An important tool in any mediator’s toolbox is knowledge of cultural diversity. Early on in any training session, this topic is explored and discussed.
What do I mean by “culture”? As explained by Ellen Waldman in her book Mediation Ethics (Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2011):
UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization) defines culture: as “the whole complex of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that characterize a society or social group.” It includes arts and letters, modes of life, fundamental rights of humans, value systems, traditions and beliefs. (Id. at 306.)
Culture: not simply what we do, it is the lens thru which we see the world, priming our choices and shaping how we view the choices of others. (Id. at 307)
And there is a big difference in how each of us views the world. Some of us are “individualistic” meaning we “…feel less attached to social groups and more inclined to focus on personal goals and preferences.” (Id. at 307.) In this type of culture, people are more focused on the “I” than on the “we”. Individual gain and initiative are encouraged. People look at what can be accomplished on an individual level. Self-interest overrides group interest. An example of this culture is the United States.
In contrast is the “collectivist” culture in which people have a “we” consciousness. Individual gain is not encouraged, and the collective gain is the focus. What is right for the group, community, tribe, corporation etc. is far more important than what is important to the individual. Belonging to a group and conforming to its ideals are important. An example would be China. ( Id.)
In addition, cultures are often either Universalist or Particularistic. The former is often an Individualist culture which believes rules should be applied consistently across the board. “If it is fair to one group, it is fair for all.” (Id. at 308.)
In contrast, a particularistic culture “… would trade uniformity for sensitivity to context.” … “Every situation is different, and different situations call for different rule application.” (Id.)
Applying the above, one readily sees that the United States is an individualistic and universalistic culture. In recent weeks, the news has been full of people clamoring to reopen businesses and parts of a state if not the whole state. Some mayors and governors are opening their cities and states while others are quite strongly resisting to do so. This dichotomy is even playing out within the same state in some instances. Those clamoring to get back to work are more concerned with their own individual circumstances than the overall health and safety of their city or state. They are putting themselves ahead of the health and safety of their potential customers and fellow citizens. They protest the “safer at home” and “shelter in place” orders by urging their First Amendment and other Constitutional rights. Indeed, some have even sued their governors and mayors alleging that the quarantine and/or closures of their businesses violate their various Constitutional rights. Ignoring the broad and vast police powers of the governors and mayors, they argue that these Constitutional rights and liberties apply equally and consistently to all in all situations. This is, indeed, a very universalist approach.
Indeed, the President of the United States has taken an individualistic approach by consistently stating that it is up to the governors and mayors to conduct testing, acquire Personal Protective Equipment and decide when it is safe to re-open businesses and the economy. The president has consistently rejected taking any national or collective approach to overcoming the Covid -19 crisis.
In contrast is China, Taiwan, Singapore and Thailand where the focus has been on the collective health, safety and well-being of the country. The “we” matters much more than the “I” and everyone views themselves as interdependent. (Id. at 307.) China stayed “locked down” for almost 2.5 months with the authorities meting out severe punishment to anyone venturing out into the streets without authority. As a result, China stayed locked down until the authorities believed the curve “had been flattened” rendering it somewhat safe to restart the economy. And even then, it has restarted very cautiously and carefully.
This Covid-19 crisis and how each country deals with it is indeed a looking glass into our cultural differences; revealing the many different lenses in which we are viewing the same world crisis.
… Just something to think about.
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