work.
The book exposes not only the power of job blackmail but also the underlying self-interest and greed of big business and private enterprise in the United States. In a tightly argued format the authors catalogue case after convincing case of anti-environmental, anti-union and anti-safety actions on the part of US corporations. When workers complain of poor work conditions, or when environmentalists try to prevent pollution, companies react by threatening job losses or plant closures. This kind of economic threat proves to be the most efficient method of whipping workers (and public opinion) in line’.
Fear at Work places the problem of job blackmail in the broader context of ‘corporate power versus a democratic participation in economic and environmental planning'... At the moment, company profits are placed much higher on the priority list than the right of individuals to work in safe and healthy conditions (if they are given the right to work at all) or for all of society to live in a clean and decent environment. Kazis and Grossman produce impressive facts to show that the needs of workers, communities and industries need not be mutually exclusive. They debunk the corporate accusations that regulatory standards are outrageously costly, anti-productive and the major cause of current inflation and unemployment.
The book is more depressing than it is optimistic, especially where it describes the painful history of the US union movement. And it offers the information needed to clarify long neglected individual and worker rights, and encourages us to organise in the difficult fight to protect them.