Let’s begin with a story.
When I first came to Colombia, my faltering Spanish was put to intricate tests with every new encounter. ¿De donde eres? was easy enough to answer: Canada! ¿Por qué [estás] viviendo acá? was harder.
I locked onto a simple answer, though, and grew my Spanish with the practice that came from repeating it. With cabbies and service providers, I explained that I’d moved because Canadian culture wasn’t right for me. I talked about how Canadians are often so preoccupied with demonstrating worthiness through work that other aspects of meaningful life decline. Colombia, I explained, was a place where I saw more people putting family and community first. I also saw more people here performing thankfulness for health and good fortune, however small their share.
But as my Spanish grew, I found myself reaching for more complexity in my response–because, of course, this isn’t the whole story. Yes, Canadians have a tendency to talk more about work (and with more complaints), and to be so busy therein that time with family and friends gets shuttled to the wayside. And no, not all Canadians–but certainly a significant portion of the urban set, and certainly among WASP communities.
Even then, though, there’s coherent reason for this behaviour: we have a higher cost of living, and far more debt. Canadian debt sits at an average of around 169% of our disposable income, with average Canadians carrying a load of somewhere between $20,000 and $23,000 (si, si, in “funny money”, mis lectores estadosunidenses). Countless articles likewise describe how my generation (Gen Y, thank-you-very-much) has delayed major aspects of traditional adult life–marriage, families, home-ownership–precisely because of socioeconomic precarity.
So yes, Canadians don’t make as much time as Colombians for family and community… but understanding why requires seeing the culture as a whole. And that’s something we rarely have the language or means to do, when talking across divides.
The Honduran Caravan and the U.S. Border
The U.S. has now closed its busiest port of entry on the Mexican border, following a volatile confrontation Sunday with members of the migrant caravan arriving to request processing for claims of asylum. And lo, so returns a familiar back-and-forth about relative culpability and migrant deservedness of U.S. aid. I discussed some of this elsewhere, in an essay on the “worthiness” politics that emerges in secular spheres, as if straight out of a playbook on the spiritual value of suffering. Other friends on the Nonreligious channel have also been confronting this issue, with Luciano Gonzalez presenting a comprehensive overview to the Honduran crisis in a YouTube conversation, and Suzanne Calulu noting one of the racist reactions among extreme religious groups, in line with a broader trend of white evangelicals being particularly hostile to the needs of non-white immigrants and estadosunidenses.
Today, though, I want to talk about another aspect of our cultural narrative impacting our responses here. I want to talk about the background noise that makes better humanist practice difficult in North America. And because everyone and their goldfish is going to hash out the specifics of the Honduran Caravan example, I want to come at this from a different angle. Why? Because, as I have mentioned elsewhere, as commentators we must aspire to consistency, and not fall prey to the delusion that any “immediate episode of horror” is truly unique.
So let’s talk about Colombia instead.
Colombian Exceptionalism… and Important Exceptions
Living in Colombia has unfortunately put me in the habit of cherry-picking the local positives for conversation with outsiders. It’s hard not to, when talking to Canadians with limited and generally fearmongering knowledge of Colombia! I’m getting better, though, at finding a balance. When I talk about a positive now, I can usually contextualize why the same isn’t possible in Canada. Moreover, I can readily acknowledge the downsides to the same cultural distinctions I enjoy.
Take, for instance, the haphazard splendor of an evening idling in my local park:
Here I will hear the happy shrieks of children at play until late at night, often without parental supervision, on metal structures over hard-packed sand, the likes of which have been all but banned from Canadian playgrounds.
Here I will see dogs from all species, including those facing heavy stigma in North America, bounding in indifferent rough-and-tumble play with one another with little to no human oversight, not at all alarmed or agitated by all the noise around them.
And here I will see families set up stands for cooking and selling empenadas, arepas, hamburguesas, and perritos calientes, the smoke of their entirely unregulated enterprises mixing with the music and fireworks–yes, fireworks–that fill the air at odd hours, with very little deference to bylaws more regularly enforced in richer barrios.
How is all this made possible?
The children’s increased independence arises from:
- a culture where parents and community members aren’t relentlessly judging each other’s parenting
- the hard fact of the parents’ often difficult working schedules
- the lack of lawsuits, which also allows children these simpler, more cost-effective community spaces.
The dog culture arises from:
- acclimatization to loud noises, such that fireworks and thunder and shrieks don’t bother them
- dog owners being so relaxed that their charges are relaxed in turn
- more specifically, dog owners not being so terrified of lawsuits if they don’t control their dogs, so the dogs aren’t picking up their owners’ tension at every turn.
And the independent business culture arises from:
- a culture in which it is not illegal to be poor; where it is permitted to sell whatever one can on the street
- the ability to start a business without paying through the nose for licensing
- the ability to run a business without fear of lawsuits if, say, someone gets sick off something you sell.
Litigiousness as a Defining Characteristic of Western Culture
I used to think I lived in a free country–which is a bit silly, I know. After all, a famed Canadian decree calls for “Peace, Order, and Good Government.” No promise of unchecked liberty there! But all the November 11 rhetoric of my childhood drilled into me that people died for our freedom. Only later did it click that by “freedom” they meant “safety”. (Or, if “autonomy”, more nation-state autonomy than complete individual independence.) Only later did I realize how much Western culture values regulation more.
And, oh, don’t get me wrong: regulation certainly has its benefits! I am by no means stumping for libertarianism. (Libertarians being, by and large, just as much a part of the regulatory conversation as the most bylaw-crazy policy-wonk. Liberatarianism simply aims to tip regulatory practices in a different direction.)
What kind of benefits does regulation provide? Well, for instance, even if the dogs here are generally relaxed, what happens on the rare occasion when one of them does do damage–and not just to another dog, but maybe a neighbour’s child? Who’s going to pay the healthcare costs? Likewise, the ability to set up food stalls for side profit is wonderful, but if someone gets ill off their neighbour’s product, who’s going to pay the medical bills and make up for lost pay?
Also, okay, great, Colombian culture has less communal judgment about one another’s parenting and lack of 24/7 oversight. But this is possibly also why many mothers here joke about corporal punishment. And why Colombia has the fourth highest child homicide rate–fourth! highest! in! the! world! And ranks 118th in respect for children’s rights! It’s hard to be surprised by any of this, when women outraged by what some men do to the most vulnerable still gleefully use threats of violence to terrify children into obedience. A culture that puts family first can also easily be a culture that puts individual comfort last.
Wait, So We’re Not Ruling One as “Better” than the Other?
No, of course not. As I’ve made clear from the start, the aim here is resist easy binaries.
So, no, the West isn’t made up of “freer” countries in every respect. However, Canada, Britain, and the U.S. are safer countries in many respects. (Not all, obviously, but let’s put aside for now the U.S.’s lack of effective gun regulation. And the damning impact of our diminished environmental protections. And the extreme, racialized unevenness of protections from and under the law.)
Why safer? Because Western public policies are generally shaped by fear of the extreme outlier scenario. The child injured in a playground, whose parent then sues. The child bitten by a dog, whose parent then sues. Or the child poisoned by badly stored meat… whose parent then sues.
As such, if ours in the West are countries with high costs of living, and cultures in which everyone needs a bloody certificate, permit, or license to do anything, it’s because we’re trying to protect against worst-case scenarios.
And that cultural positioning forms the basis for our response to the unknown.
The Rest of the World as Worst-Case Scenario
Have you grokked the connection yet? Because one downside to this level of litigiousness and related government regulation is that there are invariably limits to the reach of both. A whole world outside the supposedly comprehensive security of our legal system, filled with potentially destabilizing What Ifs! And so we ask ourselves, how can we use rule of law to prepare for those What Ifs showing up? With military might? With walls?
Do we even have the language needed to meet them as 21st-Century humanists?
I pose Colombia as a counterpoint, again, because it too has a refugee crisis. Recently, a first tent city opened for refugees in Bogotá, intended to be a temporary site until mid-January. The denizens themselves ultimately want jobs, not hand-outs, because they’re human beings, with hopes and dreams like any others. And so the locals, no strangers to displacement pressures, have by and large kept the spirit of communal support alive. It’s not easy, of course, because over one million Venezuelans are in Colombia as refugees, with more arriving daily. But still… locals respect the dignity of individual human beings striving for better lives.
Why is this attitude so difficult for so many Westerners to emulate?
It’s the System, for Better and for Worse
Yes, ethnicity plays a huge role in making these victims of conflict at the U.S.-Mexico border seem menacing to white North Americans. The caravan thus becomes a terrifying outside threat instead of simply another part of our human family. But these manifestations of racism and xenophobia aren’t perfectly self-sustaining: They arise in part as a result of Western litigiousness. They find support in policies intended to protect against extreme What Ifs.
So of course many North Americans are going to latch onto the exceptional story of a Latin American immigrant to the U.S. doing harm to a U.S. citizen, even if the stats plainly show that immigrant populations have lower crime rates on whole.
And of course one response to the immediate needs of marginalized peoples clamouring for the chance to file asylum claims at the U.S.-Mexico border is going to be cries of But what about the next wave, and the next?
Racism and xenophobia are evergreen concerns for our species. Our tribalism invariably precedes us, and cannot be dispelled overnight, or probably even for good.
However, as global humanists we can choose to remember that other aspects of our cultural narrative might be amplifying this baseline tribalism. Other Western traits, which we all too often take as intrinsic goods, might need unpacking, too.
I leave you, then, frustratingly, with no perfect answers–just the knowledge that, yes, our litigiousness will help protect against the fluke event of a child in our neighbourhood eating a bad sausage.
But it will not help us protect against the loss of humanist perspective, when a hundred other children haven’t any food at all.