Globalization, Culture and Sharing
If you asked me a year ago about my travel plans, I’d have offered destinations like Ghana, Brazil and South Africa. Somehow, though, I found myself traveling to Oslo, Norway, earlier this summer for a meeting of the International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE) to give a paper, talk to feminist economists and experience a new part of the world.
In many ways, this was just another academic meeting — the pedagogy of interaction and presentation no different from anything that happens at the National Economics Association or any other economists meeting. In other ways, because of the international context, this was an opportunity to be engaged in a discourse about language, power and culture, and to have old impressions confirmed even as new possibilities are explored.
In particular, it was fascinating to find such dominance by the United States in a meeting billed as international. And, it was riveting to be involved in a conversation about relationships between the United States and the rest of the world in which someone simply asked if power was ever willingly shared.
If economics is about the allocation of scarce resources, what is it that feminists do to share the resources differently? Does feminism mean that we count the women and categorize their effort with the same vigor that others count men, or does it mean that we ask questions about what our accounting means? Do we approach the pie with a different knife based on our feminist sensibilities, or do we work to bake a different kind of pie?
Questions like these bubbled past conversations about the workplace, globalization and power dynamics. Many questions weren’t answered, especially the question about power sharing. Indeed, questions about hegemony and power sharing were likely to get people involved in an uncomfortable squirming and evasiveness.
Few are prepared to ask how the pie is sliced when they are comfortable with their piece. As an example, consider the use of language in a small country like Norway. Though Norwegian is the national language, most people speak some English. Indeed, English is taught to the smallest children as part of their education. Thus, in a week, I ran into only one cab driver that spoke absolutely no English. Still, he was able to take directions through my pointing at a map and showing where I wanted to go.
As I rode comfortably in his cab, I wondered if someone from Norway who could not speak any English would have the same sense of security in the United States. Nearly 5 in 6 Americans speak nothing but English. Most could not help a tourist who did not speak our language. Most of us wouldn’t even feel bad about our inability to help. We think everyone should speak English, but we aren’t concerned with ways we can be more hospitable to people from other countries, whether that includes language proficiency or other skills.
In some ways, our myopia is the understandable self-absorption of people who have been conditioned to behave like the 700-pound gorillas of the universe. In many other ways, our myopia is part of the power-sharing dilemma. If we are the 700-pound gorillas, must we behave as if we are part of a team?
When President Bush goes to Europe to say he will consider the input of our European allies, is anyone fooled into thinking that after consideration comes anything but myopic action? If you don’t have to compromise, why should you? Is the cessation of power the price of harmony?
One of the costs of globalization has been the erosion of cultural hegemony in countries all over the globe. People used McDonald’s and Burger King restaurants as landmarks, both in the Amsterdam airport and on the ground in Oslo. If I could count the number of times I was told to turn left or right at an American fast-food restaurant, I’d have been able to pay for a meal at a non-fast food place. But people offered these landmarks guilelessly and without hesitation, as if these places are symbols that bind us all.
Similarly, I had a conversation with a Norwegian woman who argued, passionately, that it made more sense for Norwegians to speak English than for us to speak Norwegian. “There are simply more of you,” she said, seemingly willing to shrug off nationalism for the expediency of numbers.
If globalization is a simple numbers game, the United States will always determine the direction of most forces. But if there is a respect for cultures and difference, then no nationality will be able to dominate. Yet the question about power sharing shapes most of the relationships between countries and cultures. Should the largest be the most influential? What happens to the concerns of those with equal integrity but fewer numbers?
Does anyone ever willingly give up power? Our lives in the United States are made easier when English is spoken all over the world. But our lives are much less rich when our dominance overpowers peoples and cultures. If we acknowledge the discomfort that comes from power sharing, perhaps that makes it easier for us to negotiate middle ground, especially as we manage the delicate balance of cultural influences in higher education.
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