Saturday, July 07, 2007

From: at home she feels like a tourist

When in Memphis....

It occurred to me as soon as I posted the previous entry that I had only looked at one side of a two-sided problematic. When addressing the relationship between a city and outsiders, one can examine both how city residents should receive the outsiders, and how outsiders should approach their new city. The old platitude "when in Rome, do as the Romans do" offers one rather simplistic response to the latter issue. Adapt and assimilate, it suggests.

On one level, this advice is obviously correct. If you are visiting a city where tipping is considered a rude affront, then you shouldn't leave a tip. If people pass on the right and walk on the left, then for reasons both practical and ethical, you shouldn't plow through a line of walkers on the left.

OK - but: what if you are visiting an explicitly racist city? What if you're a committed vegetarian in a city where venison is the local specialty? What if you're part of a gay couple in a city where homosexuality is considered a moral affront and gays are advised to stay very, very closeted? What if the local custom involves pelting stones at stray animals...or stoning adulteresses?

At what point does a cultural variation cease to be a fairly indifferent matter of local custom and become a political or moral issue which might call for outspoken public defiance?

Just a few hypothetical questions here. I'm not suggesting that Memphians pelt stones at stray animals or stone adulteresses - the cultural differences between Memphis and San Francisco certainly aren't that dramatic. But I'm using a few intentionally extreme examples to point out that, while we all accept the "when in Rome" principle up to a point, there is a line somewhere, beyond which even the responsible outsider should not necessarily simply accept local "custom" as such. Where does this line lie? Where exactly is the critical difference between boorishly refusing to respect the local culture, and taking an ethical stand against cruel or unjust local practices? Or even just an aesthetic stand against, for example, an ugly architectural craze in a city you're visiting?

A lot of questions in this post with no answers. I'm just trying to introduce a complicated problem for now; in the next post (whenever that comes) I will try to work out how this problem applies to an outsider in Memphis, specifically.
posted by fearlessvk

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