Using your inside voice.

January 30, 2011 Comments Off on Using your inside voice.

I came across this paragraph in the very first set of readings for my comparative world dress class. It’s from an article by Joann W. Keali’inohomoku called “You Dance What You Wear, and You Wear Your Cultural Values,” a series of observations about traditional dance dress—how a culture informs the dress that informs the dance. The article begins with a description of a Japanese dance class attended by mostly white women. They wrapped their own kimonos, and nothing they did came out quite right. Finally the author of the article asked the instructor to dress her, and once the kimono was tight enough, all the movements began to make much more sense, and everything was easier. The dance was closely tied to the costume, and the costume reflected traditional stylized Japanese female ideals. Later, the author writes:

Arabian belly-dancer movements seem to reflect the epitome of femininity within the appropriate culture. There are two functionally contrastive occasions for belly dancing to be performed. One is for the commercial dancer who performs for her own gain by “giving pleasure” to men. She is the professional dancer for whom the sanctioned norms held for the “respectable” wife and mother do not apply. The other occasion is for the “respectable” wife and mother to belly-dance for other women as a pastime. To while away the social hours, groups of exclusively female friends and relatives take turns dancing, singing, and playing musical instruments for one another. They make sure they are well hidden from male eyes. The values associated with the desirable Arabian woman can be inferred, whether she professionally dances for men and for men only, or socially dances for women and women only. The movements and apparel seem to show that a woman is considered a physical, sexual being with the power to excite. Both men and women need to be protected from this. This is controlled by polarized solutions—either openly performing outside the pale of polite society, or revealing oneself to other women only.

It might be a generational thing, or an American thing, or a liberal-college-student thing, but I’ve always found myself surrounded by the conviction that the most important thing of all is to “be yourself,” carrying with it the unspoken addendum that you must be yourself at all times and with everyone, because otherwise you’re not really being yourself.

But this is a really interesting take on “who you are.” Sexuality is a very powerful force, and it makes sense that you might need shelter from it—not all the time and not oppressively, but it may happen frequently that you end up in a situation where sexuality is not appropriate…and, when you come right down to it, that might actually be fairly often. Think about how embarrassing it is when a couple begins to lip each other’s faces off in a very public place. Clearly we already have some limits on where and around whom sexuality can be explicitly expressed. It has become a matter of manners, like not shouting in a library. There are times and places for everything, and no matter how much you might like to shout, perhaps the most considerate thing for everyone is for you to use your inside voice from time to time.

The problem, I guess, is that we can’t seem to distinguish between politeness and repression of fundamental personal traits. Just see what happens if someone stands up and tells (heterosexual) America that maybe they shouldn’t be so free in their expression of their sexuality. People are still on the backswing after having broken out of the 50’s, I guess. But repression appears to be in the eye of the beholder. It’s not repression if the “victim” truly has no problem with it. And just because an American can’t imagine being okay with something does NOT mean that it’s an evil repressive institution that needs to come down.

In a larger sense, it’s a question of how minds in different cultures work differently. If you’ve ever read a really great piece written by a Chinese, you may have experienced the brief flash of epiphany wherein you suddenly and completely understand the concept of filial piety as part of a system of morality. Or maybe you’ve read a description of honor according to the Japanese. Or of politeness and stiff-upper-lippedness according to the British. Really good writing makes you realize just how deep cultural differences can run. So apart from maybe taking a page from the Muslims’ modesty book, it might also be a good thing to let yourself really take in and understand by their strict divisions of behavior according to who is present.

I seem to be jumping from point to point without any real transitions, but what made me come back to this is all the turmoil in North Africa at the moment. I read an article in The Economist about how wonderful it would be if Tunisia became an outpost of democracy, setting an example for other nations. But I’m not convinced that democracy is always such a great thing. There might well be cultures whose mindsets are simply more suited to monarchy or dictatorship or whatever. Who are we, who have no frame of reference for understanding how government is regarded in this or that culture, to decide that our way is best? Of course the people have a right to be happy, and they should not have to suffer under an oppressive regime, but that doesn’t mean that they necessarily have to be the ones in charge of their fate. People proclaiming that Democracy is the Way make my skin crawl. It’s just too missionary for me. If the people of Tunisia want change, then by all means they should effect it, but we should stop short of criticizing or analyzing their eventual choice of government according to our own limited (and limiting) preferences, which are nothing but the product of our culture.

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