Sunday, September 16, 2007

Soccer balls and cultural misunderstandings

Maybe handing out soccer balls is the wrong approach to winning hearts and minds in Iraq. Wired's Danger Room blog filed this entry from Fallujah:
The first thing Mac [McCallister, an academic working as a consultant for the Marines] tells military leaders coming into the area is to focus on shame and honor, not hearts and minds.

“I, as an individual, may want that kid to have a soccer ball. But consider the effect, okay?” he says.

Shame and honor are “limited resources,” Mac explains. “They’re exchanged like currency. And it’s a zero sum game. If I embarrass you, I take some of your honor, and you give me some of your shame. Now you want to do something to get it back.

“The father, off to the side, is thinking, ‘Hey, that’s my job.’ So you’ve shamed him. He might also know that the kid doesn’t deserve it. Shamed him again. And if you give the ball to the little kid, he could get beat up, since the bigger ones prey on the littler ones. More shame. So does that father grab an Ak-47 and do a drive-by, to get back some of his honor?”
Cultural gaffes committed by foreigners visiting a new territory are nothing new -- in China and Taiwan, some basic ones include not understanding "face" or guanxi. What's surprising about this (if it's an accurate assessment) is we don't have a handle on this aspect of tribal culture after four years of occupation -- and it's a life or death situation.

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