Thursday, June 9, 2011

Cultural Differences: Respect

From El Pais, 11 May 2011 -  "La Madre" by Elvira Lindo

One of Spain's leading newspapers, El Pais, usually has an editorial or two on the last page which examine some aspect of Spanish life or special interest.  A recent article specifically noted Spanish and American cultural differences when it comes to public figures and privacy, with specific reference to Barack Obama's mother.

The text, loosely translated, follows:

"Sometimes cultural differences are so obvious that we cannot reconcile them.  Two Sundays ago, The New York Times featured a front page photo of young woman kneeling in the grass, holding on her hip a black boy about three years old, who was dressed as a pirate: eye patch, earrings, a skull on his hat and a bad guy mustache. The girl could have passed for a teenager, but no, it was Ann Dunham, the mother of that child, Barry, Barack Obama. 

"I read four painstaking pages devoted to this strange woman who had two racial marriages - an African first,  an Indonesian after - in an era in which having mixed children presented a social challenge. The report tried to find the reasons why that white American girl picked up her six-year-old son and went to Indonesia for a such a long period of his life.  The journalist followed the steps of Ann Durham 40 years later, when almost all traces of their passage had been erased, but nevertheless, she had gathered enough pieces of the puzzle to conclude that this mother - fearless, ahead of her time, and wrapped in a mess of a life - had influenced the spirit of the president.

"I read it as if reading journalism. What's more, it was journalism, but then suddenly wondered what would happen if our paper devoted its cover to the mother of Zapatero or Rajoy.  And not a flattering story but one attentive to the shadows that all mothers hide, although to our memories they always appear perfect.  I do not think we would be able to wrap our heads around it, and no journalist would take the story, for it would be considered an unacceptable intrusion into privacy.  And maybe all this is true.  However, after reading such portraits, we learn something of the human journey: respect and insight are not incompatible."

This, of course, makes for some cognitive displacement on my part.  The Spaniards I know are unafraid to cross what Americans perceive as definite personal boundaries in day-to-day life.  However, when it comes to public figures, they back off completely.  (This may be why no one seems to know where various political parties' funding goes.)  In America, the situations are reversed: personal boundaries are carefully respected and evaluated for political correctness while public figures are subject to an informational free-for-all.  Why?  How did we arrive to these points?  Which is more valuable?  As the writer concluded, "respect and insight are not incompatible."  Perhaps there is room for improvement on both ends.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting article, and I loved your comments about the differences between the two countries in public and private realms. Sometimes insight increases respect--sometimes just the opposite.

    Tia M


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