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Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Mirror Offered by Other Cultures

Hi.  I am Elaine Chiu and I am on the faculty at St. John's University School of Law in New York City.  I want to start my first post with a warm thank you to Dan for inviting me to guest blog here for December.   A few days ago, two stories ran in the New York Times: Archdiocese in Los Angeles Settles Claims of Sex Abuse and Sex Abuse of Girls Is Stubborn Scourge in Africa.  Authored by different journalists, the two articles did not refer to one another and seemingly discussed two separate topics.  However, as I read them, I could not help but see their commonalities.

While the frequency of child rape may be much higher and the processes for accommodating child victims are notoriously absent in African nations, what struck me were the similarities in the tales of child abuse in Africa and in the Los Angeles archdiocese.  In both locales, offenders got away with their abuse of children if success is defined as the lack of state prosecution, the lack of redress for victims and the failure to impose any meaningful sanctions.  Like the Catholic Church did in Los Angeles, extended families and villagers in Africa often deny or ignore the accusations of children.  African offenders go back to life as usual in their farms and villages, much like priests who were reassigned to parishes where they continued to have access to young children.  One other similarity I noted is the prevalent use of monetary payments from offenders to victims and their families.  The Los Angeles Archdiocese settled claims made by 45 victims for a grand total of $60 million while the practice of financial penalty is so entrenched that a prosecutor in Madagascar brushed off charges that she wrongfully dismissed an atrocious case of child rape by claiming that many poor parents made up false accusations in order to get money.

This final similarity is the most striking because unlike the others, it is a current practice in the US and in Africa.  While the Catholic Church is no longer ignoring the cries of children and reassigning priests (we hope), payments are still being made to victims, even for abuse that occurred as far back as the 1940s.  Yet despite the similarity of the practice, the journalists used opposing depictions to describe these payments.  In the Los Angeles article, Cardinal Mahony explained that the $60 million settlement was a meaningful public acknowledgment of responsibility.  The Africa story, on the other hand, portrayed the practice as a primitive cultural custom reflective of violent, oppressed societies. 

My juxtaposition of these two articles is to point out yet another example of how we as Americans constantly engage in "othering" so that we can feel superior about ourselves, even when we are showing concern for children in Africa.  Leti Volpp identified othering as the process by which we believe the worst about others and create a distance from them so that we can believe the best about ourselves.  Instead of using minority cultures to "other," it is about time that we take a less judgmental look at their experiences so that they can serve as a mirror for us to see similarities in our own culture.

Posted by Elaine Chiu on December 7, 2006 at 07:17 AM in Culture | Permalink


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At PrawfsBlawg, guest-blogger Elaine Chiu raises important questions about how Americans view domestic sexual violence as compared to similar practices in the Third World:While the frequency of child rape may be much higher and the processes for accomm... [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 7, 2006 8:57:58 PM


What an exquisite introductory post! I think this 'othering' (addressed in some of the work of the economist Amartya Sen as well as Appiah's Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, 2006) is the sociological equivalent of Freudian 'projection' and is clearly evidenced in much of the mass media reporting and portrayal of--and not a few of the academic approaches to--'Islam' and Muslims (cf. Jack G. Shaheen's Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, 2001; Edward S. Said's Covering Islam, 1997; and Norman G. Finkelstein's Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, 1995), particularly Muslims in the Middle East (and recent Muslim immigrants in Europe). Explicit attempts to counter this insidiuous 'othering' (not unrelated to the psychological mechanisms identified by Stanley Cohen in States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering, 2001) are found in several recent titles: Richard Bulliet's The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization (2004), Kenneth Cragg's The Qur'an and the West (2005), and Saba Mahmood's Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival of the Feminist Subject (2005).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Dec 7, 2006 9:08:58 AM

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