Problem of Proximity - Outsiders and Social Change

The work that I am doing now means that I am cast as the outsider. Through the blogs that I read I recently came across an excellent analysis of being an outsider in international work (click here). In the post itself the author briefly mentions the possibility of local knowledge containing biases. Even before I read that post I was writing my own reflections on being an outsider and questioning the impact of outsiders on social change. In some of my meetings in Lesotho I am often confronted with local experience as rationale for supporting or criticizing an initiative – I don’t mean to imply that this is either all good or all bad. Sometimes this local knowledge is relevant and necessary, but at other times it has come across as biased or fatalistic. I have wondered if proximity to a problem develops this bias.

In 2007 I was able to travel to Tibet while I was living in China. I was there for about a month. What confuses me to this day is how issues around Tibetan-Chinese relations are such a popular cause – I suppose the Dalai Lama and Richard Gere had something to do with it. I guess I was expecting some serious repression by the Chinese, but the amount of cultural and religious practices that seemed to be preserved surprised me. I am not sure how the comparison came into my head and it may be completely inappropriate, but while I was in Tibet I started to think about the situation of First Nations people in Canada (Native Canadians/ Americans). To me, it seems that the Tibetans have been able to retain their cultural and religious practices to the same extent or even more so than First Nations in Canada - This judgement may be slightly biased because I was a tourist in Tibet and may have been exposed to more culturally relevant experiences.

I understand that it is asinine to discuss which of two oppressed groups is ‘better off’. I think this would be about as effective as a school yard argument about whose dad would win in a fight or which super hero is stronger. I am just interested in how people perceive social problems that occur within their society and within external societies.

I believe that many Canadians dismiss issues involving the First Nation population as problems that can be attributed to the First Nations themselves. These same Canadians may decry what the Chinese government has done to the Tibetans and take on Tibetan independence as a social cause.

People may be incredibly interested in issues relating to global poverty, but at the same time dismiss the homeless man situated on the street corner outside their apartment as a drug addict, or alcoholic, who is responsible for his own problems. I think I could be included as an example as well. I am currently working internationally, but I haven’t been as interested in working with similar issues in my own community.

Is it easier to join a cause that addresses an external social problem so that it is simpler to rationalize away your responsibility for, or involvement in, that social problem? If I identify local issues as societal problems then I am being critical of the society that I live in, participate in, and contribute to. Unless I am hypocritical or delusional I would need to examine my role in that society and how I may be contributing to those social problems. However, if I take up an external cause I don’t have to waste my time with any of that introspection and reflection.

If people are less likely to identify problems as societal problems then is an outside perspective necessary?I am not trying to justify or rationalize my involvement in international work, but am also referring to outside influences such as media, education, or travel

September 7, 2010

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post. Obviously we have some similar views.:)

    If you haven't already, you might also take a look at: