Sunday, March 16, 2014

Normality and judgement

I once said, semi-jokingly, that I don't feel judgemental about anything much, other than people who are judgemental. I can tolerate anything except for intolerance. I suppose it's part of my built-in personality type that I tend to look for common ground with everyone, and am always interested to see alternative viewpoints. My concepts of 'normal' are inevitably coloured by my upbringing and culture, and I find it interesting to learn why other people do things differently.

When moving to another country - or returning to one's home country after living abroad - it's all too easy to make negative comparisons, but when one is fully adjusted (as far as that is ever possible), it becomes clear that most of what people do in public is neither right nor wrong - it's cultural. Table manners are an obvious (and, I hope, non-controversial) example. How we set the table, what implements we use (if any), how we eat... these are not moral issues, but conventions which vary, sometimes within a country as well as when living abroad.

But if someone criticises this kind of thing, I become quite defensive. And yet, feeling critical about differences is basically another kind of personality trait; perhaps grounded in insecurity, but not necessarily wrong. It may be based on ignorance - a misunderstanding of 'normal', or an over-blown sense of 'right' in this sort of context.  So if someone comments that X is using the 'wrong hand', or 'eating messily', I want to stand up and explain that in their culture it's quite acceptable, even normal, and that the person making the criticism is equally weird to people from elsewhere.

That's not a particularly helpful attitude on my behalf, but when the issue is table manners, it's minor. If I can point out, gently, that we all have our own cultural expectations and conventions, it may help someone to be a little more aware of the wider world. Then again, it may also make the other person defensive, or even cause them to feel that I am criticising their culture or choices.

Still, most people can accept - and perhaps experiment with - different foods or styles of eating. If we move to another country, we may even adopt something that feels awkward at first (chopsticks, perhaps, or dipping bread in a communal bowl) but which soon becomes second nature.

But 'normality', to each of us, is far more than conventions at mealtimes. We have worldviews about - for instance - rights and privileges, medical care, education, nutrition, the origin of mankind, discipline, religion and faith. We may learn these overtly from our parents, we may absorb them from our environment, we may learn them at school, or from our peers. They change, as we grow and mature, too; or as different circumstances prompt us to re-think where we stand, what we believe in.

A few weeks ago, for instance, I wrote a post about home education. I tried to keep the post balanced, but inevitably, due to our experiences here, I am generally positive about home education. I am aware that it does not work for everyone, and that a few people may use it as a cover-up for nefarious activities or neglect. However, my worldview on the whole promotes education at home.

It wasn't always that way, though. When we moved to the US in the early 1990s, I had never come across home education (other than the governess/tutor style in historical novels). At that point, I assumed that institutional education was not just normal, but right - that parents needed to be involved in schools, to be sure, but that teachers were the professionals and that children needed peer interactions, group discussions, and so on.

I went to school, after all, and - on the whole - liked it. When challenged, I did admit that a lot of it was a waste of time, and that fifteen years later I didn't remember much of what we learned. But still.. school was, in my worldview of the time, 'normal'. And, I thought, that was right and good. The people we met in the US who 'homeschooled' spent a lot of money on private curricula, and the parents could never take a break. Surely, I thought, it would be a disaster....

Yet the homeschooled children I met were actually normal, likeable young people with a lively interest in learning. Gradually I developed an admiration for parents who would do this, and mild envy that they could afford it. I was still convinced that a curriculum was necessary, that teaching had to be formal, that only the most compliant children could satisfactorily learn in this way. My husband - who hated his schooldays - felt that since he had to suffer school, his children probably should, too. How else, he asked, could they learn to deal with the tedium of adult work? It was an odd, false logic, but I was too unsure myself to insist, despite our older son having a terrible time (and learning almost nothing) in his school.

Fast forward to Cyprus, and we not only started home educating, we learned to love it, to see the value of both formal and informal learning, of curriculum where appropriate, and unschooling/eclectic education the rest of the time. I'm now a tremendous advocate of home education and it's hard, sometimes, to remember that many (perhaps most) people are at the stage I was twenty years ago. And it's not that I'm 'advanced' in my education worldview. I also know of people who at one point were adamant that home education was the only way, but who gradually discover that their children (or at least some of them) flourish in a classroom environment.

That's just one example of core assumptions; of what we perceive as normal and 'right', but which can change - even reverse - as circumstances dictate. When we are open-minded, we can listen to people whose views differ, perhaps learn from them, and perhaps teach them something too. Unfortunately, human nature in general is inclined to keep tight hold of whatever is our current normality, and try to impose it on everyone else.

It's a fine line, and one which I'm still thinking through. We're experimenting with vegetarian eating during Lent (with exceptions on Sundays and other 'feast days'). I'm inclined to be veggie anyway; if I lived alone, I doubt if I would ever eat meat. But my husband has - as so many others do - some kind of built-in need to eat meat. This isn't just craving, say, a steak, or some tandoori chicken, and it's not dislike of beans or lentils. It's the feeling, after two or three days of veggie food, that meat (ANY kind of meat) is needed.

I don't have this need at all. Two weeks into Lent, I have no inclination to eat any kind of meat, even on Sundays. Worse (from the perspective of the family) I find myself almost taking on board some of the things that veggie or vegan friends have been saying about meat-eating for years, which I have previously pushed aside. Vegetarianism is already feeling more 'normal' (because I like it) and suddenly I have an urge to distribute recipes, to experiment with different ways of cooking beans and lentils, and - not so good - to discover all the potential disadvantages inherent in meat-eating, so as (I suppose) to consolidate my position.

Yet, I recognise that there are many people who, apparently, need to eat meat. After Lent, I will no doubt start cooking it again, and will probably eat it too, since I don't want to make life difficult for the various meat-eating family and friends who will entertain us in future. So, right now, I'm doing all I can to subdue the veggie agenda in my mind.

Then there's church.

Yes, that hot potato, that topic that keeps recurring on this blog, and in the writing of so many other people, in books and online. I've been attending weekly church services recently, and finding them fairly benign; I quite like the songs, I like seeing some people who I don't see anywhere else, and I like the walk on a Sunday morning. As a child, I took church-going for granted. As a young adult, I assumed it was essential for all Christians to belong to a particular local church. I don't think I was legalistic about it: to miss a service was acceptable due to illness, or exhaustion, or even on occasion having to do something else. But on the whole I liked going.

Nowadays I still acknowledge that we are part of the church (both universal and local), and that the purpose of the church is to encourage and build each other up, to exercise our gifts, to reach out to others who are part of the Body. And, of course, we should offer ourselves continually to God. I just don't find Sunday morning services to be a good place to do these things. I find the proximity of other people quite draining, the monologue of a sermon rather annoying (and sometimes sleep-inducing) and the singing of familiar songs, more often than not, means that my mind is miles away.

But still, so many people - particularly church leaders - insist that it's important, even vital to be present at these weekly gatherings. They put them on a par with prayer and reading the Bible...and I don't get it. I don't mind church services. I'm happy that other people benefit from them. I recognise that for many, communal singing is a form of worship, and that a sermon may teach them something about God, or inspire them to be closer to him during the week. That's great. But these things don't apply to me (or only rarely). I would feel like a misfit, were it not for the many others around the world feeling the same way, expressing their views far more vocally than I do.

And I want to stay open. I recognise that church gatherings - like school education - can be good, and right. Maybe for the majority they are a good thing. I just wish they would not try to impose them on those who find God to be closer outside of church gatherings. Guilt-tripping about anything - whether church meetings, or nutrition, or politics, or morals - makes people angry and inclined to rebel.

At least, that's how it works for me.

1 comment:

Steve Hayes said...

I have had a similar experience recently relating to same-sex marriage. There are people who are firmly convinced that it is right and just, and that a society where it is not possible is inevitably unjust and evil.

The same people are convinced that child marriage is evil, and absolutely morally reprehensible.

Yet there are other societies where child marriage is considered acceptable, if not normal, but who would shrink with horror from any suggestion of same-sex marriage.

And the same societies that regard same-sex marriage as just and right took a very different view a couple of generations ago.

I too don't want to be a moral relativist, but I do see that different societies have different standards of morality, and that when people think that their society has the only acceptable standards, it leads to a "might is right" mentality. They abhor what they call "religious bigotry", but I wonder if irreligious bigotry is any better.

I've explained my own solution to this kind of dilemma in a blog post here The State should get out of the marriage business | Notes from underground. But most people don't buy it. They don't want to be told what to do by religious bigots, but they can't resist demanding that the law reflect their own prejudices.