Worldview: Learning the House Rules

Wednesday, 2 February 2005

Several years ago I decided to perform an experiment in the area of world view--using my parents and their card-playing buddies as guinea pigs. I invited them to play a game called Barnga (developed by Sivasailam Thiagarajan). Players were assigned to tables and each was given a set of written rules. Once everyone had had a chance to read and digest the rules, play began. Players were not allowed to speak to each other at any time during the process. What they didn't know was that each player's instructions varied from the others'. The differences didn't make play impossible. In fact, things started out fine. Soon, however, puzzled looks and scowls were prevalent at each table. Players grabbed each others' hands and tried to get their neighbors to take back cards that were "misplayed." The experiment was halted before there was any bloodshed and the group spent the rest of the evening in their comfort zones with familiar games and rules that made sense.

A more recent (and less theoretical) experience in world view involved a group of Korean college students. As their teacher in a short term ESL program, I wanted to spend part of the first class getting to know them better. I tacked up a map of China, Japan, and Korea and asked them to mark their hometowns. Several of the students grew irate when they noticed the body of water labeled "Sea of Japan." They insisted my map was wrong and proceeded to correct it. They did this with zeal and without permission. Now "Korea's East Sea" separates the Korean peninsula from its island neighbor.

Many would hear the previous stories and laugh about them as I have. Disagreements around a card table and quarrels about words on a map may seem funny. However, they illustrate a truth that is deadly serious. We are profoundly shaped by our families and cultures of origin. Our cultural values are like an iceberg. We can only articulate a small percentage of them. The others are there, but are beneath the surface, often unknown, or at least un-pondered. Because we're unaware of the extent of our own cultural indoctrination, we assume that any reasonable person would choose to adopt many-or most-of our values if given a chance.

This thinking pervades American foreign policy, most obviously in the Middle East. A majority of Americans, whatever their view of the war in Iraq, assume that freedom and democracy are innately valued in all societies, and that powerful, despotic rulers keep such gifts from a welcoming public. The truth is more complicated. Though segments of the population in Iraq and elsewhere long for a free society, and others, especially the long disenfranchised Shi'a and Kurds, want freedom (and power) at least for themselves, such sentiments are not universally true. According to Moroccan sociologist Fatema Mernissi, ". . . 'freedom' has always had an ambiguous status in Muslim civilization and has never acquired a patent of nobility or become a positive concept." (Mernissi: Islam and Democracy, 92) What appears to us as the blessing of God appears to others as "excessive individuality" (Mernissi 92), something that threatens the well-being of society. Since ignorance of world view is not limited to the West, those who hold that view believe it to be as self-evident as the value of freedom and democracy is to Westerners.

It is critical that we make an effort-both individually and corporately-to understand our own world view and those of our neighbors. When we do, we might find we can finally communicate effectively across cultures. Until then, we're doomed to re-play an unfriendly game of cards.

Diana Adair Bridges
Adjunct ESL Instructor, Mississippi State University

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