I recently got into a blog comment debate with someone I don’t particularly like or agree with on how and when values and identity are formed, and whether it is possible for them to change throughout one’s lifetime. Truth be told, the debate was sparked by a blog post in which a Christian defended Muslims. The commenter questioned why someone would do that, ultimately stating that, for example, an Arab Christian has more in common with an Arab Muslim than with a Western Christian, or that a Western atheist has more in common with a Western Christian than with an Arab atheist (note: “Western” was his choice of terminology, not mine).
Regardless of who exactly the conversation was framed around (to a point: we could be comparing Chinese to Japanese or Tanzanian to Kenyan and it would be the same argument), his fundamental point was that two people raised in the same culture have more in common and more shared values than two people raised in two different cultures possibly can.
First of all, if we’re pigeonholing people into race/religion/nationality, we’re forgetting the other fundamental pieces that build core values in a person: family, generation, social class, and milieu, to name just a few. And as someone who has had more than one serious relationship – and many, many friendships – with people from different countries or vastly different cultures, I’ve taken away this:
1. Religion is often harder to overcome than anything else, especially in a relationship. Two atheists from different cultures can often overcome more superficial differences (class, skin color), but just as a nonbeliever cannot often transcend their significant other’s devotion, neither can a pious Muslim or Christian get over their paramour’s lack of belief in God.
2. Family and social class often turn out to be more important than anything else. More specifically, the way a person was raised (strictly, openly, by parents who fought, or who were happy) and the circumstances under which they were raised (if there was money, if there wasn’t, if there was conflict) often has a greater influence on their values than outside forces. Two people from different places but who had very similar upbringings often see the world in the same way.
3. Age can be – but doesn’t have to be – a huge factor, and in fact, skipping a generation is almost always possible. I have a number of solid friendships with Baby Boomers (mostly of the hippie variety), but very few mid-Gen Xer friends (being on the cusp of Gens X and Y as they’re commonly split, I think someone got the dates wrong).
4. And for a no-brainer…Common interest is vital – I can talk to just about anyone who’s super-Internet-savvy, regardless of where they’re from or how old they are, or whether or not they believe in God – but truth be told, often find myself bored to death by people who’ve never heard of e-mail (does such a person actually exist?)
In discussing identity, I think of my favorite authors – Kundera, Benjelloun, Rushdie, Updike – all of whose themes touch on identity so eloquently, and often delve into the subject of identity in a second or third culture and the foibles presented by integration. Each one of them from a different culture themselves, yet discussing such a universal theme, and often reaching the same conclusions. Makes you think.
My generation, those of us born in the late 1970s and early 1980s – those of us who grew up with computers but not on them, are perhaps unique. More than any generation before, we have contact with people from other countries, cultures, and yes, ethnicities and races. More than any generation before, we were taught that everyone is the same – even if we didn’t always believe it or society or our families didn’t always back it up. We are bound, then, to have experienced a paradigm shift – where the other is no longer, but rather, a piece of the patchwork.
Do I sound like a total hippie? Perhaps. But even if we’re only one micro-step closer to that reality, there is no denying that the world is growing smaller and smaller for many. While the headlines in every paper aim to draw us apart (“Obama’s top secret meetings with Muslims – his secret pact with the enemy!”), the reality for many of us is quite different. And while we may still be very different, the discussions I hear and see in bars, on Twitter, and in classes lead me to believe that we’re similar than we once thought.