One of my favorite things to do as a Fulbrighter is to be a guest speaker. This Tuesday I had the pleasure of speaking to three different classes. With the first class I discussed culture shock, perceptions of Malagasy by outsiders, and the value of cross-cultural exchange. As I entered the room, I was plesantly surprised to see all the faces of the students who were in the philosophy of language class that just wrapped. I had to laugh, because the topic of the day was much more accessible than the material we covered in philosophy of language. I talked to them about my own experiences with culture shock when I first came to Madagascar 10 years ago in June of 2007. As the Peace Corps vans left the airport and wound themselves through the reticulated streets of Tana, I saw a world that seemed new in nearly each of its aspects. From all of the people selling things on the street, the old French sedans serving as taxis, the sheer volume of people walking on foot to the rich and lucious countryside as we left Tana and made our way to Mandrakandriana, our training site, it was a completely new world. I told them that my second day in country, I walked through the market to our meeting space (trano fivoriana) and saw a pig split clean in half. It was not just the poor pig; nearly everything was like nothing I had ever seen. "How did you cope with the culture shock?" one student asked. I relayed the advice I had gotten from a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer before I left: stop expecting things. So, I stop expecting things. I had no specific expectations, no defined picture in my head of how my life would be, nothing that could fail to be satisfied, nothing that could be disappointed. Then we talked about perceptions of Malagasy people and how some percpetions of outsiders rest on superficial understandings of culture. For example, we discussed how outsiders sometimes perceive Malagasy as lazy, but in reality the difference is not primarily related to work ethic but to distinct ways of thinking about time. We talked about how studying another culture helps you really understand your own for the first time. They say that you don't know your first language until you studying another one. The sort of reflection that such linguistic study causes is the same when it comes to culture. Learning about another culture frees your mind from seeing things the only way that you previously thought was possible. I had already had them as students but since the topic was more personal, they ended up asking me why I came back. It's a good question. Something about Madagascar touched me deeply from the very beginning of my experiences here and has continued to do so. There are so many unique and otherworldly things about Madagascar: the animals, the enivornment, the history, the language. But, in the end, I think that the thing that keeps me coming back is the people. Malagasy are known for being a somewhat insular people, but they are also incredibly open, curious and friendly. It was the friends who opened their arms to me and accepted me--as strange as I might have seemed to them. And it was the help they gave me through the steady stream of challenges that seemed to flow my way. In the end, that was the thing that I couldn't shake. That was the thing that brought me back: the people.
The next talk was about global warming. After the basics, we discussed the impact of global warming on poor countries. It is being felt severely in Madagascar, especially in the south, where the drought is so severe that people can no longer grow much. Some make soup from rocks just to fill their stomachs. And things are getting worse as the rainfall in the highlands--the predominant rice-growing region--is at a 36-year low. The largest carbon emitters are not in Madagascar, but in rich world countries. This lack of rain is due to the rising temperatures of the earth. I introduced the idea that a failture to reduce carbon emissions in the search for unncessary conveniences or luxuries is wrong if it costs the lives of other people. Although the causation is not immediate, it is there. The students seemed to agree, but what can they do? We talked about ways to raise awareness and how to talk to their fellow Malagasy about it. Some people here see it as a dispute among the gods (kabarinizanahary). It is not. It is something we can change, and we must. We talked about how the US must rejoin the Paris Agreement.
The last talk was about some of the arguments for and against gay marriage. It was also an exercise in how to defend an idea. I talked about a rather straightforward argument in favor of gay marriage.
People have the right to marry whom they choose, and while there are situations in which the right ought to be restricted (incest, child marriage), gay marriage is not one of those cases. So, gay marriage is people's right should they choose it. Just as straight marriage is people's right should they choose it.
I then discussed the argument that it is unnatural, and therefore wrong, because all unnatural things are wrong. There is also the Biblical argument, which we discussed. The problem there is not just that the Bible prohibits other things we find permissible, such as wearning clothing of mixed fabric, though that is one difficulty. The real problem with the argument is that the Bible prohibiting gay marriage is not the real reason that it is wrong if it is wrong. Surely God has a reason for forbidding it. That reason, and not his say-so, is what would make it wrong. What's that reason? People usually say that it is wrong because it is unnatural, and then we are back to the aforementioned argument. The real difficulty with that argument is to define 'natural' in a way that makes both premises true. I have yet to hear such a rendering of 'natural'. I pretty much left things there, suggesting that the first argument, which says gay marriage is people's right just as straight marriage is, was the best. But I have long ago abandoned trying to hit people over the head with an idea. The main reason is that it is pointless. The harder you push on things, the more people resist. I give the arguments, tell them how to defend them, how to object to them, how to really think about them. We discuss their strengths and weakness. In the end, if I am doing my job, I work them over until there's nothing left to say. After that, it's up to them to decide what to believe. Their beliefs are not mine. I only ask that they take their beliefs seriously and think them through.
Three good conversations. Some laughs and ideas where exchanged. Not a bad way to spend a Tuesday.