Fresh Old Ideas

By Arnold Malone

Last month I wrote about the importance of tolerance. I indicated that tolerance and intolerance were both learned behaviours, usually formed within a culture.

This is about two experiences where I was stunned by values of another place yet learned just how deeply opinions can be held in cultures that differ from our own. We struggle to understand how values of another culture could be so different from ours.

These examples took place while six Members of Parliament were on an assignment to evaluate the procurement practice for supplying equipment to our peacekeeping force in the Middle East. The group was three Liberals and three Progressive Conservatives. We became ongoing friends; travelling together does that.

We were in five Middle East countries. The first situation took place in Aman, Jordan, a more western-like Arab nation.

In the three weeks that we were doing our work we had a half day for ‘down time.’ As a group, however, we chose to visit the United Nations refugee agency located in Aman. It was an opportunity to gather additional insight that might matter when considering public policy.

We were shown around the UN facility and towards the end of our tour we were introduced to a charming lady who was part of the executive team. 

The other MPs left the room and I continued my conversation with this executive person. Then the door burst open and one of the MPs said, “Oh, there you are, our transportation is waiting for you.” 

Wanting to have a graceful departure I said to this engaging lady, “You have a Master’s degree from England, a PhD from the United States and you are now doing important work with the United Nations. What is your chief ambition?” 

It was my intent to congratulate her and then take my leave.

Her eyes turned to ice and she glared at me and said, “My chief ambition is to get married, have sons that will kill Israelis.” There went the graceful departure.

The second experience took place in Demascus, Syria. It underscores when different values become formed. Our transportation was with our peacekeeping soldiers.

We were driving to a destination when our convoy was stopped as a very large truck was maneuvering a communication tower around an awkward intersection. We were parked directly alongside an elementary school. A very loud bell rang and children came running from the school. A group of six or seven-year-old boys – about 12 or 15 of them – lined up in single file, each wearing army fatigue clothing complete with high laced-up boots and carrying a small rifle with a bayonet. An adult soldier placed a life-sized image of then USA President Jimmy Carter about 50 feet from the first boy. The commanding adult shouted an order. The first boy ran and made two jabs with his bayonet through President Carter’s image. Another command was made and another boy raced and stabbed. At one point one of the boys must have stabbed incorrectly. The commander shouted violent sounding words and other boys knocked this student to the ground and the group began repeatedly kicking him.

Every culture thinks it is correct. It is through culture that values and practices are formed.

When it comes to cultural certainty, I am reminded of the Canadian who was teasing a Chinese person and asked, “When do you ever expect your dead will come back to eat the food you place on their graves?”

“Very same time as they come to see and smell your flowers,” was the response.

Finally, I still think our values deserve worldwide support; culture does that.

Other cultures are to be understood but not necessarily embraced.

Arnold Malone served as MP for Alberta’s Battle River and Crowfoot ridings from 1974 through 1993. He retired to Invermere in 2007.