Join Shyam Sharma as he takes us on a riveting journey through the Ocean of Cross-Cultural Perspectives to the Island of Jiji!
The first semester of my teaching in the United States, about a decade ago in Kentucky, one student wrote an essay arguing, essentially, that the United Nations is an inefficient organization run by corrupt foreigners. After supporting this claim by citing various dubious sources, including articles from conspiracy theory websites, he proposed that the US take over and unilaterally run that place instead. I found the paper so shocking that I wondered if the writer had a psychological problem, so I went to the director of the program for advice! It turned out that among people embracing a certain political ideology in this country, the student’s argument could be just a logical solution to a genuine problem. I learned a good lesson.
Since the following semester, I’ve been requiring students in most writing courses to research and write about global issues in at least one assignment. Doing this has generally helped my students think outside the box, generate more original ideas and arguments, and get excited about both writing and learning about the issues.
Logical Isn’t Enough
However, I have also learned the hard way that requiring students to write about global or non-local issues does not necessarily help them develop intellectually and ethically sound arguments. Every year, even after lectures and samples and analysis and workshops, I have a few first drafts that make arguments like the following: 1) We can only eliminate human trafficking by eliminating poverty considering that people in “backward countries” resort to selling their children due to extreme poverty, 2) “We” can help people in developing nations replace their outdated technologies so that they can leapfrog into the twenty-first century, 3) Child labor remains a global problem so it is time that we make it illegal everywhere, 4) Europeans have successfully passed laws for GMO labeling because emotion trumped science in their debates; we should ensure that science prevails in America, 5) Gender bias based on traditional cultures has prevented education from empowering women in Africa. . . ., 6) The best way to address the shortage of human organs for transplant is to legalize and ease the organ market internationally.
While some arguments are outright offensive (like #1 above, for its many assumptions and condescension), others fail basic tests of critical thinking and research. For example, when I asked the student writing about “technological leapfrogging in rural India” to find out whether, how, why, and when farmers there would use cell phones for marketing produce or update irrigation to wifi-based systems (as he was proposing), he found out that technology has actually created staggering disadvantages for farmers there: financialization of agriculture means industrial famers have huge technological advantages over local farmers and so do the middlemen. Instead of helping farmers compete, technology has aggravated the problems, perhaps aggravating suicide among Indian farmers. The student writing about child labor found out that the very definition of “child” and “labor” varies across countries, societies, and cultures, so solutions must consider political and economic differences in different places. Likewise, the student writing about GMO labeling, when challenged to study opposing and different perspectives, found out that those who demand that their food be labeled were not just ignorant: “the science” itself was entangled in unique/local dynamics of politics and power. And, the student writing about women in Africa found that traditional cultures have been the basis of more effective methods for empowering women than modern education.
What Jijians Might Say
One of the strategies that I use for highlighting the importance of considering different perspectives and grounding arguments in different or distant contexts is to use the image of the Island of Jiji. In the context of child labor argument, I tell my students that on this peculiar island nation, people have to be 26 years to be legally and culturally considered adults. As such, the people of Jiji are shocked to find out that child labor continues in the US, with children between 18 and 25 years working, often under harsh conditions. In other contexts, I bring up the Jijians to say that they don’t always measure social progress in economic and financial terms. In yet others, I tell students that Jijians use different kinds of technologies to tackle their social challenges than we do. Whenever we make arguments involving Jijians, say, about their notion of gender and power relationship, we must study the subject in the Jijian context, taking their perspective seriously. Unlike Martians, I emphasize, Jijians are quite like us—just that their material, political, and social/cultural conditions, and therefore their thinking, may be different at this time.
“Always think about the Island of Jiji,” I remind my students, “if you think you’re about to generalize, stereotype, or idealize others, or if you’re assuming that your argument is universally valid.” The society in this imaginary nation is not only very different from ours, it is also extremely diverse (with the many cultures and contexts among its islands) within it. And, we should learn about Jiji not only because we want to be informed and empathetic about places like this beyond our borders; learning about that society can also help us better understand our own complex local issues with better perspectives and nuance. Think of the Island of Jiji as an intellectual and ethical mirror.
When students make ethically weak arguments, I assume that those arguments come out of sympathy, moral outrage, naivete, or the “curse of knowledge” (it’s hard to think outside of what we know). But I also challenge and show them how to go beyond feel-good, liberal-minded, and humane-seeming claims that only work in their local context into arguments that remain logical and ethical when viewed from the perspectives of people in other countries and cultures. For example, one student argued that “population control” is a despicable policy used by racist or dictatorial governments to avoid their responsibility toward poor people; while this may be true in some countries, people in others view access to family planning resources as critical to economic empowerment of poor families and especially women. So, researching how the same issue is understood and applied and how it has historically evolved in different countries or cultures helped the student make his argument more multidimensional and nuanced.
Pitfalls of the Global
The terms “global” and “transnational” have become extremely popular in the field of writing and rhetoric, as well as across US academe in general. But if we do not teach students critical and ethical thinking skills that can cross national and cultural borders, we will inadvertently reinforce logically superficial and/or ethically flawed “globalist” thinking in the name of broadening the horizons of knowledge. We all know people who seem to become all the more parochial in their worldview after traveling and learning about the world; the more they learn about others, the more they seem to be convinced that their society, culture, and beliefs are (or should be) universals benchmarks or norms. That is not the kind of global citizens we want our students to be.
More importantly, it is not only when writing about “others” that our students need to study the context, understand different aspects of the problem, and use different perspectives. In a world where nations and people are increasingly interconnected and interdependent, even the most pragmatic and logical arguments within their own local/national context can dramatically collapse if students ignore transnational/global influences. Let’s take the case of the student who argued that the critical shortage of human organs for transplant in the United States can be overcome if the organs market is legalized internationally. While the student considered ethical and moral dilemmas quite well, he ignored the already alarming international black market especially due to spillover of criminal markets from large developing countries and regions, in the same articles and news items that he cited in his draft. He told me that he wanted to rebut the ethical arguments by saying that an legal market would save more lives than it harms, but when it came to the transnational aspect of the issue, he avoided highlighting the severity of the problem because doing so could undermine his central argument, which was that there is a global solution to a national problem. He implied that even if the legal market straddles international borders, that would create a win-win situation: while poor people out there would be able to earn money and live a better life if their countries can tackle any crimes involved, American patients who have the money but need organs could survive. He didn’t realize that this solution (we have the money, you have organs to sell!) was pragmatic but extremely inhuman and jingoistic.
What We Need Is Ethical Rhetoric
The above argument sounds logical in some ways, but on closer inspection, it only shows that the student failed to think about “others” like he thinks about himself and his fellow citizens. Consequently, foreigners, poor people, etc, didn’t deserve the same human dignity of not having to sell their body parts to whoever has the money in order to make a living. Until students learn to switch places with “others” beyond national borders, they cannot really think ethically as citizens of the world. We can only achieve our objective of fostering global citizenship toward a more just world by teaching about/with global issues and transnational/cross-cultural perspectives when our students can envision themselves being citizens of anyplace–such as the imaginary islands of Jiji–whose power and privilege, language and culture, nation and identity, education and values are only one kind among many and must exist and thrive alongside others in the world.
“If you want to make your argument logically and ethically sound,” I tell my students, “imagine that you are on the island of Jiji and your ideas must be logical and ethical to people beyond your horizons.”
Shyam Sharma is an assistant professor in Stony Brook University’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric. Click here for more information about his writing, research, and further teaching experiences!