Sunday, June 18, 2006

More Thoughts From Sweden

Some other random thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head since the visit. First off, Sweden makes an interesting defense against the charge that gay marriage is somehow a threat to the institution of heterosexual marriage. If Sweden is any example it would seem to indicate just the opposite. Marriage has been declining in Sweden for quite some time. Its perfectly acceptable, especially among the younger segment of society, to cohabitate, often indefinitely. They've even got a word for it, "sambo", which is what you call the person whom you are living with but not married to. For example, my wife referred to me as her sambo while we were living together but before we were married. Contemporaneously with, and probably as a result of, this trend Sweden has failed to jump on the gay marriage bandwagon. But not because they've a problem with gay people, far from it. It seems that, in a society where marriage isn't highly valued, there's not much of a push for gay marriage either. So it seems reasonable to extrapolate and say that the push for the legalization of gay marriage in the US is actually a sign that the institution of marriage is still quite healthy. Traveling abroad also raises the question of just how much you should try to be a Roman if you happen to find yourself in Rome. If you would reject a particular custom in the United States, are you free to reject that same custom abroad? A minor, but illustrative, example are eating habits. For example, in Sweden they follow the widespread European practice of "humping" food on the back of their forks before conveying the food to their mouths. Margaret Visser has a real nice analysis of this practice in The Rituals of Dinner; she comes to the conclusion that this is a non-utilitarian custom with elitist origins. So, when eating in Sweden, should I eat like a European or am I free to say that Europeans are silly and eat in some other decorous fashion? We can start to answer by asking "What interests are we trying to balance?". On one hand there is personal conscience, the belief that a person should not have to engage in acts which violate their moral code. On the other is... what exactly? Why do we seek to emulate customs when we travel abroad? Some reasons which come to mind: + To blend in + To avoid giving offence + To avoid embarrassment It would seem to me that, barring those circumstances where blending in is a matter of personal safety, the desire to not "stick out" is an insufficient reason to adopt a particular custom if that custom is personally odious for some reason. How about not offending native sensibilities? Well, for starters, how often will native sensibilities actually be "offended"? A reasonable society will make allowances for the behavior of foreigners and will not necessarily see the failure to take up a particular custom as a rejection of the local culture. But what about those cases where true offence is actually taken? Those cases are hard to discuss in the abstract as there would seem to be a great deal of nuance involved. What is the custom, why is it being rejected, and why does its rejection give offense? Such instances would have to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis, balancing the perceived ill of the custom against the degree of offence that its rejection will cause. What about embarrassment, either on the part of the traveler or the part of a native? This is a separate question from "offence", since embarrassment and offence are emotional states which may occur separately from each other. Again, one would not wish to inflict undue embarrassment on oneself or another without a good reason. Again, a balancing of principle and emotional distress would seem to be indicated. The general rule which emerges, then, is that one is rarely obliged to ape the customs of the country in which you are traveling. It is only in those instances which such rejection will cause general offence and/or embarrassment that such a thing is necessary. Returning to my original hypothetical about eating, I would doubt that my refusal to adopt European table manners would cause either embarrassment or offence, so there's no impetus to do otherwise.

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