GORDON: Ladies and Gentlemen, good evening. Our topic for tonight comes to us from the distant country of Sri Lanka, where a British woman has been deported for transgressing local standards of cultural and religious sensitivity… as a result of having a tattoo of Buddha on her arm…
KAT: Wow. Remind me to get my tattoo removed.
GORDON: You sport the Buddha on yourself?
KAT: Nah, it’s all just wishful thinking. I’m far too broke to have any ink.
The only culturally insensitive thing I’ve done (that I’m aware of) is wave with an open hand while in Niger. Apparently that’s like their version of the middle finger.
GORDON: That does beg the question, though, of how culturally aware one should be when entering another country, or inversely how aware or tolerant the local population should be of the ignorance of visitors…
KAT: Good point. Cultural sensitivity also becomes a big issue when you start looking at organizations that want to work on an international level.
GORDON: Or even the simple issue of tourism. I can’t even begin to count how many tourists I saw in Syria and the Middle East at large dressed fairly scandalously- at least in comparison to local standards of modesty. Again, that would seem to bring us back to the question of whether or not cultural sensitivity should even be an expectation or a goal on anyone’s part. Is one supposed to walk in somewhere acting, dressing, and speaking entirely as they would back home, or should they adapt as much as possible?
KAT: Good point. It probably comes down to compromise at some point. I mean, the organization I was with in Niger made an intentional effort to dress according to cultural standards of modesty, but at the same time we had friends tell us they knew we wore pants at home, so it wasn’t such a big deal for us to wear skirts.
Then again, perhaps the fact that by traveling we are entering another culture means we should carry the responsibility of being culturally appropriate.
GORDON: What’s your reaction to the case of Naomi Coleman, the British tourist at the center of this controversy?
KAT: Well, I’m assuming it was an issue of ignorance. At the same time, it’s worth being aware enough to cover up any iconography that might offend.
What do you think? Is it fair?
GORDON: Call my cynical or even a bigot, but when I hear a Western claim to be Buddhist, my gut reaction is to be skeptical. Eastern philosophy seems to be used more as a fashion statement than a lifestyle, and when someone has a Buddha and a Hindu tattoo together (as Coleman does)… well, it doesn’t inspire confidence. I guess I’d be offended too, but I don’t know that I’d ever call for anyone’s deportation simply on the grounds that I dislike their tats or question their zealotry…
KAT: Fair enough. The idea of the sacred is something we aren’t particularly well versed in, here in North America. So how do we deal with two different cultures coming head to head?
GORDON: Truth be told, I’m not of the opinion that all cultures are equal. There’s good and bad in all, but some are certainly better or worse than others. At the same time, there’s a difference between trying to be a cultural warrior and simply being insensitive or inhospitable.
I guess it’d really boil down to context, wouldn’t it? How I’d treat a guest in my home is not how I’d treat the fans of a television show whose messages I disagree with…
KAT: Good point. Well, it looks like we are almost out of time for tonight, so maybe we can leave it to our readers to tell us how they feel. What is our responsibility when it comes to cultural sensitivity? And where does the responsibility for that sensitivity fall?
GORDON: And with that, we are out. I’d wave goodbye, but I am now concerned about offending people in doing so.