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A friend of mine asked this question in an email chain: Is it possible for a people to be so poor that they don’t even know that they are poor?  And, if so, would convincing them that they are poor help matters at all?

This sparked the following responses from a couple different sources:

Response 1, JS: It was often the case that people were poor but didn’t know it. They knew they didn’t always have food, or clean water, but they had strong family ties and a good relationship with their land and nature. They worked hard and appreciated the little things in life. Sure, there were some that were at the way bottom, but many didn’t consider themselves poor at all. And then the Westerners arrived, and started labeling people. They brought western values and terminology that had never been used before, such as “development” and “underdeveloped.” I once read an article by a Nepalese man who said that a word for “development” did not exist in his language until the Westerners brought it. They started calling people who didn’t live according to Western standards and Western values “underdeveloped.” That’s when the change happened: the people newly labeled as “underdeveloped” started to believe that they were, in fact, underdeveloped because they lacked many shiny, useless material possessions that Westerners flaunted. They started embracing Western values and fitting the labels that were pressed upon them. In essence, Westerners convinced people who had never considered themselves poor that they were, in fact, poor, because they lived differently than Westerners did. “Backwards,” by Western standards. The original culture, and all of its positive values, started to fade. The underdeveloped did not see that they maybe had a better relationship with their family, their friends, their environment than so many Westerners did. They were blinded by the lights and the labels. As exhibit A, I was walking through the second biggest slum in Africa today and noticed that every house had an antenna for a TV on the top. It’s pervasive.

So in answer to the second question: convincing people that they are poor made matters worse. We already did that. Globalization showed the world that if they don’t live like Americans, then they are poor, and they must change their values and ways to match those in the west. Maybe if we hadn’t convinced them that they were poor in the first place, we could see a lot more value in the original culture. Maybe we would have even have learned something ourselves. And maybe we would have not have screwed up all their values.

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Response 2, JD: I was born in America and have always had enough food and clean water. Ialso have strong family ties and a good relationship with nature. I’m not saying I’m the shit, I’m saying that It’s really not as straight forward as picking one value system over another…

Response 3, BO: If the real question is “has globalization been good or bad for people in terms of happiness” then I think one dominating factor to consider is the effect that globalization / modern medicine can have on life expectancy.  I would expect that it pretty conclusively decreases infant mortality, and increases life expectancy.  People generally do like living.

When two cultures come into collision, they obviously clash.  This is happening all of the time.  The question is: why does one culture come to dominate another one?  Is it because one is more powerful?  More advanced?  More “shiny” and “useless” as JS implies?  Frankly, to get the good from a culture (say, advanced medicine and the Beatles) you have to take some of the bad (economic devaluation, exploitation of labor, urbanization issues, Miley Cyrus).  Frankly, it’s not just western cultures that try to take over and assimilate other cultures.  People from all continents (especially those damned dirty Antarcticans) have waged wars over this or that, and it’s only through modern technology that such culture wars have been able to take on a global scale.

At the same time, those families that JS saw in the slums did make the DECISION to buy antennas and TVs.  It’s somewhat dehumanizing to say that westernization MADE them buy the televisions.  No one told them that their family structures had to change.  Colonization did screw the environment without much input from the native people, but I’m going to blame the British for that.

However, the whole globalization good/bad argument is a bit of a moot point.  Sure, people could go back to living off the land without any modern technology or interaction with the outside world.  But I’m not sure that anyone would choose to do this, other than the Amish.  And they’re all in-bred.

Response 4, JA: Since BO said what I was going to say, I’ll point out the nerd argument: It’s no use crying over lost cultures since eventually (very eventually) we’re going to have to unite under a single government in a single, extremely interconnected world, and become a spacefaring species. The human culture that survives will probably be a monolithic mesh of the most influential cultures at the time that this happens. we probably won’t even speak different languages by then.

Response 5, HL: ESPERANTO FTW!

Response 6, BC: But that’s the goal right? One extremely interconnected world of the most influential cultures. Like HL weighing in from left field with Esperanto – its a mix, taking the best parts. I think JS’s tirade is against domination by a single culture but I think most people would be against that. Sushi would disappear. So would curling. I’m probably gonna be blasted for saying this, but its sort of like the principles of evolution and why some genes get passed on and others don’t. They compete in an environment and the one that is more favored wins out and is passed on/proliferates.

Response 7, JS: So I understand all the points about values and cultures colliding, and how it’s not straightforward. I think I maybe ranted a bit too much about globalization, and stuck some of my own views on Western culture in there, which is not always applicable to globalization in general. But what I actually meant to emphasize is the use of terminology and labels, because that’s what I think the question was really about. The fact that we’ve applied a bunch of Westernized labels to various cultures, and that people have started to fit these molds. I am fascinated by how much a slight change of terminology can affect how one sees oneself. Like when we asked about convincing people that they’re poor. I think that’s what we do, as a society. That’s what aid is. We tell people they’re poor, and then we fix it. We use terminology to our advantage, to create problems that we can then solve and afterwards we feel good about ourselves. Too many people come over here (to africa) and call people “poor” and “underdeveloped” and then think that it’s their duty to fix that, when maybe the people wouldn’t have labeled themselves as that at all. But now people do. I’ve heard city-dwelling Kenyans call the tribal Kenyans “backwards.” I really think that labels, and terminology, have created a problem more than they have fixed it. Should we really call people developed and underdeveloped? Maybe it’s more accurate to call them majority and minority countries (where the minority happen to be more developed than the majority). I don’t know.

And I think we can just blame the British for this, as well.

Response 8, HM: I would say its not only the US and the British- its the leading country of the time-and maybe way back it was more about land conquest, but every dominant country voices their society above others. The Persians, Alexander the Great, the Crusaders, etc-and while there are of course differences over time, history often repeats itself over time- the world has always been globalizing and interconnecting to different degrees-think silk road and spice trade, etc. I know that doesn’t necessarily hit on poverty-but I don’t think its an issue of blame per se just for the US and Brits.

Response 9, BO: I would say that the way that cultures view one another in terms of “developed/underdeveloped” or “rich/poor” are really no different than other types of cultural clashes.  Missionaries typically saw native cultures as either “backward” or “godless” due to a lack of understanding of their religious values.  And many of these cultures switched away from their native religions for Christianity, etc.

I don’t think that this is necessarily because Christianity or western culture or western economic rankings are “stronger” or “weaker” than native cultures (since that’s completely subjective), but rather that it came bundled with a number of other things that were either attractive or dominating to the native culture (i.e. medicine and education in the former case, or people with lots of guns and diseases in the latter case).

I like the evolutionary analogy, though.  Plus, without globalization, how the hell would BC exist?

Response 10, JD: Also, majority and minority labels would quickly develop the same connotations and would have the same effect – you could call Haiti a purple country and there would still be the same trash problems. I think what BO is saying basically backs BC’s evolution comment – things that are more attractive (sexual selection) or dominating (natural selection) spread and those that aren’t become extinct. Aren’t we supposed to blame the French?  also i had a cup of freedom roast coffee the other day.  Really?

Response 11, BC: So going back to the original question, I think the answer to number one is yea, definitely, people can not know that they are poor because they’ve only lived as they currently do and haven’t seen or experienced anything different. They don’t know any better (not in the derogatory sense of that phrase, in the literal). As for 2, convincing them that they are poor help matters at all, we don’t have to focus on poor and talk about means with TVs and antennas and stuff – how about letting populations know that their norm of 60% infant mortality isn’t the way it has to be. (If we’re actually specifically talking about poor and finance and money things then I guess this doesn’t really apply, but I’m going to take “poor” as shitty conditions in general). Granted, I don’t like people having more kids because this overpopulating the earth is killing off all future blue planet, planet earth and other potentially awesome documentaries about wildlife and wild places. Buuttt, convincing said people of hygiene, city planning, and things in general to better health can be invaluable. Iguess the difficulty comes where/how you decide to separate the things that can be beneficial but not invasive to the community and the things/ideas that start chomping away at the values that JS espoused.

As an aside – just like evolution, we can see it equalizing now though, no? “The american way” with all its TVs and cars and fastfood is now working in reverse and killing off lots of people with heart disease, obesity, diabetes, car crashes, drowning in mac & cheese, etc. And so maybe it will yo-yo the other way as we get hyperaggressive about cutting out transfats and sugars and chemicals and turn more to home-cooked foods (for those that can afford it – which is bullshit because the super poor, i.e. Africa, don’t munch on Twinkies, they still do home cooked foods) which will in turn make meals more of a process, strengthening family ties and values. And then maybe it’ll get more extreme and we’ll decide not to have processed meats and to let loose all the cows and to hunt our own food (which would be super fun, its like cow tipping but with guns). And then it’ll be even more active and will strengthen the community even more. And then we’ll get lazy coz it’s too much effort and it’ll wing the other way, and back and forth and back and forth till we reach equilibrium, whatever that is.

Response 12, JA: Lotsa long emails. I’ll go for a summary:

I think part of JS’s point is that people who “don’t know they are poor” probably think about wealth in different ways than those “trying to convince them they are poor.” This is a very good point. It’s like how Britain crushed China in the Opium Wars and was able to extort them not because China modernized less than Britain, but just differently.

On the other side, BC has a good point that there are objectively positive and important benefits from development, and BO also has a good point that unfortunately those who can give the benefits carry with them extra cultural baggage.

For my own part, I don’t think that preserving someone’s culture is worth the price of isolating them from the world. And no culture ever completely dominates another; instead they will be mixed and something hybrid emerges.

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If you got this far, congratulations. I welcome any and all additions to this discussion.

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