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Book Reviews

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FOOD FIRST [image, unknown] Book reviews

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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
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Dag Hammarskjold Foundation, Ovre
Slottsgatan 2, Uppsala. Sweden
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Paperback US $12 incl. postage
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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.

Anne Buchanan

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Job blackmail

Fear at Work Job Blackmail, Labour and the Environment
by Richard Kazis and Richard Grossman
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Pilgrim Press (pbk) $10.95 (incl. p&p.)
Bulk rates available.
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‘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.

Elena Creef


The Second Sex
being the book that showed women
there's no refuge in dependence

If you plan to get through life on piggyback, you’d better not offend the piggy. That’s the message mothers have given their daughters since time immemorial — learn how to keep your man sweet and he’ll give you what you need. If you don’t, he won’t, and the life of a spinster is pitiable and perilous.

The manipulation isn’t usually exposed quite so nakedly. I recollect Milton’s mellifluous line from Paradise Lost — ‘He for God only’, she for God in him’ — being co-opted to convert me in my youth.

Instead of Milton, I should have read Simone de Beauvoir’s brilliant analysis of women, The Second Sex. Published back in 1949, it still stands out in the welter of feminist literature as the single best book to read if you want to understand why women are as they are — and also to see what they could be.

The book is a formidable achievement, pulling together psychology, anthropology, political analysis and literature. Du Beauvoir examines western woman ‘in all her aspects’ (as the sub-title claims) with the dispassionate and relentless thoroughness of a surveyor evaluating a stately home: every item is scrutinised, every carpet turned up and every’ portrait locked both at and behind.

Nothing escapes her cool eye. She allows herself an elegant wryness occasionally; but the book is gripping despite the lack of light relief because its content has such precision and integrity. Simplification in the interests of reader appeal is not for her: she achieves it in her own way, by taking all the time and space she needs to present the subject fully, every anomaly and paradox acknowledged and put in perspective. You have to be a brilliant writer to get away with that. But then, she is.

So for me to summarise the book in a few paragraphs here is to betray its chief virtue. I know all I can do is to sketch in the crudest outline of a rich and subtle portrait of woman that ought to be viewed in its entirety.

‘The woman,’ said Nietzsche, ‘gives herself; the man adds to himself by taking her.’ Simone de Beauvoir agrees. A man sees himself as the subject of his own life. If he wishes, he adds a dimension to his life through taking a woman — preferably a decorative one to provide him captive sex; certainly a useful one to provide him with stability at home. A woman keeps change at bay: she remakes the beds unmade again each day, cooks and cooks again dinners that vanish; she maintains the status quo, and thus provides the man with a calming immanence when he returns home weary from seeking his ‘transcendence’ out in the unpredictable world.

But how is the woman to find her own transcendence? She treads water all her life and swims nowhere; she is doomed to monotony and trivia as long as she is dependent on her man. She must guard this source of her livelihood: being a wife is her ‘job’ ,though being a husband is not his. She is always afraid of losing him; she learns the ‘melancholy science’ of womanly wiles, charming him into staying with her, or tying him down through guilt and hostile tantrums. The very vivacity and independence that fascinated him in her girlhood are now replaced by a jealous clinging that repels him. Her chief aim is to haul him in within the walls in which she is a prisoner, ever object to his subject.

And if he is a stodgy stay-at-home, she is even more disappointed: she can’t live through a man who is not a hero.

Who is to blame for woman’s dependence? De Beauvoir has no patience with man-hating; both sexes have colluded in maintaining a system which each believed was to its advantage but in fact made both miserable. Many of the external changes she advocated in 1949 have since come about — more women are earning their own living, there is more co-education, contraception and legal abortion. But the psychological shifts she advocated are only just beginning to happen, and these are crucial.

A woman needs to value herself as an independent being, an essential, the subject of her own life. If she comes into relation with a man, it should be through her free choice, not through social or economic pressure; and the man, most important of all, needs to be one who not only loves and desires her but respects her freedom.

Then the destructive battle of the sexes can be replaced by a ‘union of really separate bodies’ which is no longer hostile but exhilarating: where ‘all the treasures of virility, of femininity, reflect each other and form an ever shifting and ecstatic unity’.

Anuradha Vittachi

The Second Sex
by Simone de Beauvoir (1949)
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Penguin (pbk) £3.95
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