Mayfield: What’s culture and what’s just wrong |

Mayfield: What’s culture and what’s just wrong

Rich Mayfield
Vail CO, Colorado

Old prejudices die hard and they seem to die even harder for old liberals like me.

Back in my young days, the most obvious sign of a life given over to rowdy rebellion was a blue tattoo usually inked on a bicep just above the rolled up sleeve of a carefully tattered t-shirt. The decoration itself was most often pretty standard with either a heart serving as a palette for the name of a latest affection or an eagle with wings majestically unfurled.

In any case, such permanent ornamentation was seen by me and the majority of my social world as indicative of life lived on the margins.

Yes, yes, I know. Some time ago, I was sitting on a park bench, a not uncommon form of recreation for we retired, and happened to notice a young man, in his early 30s, I suspect, thoroughly enjoying the antics of two young tykes who, I further suspected, were his own children. They were having a grand time racing around the sandbox, sliding down the triple bumped slide and being pushed, with great hilarity, back and forth on the swings. It was a picture of paternalistic pleasure to me and, I certainly believe, for the very happy father. The fact that both of dad’s arms, from wrist right up to collar bone were decorated in long brilliantly colored tattoos had me remembering my past biases and reflecting on current perspectives.

This week I read with growing irritation about life for young Saudi Arabian women.

Raised in a social system that allows for little private freedom and absolutely no public presence, these women seemed to me to be suffering a life of virtual enslavement. It was particularly hard to find much to admire in the way they were treated and yet they seemed to not only be reconciled to the inevitability of their lives of practical imprisonment but actually welcoming it. In a country where women are not only forbidden to drive but prevented from even showing their face to anyone outside the immediate family, such rationalization is understandable but also profoundly sad.

Trying to gain new perspectives of understanding can be difficult when confronted with cultural differences that go so dramatically against our own deeply held values. In some parts of the world, the continuing practice of female circumcision, a painfully disfiguring and debilitating religious-cultural practice, is justified with arguments based on inherent cultural differences that cannot be comprehended by folk outside that particular culture. Even those of us who pride ourselves on being non-judgmental and ever-accepting find such a rationale difficult to acknowledge as valid.

My own struggle to find the best standard for discerning legitimate, if sometimes disturbing, cultural differences boils down, with certain limitations, to the matter of choice. If the person involved had the freedom to choose a particular practice, then I am obliged to try to both understand and accept the practice. If the person is compelled by cultural or other mandatory mores to participate, I am freed to critique, even condemn, the practice.

But even this standard is filled with exceptions. Not too long ago, my wife and I were invited to the home of a middle-aged Nepali couple just outside of Katmandu. The husband and wife were both well-educated and fluent in English, which made for a most stimulating dinner conversation. Sometime during the meal, our conversation got around to the subject of courtship and marriage. In Nepal, most, if not all, marriages are arranged by the bride and groom’s families. Often a soon-to-be-married couple has barely met before they officially bind themselves to one another as husband and wife.

Brazen American that I am, I asked our hosts if that was the case for them. They glanced at each other, softly smiled, and agreed that it was.

Running the risk of becoming the proverbial ugly American, I probed further, asking how they managed marriage without the required, at least in my own culture, affection for each other. They laughed again and went on to describe a long, sometimes awkward, period of relational development that eventually matured into a deep respect and, indeed, love for one another. There was little, if any, choice in the initial arrangement and yet this couple certainly appeared to be as well-adjusted and happily married as any you could find in America and probably better than most.

So the search continues, at least for me, for some kind of standard of discernment as to what should be honored and what should be condemned.

Confronted with myriad examples of physical and emotional abuse, of appalling mutilation or painful sexual practices, an attitude of laissez-faire is simply not an option.

Rich Mayfield is the author of “Reconstructing Christianity: Notes from the New Reformation.” E-mail comments about this column to

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