Cultural (in)Sensitivity?

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The question of cultural sensitivity riled me out of bed today.

A news report about Asian – Chinese would be a better descriptor – residents of a high-end condo building (are there any other kinds?) on the UBC campus were upset over the university’s planned construction of a 15-bed hospice across the street from them.

They were claiming that living in such proximity to these sorts of people – read: the dying – was bad luck, and that going ahead with construction would be culturally insensitive.

Now, Vancouver is no stranger to the NIMBY-ism that confronts almost any neighbourhood in any city anywhere in the world and I believe what we have here is exactly that.

Homeless shelters, food banks, even low-cost supportive housing developments are fought tooth and nail by rich and not-so-rich, Chinese and whites alike on the grounds that such building would be bad for the neighbourhood as well as for property values.

But this resistance is never couched in terms of a cultural disinclination.

To claim a cultural aversion to a particular group of people within a community, no matter who they are is a dangerous and sinister claim, and invites a host of other culturally-based claims to be made against gays, the poor, the homeless, drug addicts, even dare I say, against Asians themselves.

All of these sub-groups within a population have been culturally shunned by their cultures and societies and discriminated against at some time or another. A cultural aversion to the dead and dying is no different. What’s the difference?

If you are in any way sympathetic to these residents’ claims, I ask you only to replace ‘the Dying’ with any other descriptor...moustachioed, short, loud...and ask yourselves if you still agree.

It’s not cultural. It’s just plain prejudice.

And accepting this claim as legitimate in any form should be considered exactly what it is: giving in to cultural prejudice.

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  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Thursday, 13 January 2011 23:50 posted by Bergen Vermette

    If the dying were rallying against the cultural insensitivity of placing their hospice so close to a condo filled with East Asians, we'd call them racists.

    As you say, this seems a case of people using laws, originally designed for the protection of the marginalized, to suit their own purposes. The trouble that we now face is putting limits on the extent of our pluralism. Something we are uncomfortable with (and understandably so).

    So when a person says that their spiritual beliefs are infringed upon by having hospices built in their neighbourhood (because in this case what a European might call superstition against the dead, an East Asian might term spiritual belief), we now have to make a delineation and decide as a community which beliefs we will honour over others.

    This is tough. It shakes our firm belief in plurality.

    However, at the risk of being prejudice myself, I'd argue that the majority of Vancouver citizens rank hospice care above fear of the dead/spirits.

    If this is true, then it may be as accurate to say that the plaintiff in this case is the one being culturally insensitive. It is they who are unaware of the cultural practices and preferences of their neighbours - namely, the belief in proper care for the sick and dying.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Friday, 14 January 2011 17:57 posted by Chris Dierkes

    I too favor the hospice, but at least to partially consider the other side--in this case it is true that the tenants weren't notified. Chinese do make up a substantial proportion of Vancouver's population. If everybody would have known beforehand that this thing was being built there, then Chinese would not have invested and the condos would (I'm sure) have been bought out by white people or any other groups who have the money and do not possess such a belief system. Obviously this wasn't on the radar of the people who were building it (because presumably none of their board are Chinese).

    But to Berg's point about the residents not respecting the beliefs of this wider community--in a globalized age of trans-national travel and property there such a thing as "our" neighborhood anymore? Does any group that has been established in this city (European, 2-3 generation East Asians descent but brought up in the West, East Indian, etc.) get to claim a status?

    Is it really a neighborhood or is it just a property real estate market? And in a marketized system, everything is built on preferences and getting what you want. It's about competition, acquisition, and identity. This is a point Douglas Rushkoff raises in his book Life Inc that I think is worth considering.

  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Saturday, 15 January 2011 08:05 posted by Bergen Vermette

    That's a great point Chris and one that hits right at the heart of the conversation.

    Do we live in a "neighbourhood or just a property real estate market?"

    I think that this particular situation (complaints about a hospice close to a condo) calls us to begin speaking about the kind of community we actually want to be supporting/building/envisioning.

    I think that Rushkoff is right, things are often about "competition, acquisition, and identity". But that's not good enough. I believe we should stand up for the kind of community we want to live in, not roll-over and accept what we've got.

    I said in my last comment that we have a hard time making value distinctions in our pluralistic society. What this lack of moral and ethical confidence has done is leave room for the materialist, Spirit-starved culture Rushkoff describes.

    I will make a value judgment and say that a hospice is more important to our community than the price of a condo block or East Asian aversions to the dying.

    Hospices serve a special function in Vancouver society. It isn't just a place where people die. It's a place where terminally ill *people* (they're still people) can keep their dignity, away from the sterility of the hospital. It's also a place where many people undertake spiritual practice - something we need much much more of throughout the community. And importantly, the finality and inevitability of death is confronted with the help of a supportive staff in a safe environment (where else do we consider our human mortality in this way?)

    These features *enrich* us. They provide a vital service to our society that is not being met elsewhere. We must not be afraid to say that this greater good is more important than the special interests of a few.

  • Comment Link Andrew Sunday, 16 January 2011 17:49 posted by Andrew

    Excellent points, and I think, however difficult it may be, a discussion worth having.

    And Chris, you are probably right about the residents of the condo building not being consulted, but I think that only skirts the issue. It maybe the process of planning and building the hospice that has upset the residents, but it is how they have decided to frame their opposition in cultural terms that I found rather if cultural prejudice and superstition is any different or somehow being made from a more legitimate position than your regular old, dime-a-dozen NIMBYist position.

    We most certainly should have a debate about what kind of neighbourhoods we want to live in as Bergen suggests, and this should most certainly take into account ALL the residents and their values, dreams, and ambitions. And such a discussion will most inevitably result in this same sort of anyone who's tried to get low-cost, social housing built anywhere in this city outside of the Downtown Eastside can attest...but it is a discussion still worth having

    But that certainly doesn't mean we should shy away from having it. What I am afraid of in this particular case, is that the attempt by the condo owners to privilege and elevate their own demands above those of another group by way of claiming some sort of cultural offense of the dying is an attempt to short-circuit this very needed conversation.

    It is the precedence such an argument makes in terms of who and what positions are given credibility and standing, and how different groups' rights to the use of city space get weighed in these discussions that I think may be worrying.

    Prejudice masquerading behind culture, wealth, or what-have-you is still that, prejudice and must be called that without fear of being "culturally insensitive" - a position clearly intended as a veiled allusion to racism and meant to deflect criticism of the residents' position away from the central tenet of the complaint: that they don't want those people wrecking the neighbourhood.

    And as a final note, I would indeed be interested in having a more detailed discussion about this idea you raise Chris about neighbourhoods v. property real-estate markets. I'll start working on something provocative this evening!

  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Wednesday, 19 January 2011 22:11 posted by Bergen Vermette

    Here's a recent local update on this story (Video).

    To Sum:
    Local Chinese community leaders say that this is *not* an issue of cultural insensitivity and that it is more an issue of property values. They cite the example of an upscale neighbourhood in Hong Kong, directly overlooking a cemetery, where there is no issue with location of condos.

    The leaders state that a hospice "is in no way, I repeat, no way in conflict with Chinese culture" and that "Chinese culture is being misrepresented and portrayed in a negative light".

    The reporter adds that leaders see this issue as being rooted in "fear, ignorance, and superstition".

    It brings up an interesting question of what exactly is culture, and highlights the plurality trap.

    For example, in a pluralistic society I can say that I'm entitiled to my beliefs and that you can't call me fearful, ignorant, and superstitious because it's actually my culture - something you cant understand or have a right to challenge.

    If a 'leader' were to try and speak for my community at large, I could just say he doesn't represent my beliefs and has no right to speak for me.

    In this case, who is representing the *real* Chinese culture and who decides what's right or wrong?

    (I think this video will be taken offline after 48 days, unfortunately. Apologies to those hoping to view after that time.)

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