Friday, January 15, 2010

Trying to understand

I read an article in the New York Times today that gave me some insight into my own biases when it comes to understanding the mentality of my Georgian family and friends. You can read the article here, but in a nutshell, it was about how cultural understandings influence the manifestation of metal illness, and how Western ideas and methodologies and approaches are being “exported” at locomotive speed. The entire article was fascinating, but the part that struck me in relation to my family was where the author pointed out that Americans' sense of self as an individual and the influence we believe we have over our destinies, the power of personal will to change circumstances, if only we try hard enough – all of this influences how we react to mental illness. Other cultures place more value on a person's role in the kinship group or on their place in the line of ancestry, and this helps them deal with mental illness in a way that is more accepting of the condition.

I can't pretend to be an anthropologist or an expert in sociology, but through my interactions with Georgians over the past year or so, it has become very clear that they more closely fit the kinship group model. People are defined by their role in the family (patriarch, first son, second son, mother-in-law, godfather, etc), and families are defined by their relation to one another. For example, Eliko is my godmother. Because she christened me, there can be no intermarriage between our families for nine generations, because we are now considered one family; such a marriage would be considered incest in just as if we had a blood tie. Similarly, christening can only go in one direction, that is, I cannot christen the children of anyone in Eliko's family, but her brother could christen my children. When one person or family experiences misfortune, the family and neighbor community gathers round to provide support. And these are all great things.

But one thing I could never wrap my brain around is the rampant homophobia I've encountered here. This, in fact, is the one aspect of Georgian culture that I simply cannot grin and bear. However, while I am in no way comparing homosexuality to mental illness (Georgians would), the article gave me a new way to think about this issue. When I discussed homosexuality with Georgians before, my arguments were always very individual based: people are born gay and can't change that fact any more than a person can change the fact that they were born in a particular country; God made everyone the way they are and it's not our place to judge; and someone being gay has no effect on our lives – just live and let live.

This last argument in particular has little meaning for my Georgians – in their minds and cultural understanding, gay people do affect our daily lives, because by going against strongly held communal norms, they threaten the very foundation of those values. Religion plays a key role here, of course, and is most often cited in Georgian arguments against accepting gay people as they are. But religion isn't all of it, I think. Gay couples can't have children (at least not the traditional way), which means they can't have a family. “If they have no family, how can I tell where their family is in relation to mine?” I imagine the Georgian line of thinking. Being childless is considered a heavy burden in this culture, so anyone who “chooses” to live a life that leaves them childless is selfishly turning their back not only on their traditions and culture, but on all of Georgia – a people that has survived over the centuries despite nearly constant invasions, never dying out even when their population dwindled to a few hundred thousand (there are about 4 million Georgians around the world today).

This is all speculation. I haven't checked this out on any of my Georgians, but I sort of wonder if they'd have enough perspective on the issue to give me an objective answer. Of course, I haven't changed my beliefs, and I would love to see Georgian culture become more accepting. But, I think I at least understand their viewpoint now – I've gotten past my own emotional reactions to what I perceived as thoughtless bigotry. I feel that I'm one step closer to a fuller understanding of this culture which has become a permanent part of my life.

1 comment:

Ballerinka said...

Wow, Alli, that's a wonderful insight! It makes perfect sense to me. You sure you didn't double major in anthropology? :)))