– And, Brother Decoo, could you come in your native dress?

It’s this time of the year again. Circus by the aliens. Officially it’s called Cultural Heritage Night, or International Fashion Show, or LDS WorldFest. Mormons love it.

The problem is that Belgians don’t have a native costume. Had I been Dutch, I could have come as a Volendammer in large, blue baggy trousers and wooden shoes. As a German, a white shirt and Lederhosen would have done the trick, with my wife in a Bavarian Dirndl. A pleated white skirt under a shirt with wide flowing sleeves, an embroidered woolen vest, a sash around the waist, and shoes with large pompons would have made me a Greek. And I am confident I would have made a somewhat acceptable Maori with a feather cloak, sufficient make-up, a wig, and a few hours of eyeball-rolling-and-tongue-sticking-training.

But how to dress like a Belgian?

Moreover, the good folks organizing the event also want us to bring typical Belgian things, for the display of Cultures of the world.
– You’ll have a little table to put everything on, between family Matsushita and sister Sebahat.

Between Japan and Turkey. No problem with that. Could become interesting. Sister Sebahat is a retired belly dancer from Ankara.


So much for the story! Beyond the anecdote, beyond the sympathetic surface of celebrated folklore, this topic is actually a serious and complex one. Even painful. My post will argue that we as a Church share some responsibility in amending the depiction of “other cultures” with an eye to true Mormon internationalization, emancipation, mutual respect and equality.

Inherently, there should be nothing wrong with a depiction of cultural traditions from “elsewhere”. It may be informative, may have historical value, may help some groups affirm their identity. But there are various drawbacks to the folklorization of others. Some of those drawbacks are trivial, others are sad, a few even tragic, depending on which groups are involved in which parts of the world, either as spectators or as actors on the scene. Much depends also on the nature of the traditions, which oscillate between two extremes: at one end of the spectrum the frivolities of a dress party reviving a romanticized past, at the other end the genuine, even sacred expressions of living cultures. I understand the immense difference between those extremes. One of my points is that spectators often do not differentiate them, which justifies my connected discussion of both kinds.

1 – The first drawback is that folklorization, in its attempt to build bridges, is basically alienating. The foreigner is confirmed in his difference. The focus is on distinctive markings, not on what binds us. The term “cultures of the world” implies, if not carefully monitored, the affirmation and preservation of cultural ghetto’s. A mature and well-informed viewer is able to put the depiction into perspective, but others, and certainly children, are led to see the other culture as, indeed, “foreign”. Those impressions may stay with them for life.

The “foreigners” themselves, when asked to present their culture, will instinctively respond to that expectation of divergence. They will be led to stress peculiarities in dress, objects, chants, dances, even if those are not any more present in their own daily life.

Of course, the measure of alienation depends on the distance in time and space with the spectator’s world view and experience. A modern Israeli folk dance in stylized, dynamic outfits will be less alienating than a Romanian village dance in 19th century costumes or a Tongan lakalaka dance. Traditional African masks will seem more distant than contemporary Japanese bamboo sculptures. We recognize those many variations.

2 – Folklorization has a trait of colonialism. Colonialism proceeds on the assumption of a natural superiority of the colonizer, who sees himself as more rational, more enlightened, more developed, more educated than the colonized. For millennia invading colonizers have tried to obliterate local structures and traditions that were perceived as menacing the new order, i.e. authority, judiciary, religion, sometimes even language. But, as a cheap token of deference, or for the charm of it, colonizers have usually tolerated the non-threatening traits: food, dress, art. The same attitude largely prevails today in our approach of “foreign” cultures. Disturbing, self-affirming, or difficult to grasp elements are ignored. All attention goes to the easily presentable, to the exotic appeal of handicraft, colorful garb, ethnic food and dance. “See the natives perform” is often accompanied, consciously or unconsciously, by the condescension of the colonizer who allows the performance as a tribute to his superiority.

3 – Related to the preceding is primitivization. A large part of the charm of folklorization stems from its fostering of nostalgia. Balkan dances evoke images of idyllic villages where young men and women play out innocent love relations or celebrate a pastoral marriage. The Irish reels, jigs, and step dances, driven by bagpipes and violins, danced by youngers in dresses with embroidered Celtic designs, call to mind an Irish countryside steeped in history. And, of course, in such a context folk art is favored. This primitivization is particularly evident in the depiction of tropical cultures. The Polynesian islands bring us the refound paradise of Blue Lagoon. Out of Africa, and its host of similar portrayals, fosters a longing for the untouched realm of safari landscapes where the noble savages live. The alienation itself becomes, for the viewer, a temporary haven in the past.

The tourist industry has fully understood that appeal, as is obvious from brochures, posters, commercials. Once in the country, tourists are cleverly led along the paths they must see. In some countries it obliges people, especially those on deprived social levels, to self-primitivization in order to respond to the expectation of the visitors. It’s cultural entrenchment as a way to be recognized. Yes, the native American tribes of Utah had their day of glory at the ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in 2002. Wise and dignified, they accepted their ambiguous use as a “picture postcard … firmly rooted in the past tense … presented only as a preface to America’s history“. The same happened to the Aborigines at Sydney in 2000. No doubt it was a splendid recognition of their respective cultures, but at the same time it sharply delineated the boundaries: never uttered, but so palpable — their “backwardness” versus the industrialized nations. And both Olympic shows cleverly left out their achievements and participation in the contemporary world.

Primitivization, out of so-called “respect for the local culture”, obliges that culture to remain in a realm of indigenous production. Aren’t we led to believe there is nothing, in the native culture, comparable to a Shakespearean play, a Beethoven symphony, or the Mona Lisa? Artifacts, yes, wood carving, pottery making, beadwork, basket and mat weaving, colorful textile, and primitive musical instruments. However artistic, however deeply symbolic, to outsiders it remains at the level of folk art, implying the lack of grandeur which characterizes our own sophisticated beaux-arts.

4 – Often folklorization leads to falsification and kitscherization. No Dutchman would ever dress like a Volendammer. The Lederhosen and Bavarian Dirndl are only worn by a small fraction of Germans, in certain regions, and on specific occasions like an Oktoberfest. In Europe these traditional dresses are only found in dwindling folklore groups at folk festivals. None of these is a “national” costume. The Venetian gondolier is not wearing an outfit typifying Italians. The Greek costume was originally just a royal court dress for military captains.

True, those examples are trivial, but folklorization can also lead to despicable fabrications, like Marlo Morgan’s Mutant Message From Down Under, which has outraged the Aborigines. Indian, African and Polynesian artists – I mean real artists – try to overcome this bondage by producing high-quality contemporary art, often with still some distinctive features. Critics are eager to call it “Westernized” because those artists dare to leave what should be “innate”. Moreover, most tourists will prefer the cheap, serial production of more “authentic” items — even if the bottom of the Kenyan carved lion or the Australian boomerang says “Made in Taiwan”.

It sounds congenial “to share our unique heritages”, but often it boils down to a sociable, if not clumsy, display of forced artificiality, falsifying who “the others” are. But never so for Americans if we turn the tables. Imagine an American presentation of “our unique U.S.-heritage” limited to a square dance by dressed up cowboys and country girls in the setting of a pioneer camp. Fascinating and fun! But all outsiders would know this is not the core of U.S.-culture, as so many other sources reveal America’s present reality and variety. That breadth of vision is not similar when Americans watch a Bulgarian Rachenitsia Horo village dance with men and women in “typical” dress. What else would the average spectators know about present day Bulgaria? What else, besides the images each of the next names evokes, would they know about Tonga, Lapland, Tibet, Kenya, Guatemala, Thailand?

5 – No doubt the local population may greatly profit from a tourist industry that plays out its trump card of folklorization. Even primitivization as daily performance, before returning to a comfortable home and switching on the TV, can be a profession like another. However, in many cases, exploitation and abuse thrive. The Aborigines, now widely used as window-dressing for Australia’s tourism, are still far from getting the appropriate return. Think of the regional traje dress of Maya women in Guatemala. The tragedy is the shameless touristy exploitation of those dresses by non-Mayan, while Maya women themselves suffer under social discrimination and economic exploitation for wearing those very dresses. Certainly as bad is the situation in African nations where the booming ecotourism is in the hands of small dominant groups who misuse local “folklorized” communities for their own profit. Violation of human rights, displacement, dehumanization, cultural prostitution are some of the ecotourism-problems described in this U.N.-NGLS-report.


Back to the Church.

Although I’m confident we are not involved in some of the more serious aspects described, we have to recognize that folklorization of other nations is very much part of our Mormon-American approach.

Whenever an article is published in Church magazines or in Church News about a foreign country or region, it will often include a fair amount of exotic emphasis, showing how differently people live, preferably in a primitive, rustic, romanticized setting. Sure, it is meant as a tribute to the simplicity of their lives and therefore of the happiness the Gospel provides:

It is late Saturday afternoon on the island of Vava’u. Samisoni and Meleane Uasila’a, who have raised 20 children in addition to their own 12, are preparing for the Sabbath. The setting sun shines through the freshly washed white shirts hanging on the clothesline and reflects off the lush green foliage surrounding the house. A child sweeps the steps as others clean up the yard. Pigs and chickens scramble out of the way. Inside, Sister Uasila’a and her daughters prepare lu for Sunday dinner. Each wraps a taro leaf around meat mixed with coconut milk, then rewraps it in a banana leaf to be cooked slowly overnight in an umu, an outdoor “oven” of heated rocks covered by banana leaves. Brother Uasila’a, a stake patriarch and the principal of the Church’s Saineha High School, and some of his sons work in the “bush” (their taro field). They toss weeds and debris into a smoldering fire. The sun is setting. Yellow light streams through the gently rising smoke, silhouetting one of the boys tending the fire with a long hoe. (LaRene Porter Gaunt, “Tonga: A Land of Believing People,” Ensign, Sept. 2001, 42)

Pictures accompanying such stories will often show members in “traditional clothes”, standing in front of an ivy-covered stone farmhouse, a rustic landmark, a red-tiled adobe home, a windmill, a hut.

BYU does its fair share to promote folklorization. The International Folk Dancers are our first ambassadors to depict an array of countries, with emphasis on traditional dances in colorful dresses. During International Week students of various nations are asked to man booths for each of their countries. Every booth accentuates differentiation, mainly with cheap tourist souvenirs and a rearview to some romanticized past. Thousands of Utah school children visit those exhibits, which impress on their minds that imagery. Particularly problematic are the Living Legends (“traditional song and dance from the Latin American, Native American and Polynesian cultures”). Their show not only reduces “cultures” basically to folkloristic acts, but it also imposes a simplistic thematic framework in order to give the show a semblance of coherence. The result is a brilliantly artificial spectacular, but greatly suffering from colonialization and primitivization. The most disturbing part seems it’s mixing of the genuine, sacred elements of living cultures with purely Latin American entertainment. The public only sees folklore. Did not the former Lamanite Generation, as separate entity, initially show more understanding and respect for Indian culture?

The Church also encourages historical commemorations and cultural celebrations, in particular at the occasion of multistake conferences, important anniversaries or temple dedications. Thousands of members participate in such festivals. If an international flavor is given to such events, the pageantry always draws on folklorization.


Is all the preceding meant to ban the depiction of “other cultures” in our Church programs and magazines? Of course not. We could fill pages with a description of positive aspects too, like the importance of preservation and protection of cultural traits and traditions, but without some of the handicaps described. This post only wanted to draw the attention to some problematic issues.

I have wondered how this topic would be understood by Mormon-American readers. There is a serious risk of misreading, as if folklorization is always wrong and painful. No, it all depends on the context and the perspective. There are indeed cultures or societies which can afford folklorization without apparent adverse effects, certainly if controlled in their own local realm. For example, Mormons enjoy their own pioneering past and related folklorization very much. They pay historic respect to Mormon pioneer life and to Mormon initial art such as C.C.A. Chistensen’s epic paintings, early temple murals, log cabins, pine furniture, or pioneer dance music. They celebrate Pioneer Day, dressed in appropriate costumes, riding chuck wagons and pulling handcarts. And after the mix of fun and nostalgic folklore, people return to their modern homes, schools, offices, and businesses.

However, change the context: if a similar Mormon Pioneer remembrance is publicly celebrated in Europe, the perception can be quite different. In 1997, at the occasion of the Sesquicentennial, Euopean Mormons organized a huge Pioneer parade in the city of Charleroi (Belgium). Some media covering the event depicted it as a celebration of how Mormons still live today, just like the Amish, reinforcing the image of Latter-day Saints as a strange, unworldly population surviving in the Rocky Mountains. Add to it the persisting image of polygamy, seasoned with some anti-Mormon slander, and one sees the result in the minds of outsiders.


In conclusion, here are a few constructive suggestions to avoid some of the drawbacks mentioned:

– When presenting a country or an “ethnic” group, make sure that also aspects of their modernity and their participation on the world scene are mentioned or shown. Who are some of their main scientists, authors, artists, athletes… ? What are some of their social, economic, political achievements and challenges? Such addition would counterbalance folklorization.

– Have one or more “actors” tell the audience or the visitors what they really do in life. I remember I once sat down with a Maori “warrior”, after a performance at the Polynesian Cultural Center. He told me he had served a mission in Japan, had recently married, was now a TA in mathematics, and worked to become a civil engineer. What a difference that perception made.

– Do not mix, in one program, genuine, sacred elements of living cultures and folkloristic entertainment of the past.

– Have one or more of the “natives”, if possible, also perform a totally different expression of their abilities. We should not limit the “talents” of “natives” to bamboo-stick-jumping, in-and-out-of-hoops-climbing, or bottle-on-the-head-balancing-while-folk-dancing.

– What can be done to raise the cultural experience and perspective of missionaries sent abroad? Their reunions often show the level of their memories and of their understanding of the foreign nation…

To be vibrant, cultures also need to progress and change, without forgetting the past. Present-day American-Mormon life and art has broadly moved beyond the pioneering phase, adopting modernity as it came, opening up new horizons, challenging us to never-ending creativity. We need to make sure that, in our perception, “the others” are not excluded from that movement. We need to educate our children to perceive all humans as equal world-citizens and as equal Church members.

25 comments for “Folklorization

  1. Wow, that’s a mind-expanding post, Wilfried. Best Bloggernacle post I’ve read all year. Still, I’d have to say that the LDS affection for cultural pageantry is less demeaning than typical tourist stuff. LDS groups are often involved as mutual participants, not just gaping tourists, and the intended outcome is supportive of the performers as modern-day LDS church members. The Polynesian Cultural Center, as tourist-oriented an institution as Hawaii can offer, is firmly planted in the modern-day concern of financing current college expenses, specifically for LDS kids who attend BYU-Hawaii. They’re not just selling trinkets for fun and profit (like every other outfit in Hawaii), they’re paying tuition bills, and at the PCC shows I have attended a young performer always goes to the mic at some point during the show and explains all that in plain English to to the tourists in the audience.

    On the other hand, it strikes me that how the LDS culture portrays women is our most glaring example of LDS folklorization, colonialization (“the natural superiority of the colonizer”), primitivism, and falsification. Of course women are praised in LDS rhetoric, so long as they stay on their domestic pedestal and strike firmly Victorian poses. Official LDS sources portray the ideal and proper role of women as something right out of the 19th and earlier centuries, despite the fact that tens of thousands of modern LDS women are marvelously well educated with challenging careers (or even mildly well educated with routine careers). It is hard to see what our leaders think they are promoting by sticking with their folklorish view of LDS women in their talks and articles. Do they realize half the students at BYU are female? What is truly odd is that local leaders pretty much ignore all this rhetoric in practice, something of a saving grace for the LDS approach to gender issues at the local level. A strange disconnect between rhetoric and practice.

  2. Wilfried, I appreciated very much your post; however, there are several points I would like to raise. As you alluded, the degree to which a cultural symbol becomes a caricature or buffoonery is often dependant upon the education of the audience. The Folk Dance Team would perform in festivals around the world with similar groups of performing native and non-native traditional dance. The festivals are a celebration. The same performance in Missouri might not be so celebratory.

    I just can?t give too much credence to multiculturalism and as a consequence I have some self-admitted colonial tendencies. As an American of mixed European heritage, I want to identify with my heritage. For a society that in its finest incarnation is not based on ethnicities but on shared values, identification with caricature is within the limited grasp of many (myself included). America (again in its finest incarnation), like the church, wants you to bring everything good and let us add to it. Europe is just starting to deal with these issues as the Arab and African minorities expand their political and social clout.

    Dave, your expansion of this into gender issues is extraordinarily cogent.

  3. Thank you, Dave and J. Stapley, for adding those facets and nuances. The topic is so broad and rich, with so many variables, that any statement will and should trigger reactions and corrections. Moreover, it’s stuff for various academic disciplines, antropologists, sociologists, folklorists, historians. I realize I’ve only scratched the surface of a topic much better known by others.

    J. Stapley, you touch upon a very sensitive and complex issue, the European challenge to deal with multiculturalism. Also here, correct perception and adequate acceptance play an immense role. In both directions: if multiculturalism means the permission or the obligation to maintain cultural ghetto’s, without some basic adaptation to the host society, we’re heading for trouble. But if the host society cannot tolerate all or parts of the other culture, racism is not far away. In my post, the focus is on the problem of wrong perception as the basis for creating distances between us.

    Dave, the issue of Mormon women depiction as part of the theme of folklorization is definitively connected to the discussion at hand. Another fascinating facet that can be explored at length.

    Oh, and let me add that I have been a folk dance teacher in a previous life. For years I also helped organize major performances in Belgium with the International Folk Dancers and other great BYU groups. Terrific effect on members and missionary work. I thought I should add this, lest some of my remarks would be misunderstood.

  4. J. Stapley said: “I just can’t give too much credence to multiculturalism and as a consequence I have some self-admitted colonial tendencies. As an American of mixed European heritage, I want to identify with my heritage. For a society that in its finest incarnation is not based on ethnicities but on shared values, identification with caricature is within the limited grasp of many (myself included). America (again in its finest incarnation), like the church, wants you to bring everything good and let us add to it.”

    Would you mind clarifying this passage? I read over it a couple of times and still couldn’t quite make out what you are saying. I think I understand that you are saying that though you don’t go in for mulitculturalism, you want to be able to identify with your mixed European heritage. Then I get very confused. I think that you are saying that America is based on shared values rather than ethnicity and so caricaturing of various ethnicities is a natural result because the very concept of ethnicity is not an essential part of our shared vision of ourselves. Is this right?

    If it is, I must disagree with you. I think that many Americans do consider themselves more of a particular ethnicity than as part of America. I must admit I think of myself this way too; I think of myself as a Mormon (in the cultural sense) before I think of myself as an American, for better or for worse. I think it is increasingly obvious that the shared values of America are becoming a thing of the past. The default American values that were part of the Protestant consensus before the Scopes trial, etc., are simply not still in play. Right?

    Anyway, I’ve done a bit of reading on this whole multiculturalism thing, and at least in education it seems to be going out of fashion. One book I read talked about getting away from the (I believe it was) 3 Fs in teaching kids about “other” cultures: Food, Festivals, and I can’t remember the last one now! (Sorry.) There is something objectifying about focusing on such external facets of a culture. One interesting program depicted in I believe the same book was called something like “Columbus in the World.” A school in Columbus, Ohio, decided to see how many products, materials, people, etc., from different areas of the world had converged in their school. Kids figured out where their ancestors were from, learned about where their shoes were manufactured, found out where their food was imported from, etc. I think this program would give kids a good modern look at other areas of the world, and perhaps present an opportunity to show them the problems that go along with globalization. It seems that now the shift is indeed away from using the term “multiculturalism” to “globalism” in order to emphasize the enmeshed nature of interactions in the world rather than the fiction (?) of distinct, packageable “cultures.” Anway, that’s the word on the street.

    Although I think Edward Said may have been a bit tunnel visioned (which is perhaps not a fair assessment, because I haven’t read enough of him), one point he makes fascinates me. In describing the “orientalist” scholarship from colonial powers of past centuries, he claims that these powers felt that they were qualified and perhaps entitled to make decisions regarding the cultures that they colonized because based on this scholarship they “knew” them so well. This is an interesting illustration of how knowledge really can be power, and not necessarily in a positive way.

  5. Wilfried, what a brilliant, thought-provoking post. Thank you for the work which went into it! I wish I had the time this morning to do it justice–perhaps later today. For the moment, let me point out your concluding comment:

    “Present-day American-Mormon life and art has broadly moved beyond the pioneering phase, adopting modernity as it came, opening up new horizons, challenging us to never-ending creativity. We need to make sure that, in our perception, ‘the others’ are not excluded from that movement. We need to educate our children to perceive all humans as equal world-citizens and as equal Church members” (emphasis added).

    Responding adequately to your (I think in many ways accurate) concerns about the broad process of “folklorization” demands an understanding of what sense you think the church is, or is concomitant to, “modernity,” and hence how the way it (as well as so many other of the negative and condescending elements of the process you identify) piggy-backs upon globalization. A culture only becomes something that one can feel alienated from (or, conversely, feel alienated by the expectation to embrace) when it is recast not as a lived tradition, but as one which is no longer within or subject one’s own productive life. In other words, the degree to which “folk” attitudes or forms can become a weapon or a burden is the degree to which one has already sufficiently “modernized” so as to be able to conceive them as such. Hence, if contemporary church “culture” encourages “the locals” to get a good job and education, if our leadership embraces the modern managerial ethos, if the PEF is designed to help members become less “provincial” in their outlook, if watching general conference on satellite already assumes that (a mostly American) modernity (in dress, speech, social practice, technology, etc.) establishes basic norms….well, then, extricating the church from “folklorization” is going to be very difficult indeed, since it may be said to contribute to the fundamental globalizing process by which such concerns may emerge in the first place.

  6. “You notice this loss of interest especially among children. In the Empire Boys’ Annuals of my own British childhood, the human world was a diverse place indeed, populated by head-hunters, cannibals, Polynesian bungee-jumpers, ferocious Gurkhas, exquisitely polite Japanese, reed dwellers, cave dwellers, tree dwellers, suttees, thuggees, fellows who inserted four-inch wooden disks into their lower lips and women who elongated their necks by adding a metal ring every year. Now youngsters are assured that though people who live in foreign parts may sometimes look a bit odd, they are really just middle-class Americans in thin disguise. Little Masai boys like to play soccer, says the ‘Social Science’ textbook issued to my fourth-grader. In China they prefer volleyball. Uh-huh. Is it any wonder that Americans find it difficult to summon up interest in the world beyond their borders?”
    –John Derbyshire, from The New Criterion, March 2003

  7. Wilfried, what’s a good way to explain to primary-age children that the music and hand movements for “Book of Mormon Stories” are prime examples of primitivization and kitschification? Whenever I try, my wife glares at me.

  8. Thank you, Russell, for that interesting comment. Although tied to the issue I discussed, the matter of relation to modernity and to globalization seems much broader. I cannot speak for other parts of the world since I come from Belgium, a Western, industrialized nation. But I have lived long enough in Central Africa and in the U.S. to have at least a feel for the matter. Overall, globalization, in the sense of sharing a common world-culture through commodities and comfort, is definitely part of all (younger) generations, all over the world (inasmuch as social and economical circumstances permit it). I would not immediately call it “American modernity”, for that could reinforce the notion that “progress” and a certain dress code, technology etc. are per definition American. We also need to take into account the difference between social layers in each country, including the U.S. The richer an individual or family is, the more “globalized”, in any country.

    When it comes to the Church, the relation between what is sensed as “American” and “foreign / international / local” can be viewed from different angles and draws different discussions and conclusions. My post only drew the attention to the problem of a certain depiction of “others” from the American viewpoint and the potential drawbacks. Another issue is the average social level of our converts and the consequences this has on perception. It’s clear that the Church’s emphasis on getting “good jobs and education”, and the PEF, is related to the situation of many converts in most countries. That reinforces the image of “poor natives”. And yet another issue is how members in the international Church may view certain Church approaches and programs as “American”. A lot of items to talk about.

  9. Very interesting quote, John Mansfield ( # 6 ). Thanks for sharing this paragraph by John Derbyshire. He’s right: it’s much more fascinating for our youngers to discover the rest of the world in the most colorful and outlandish images. Ah, where are the times when the Western world followed in awe the voyages of Stanley and Livingstone? And how Jules Verne took generations of readers around the most exotic world. Yes, it is disappointing that Masai boys now play soccer and Chinese youngsters volleyball. Hey, these foreign kids are humans like us! But what an improvement.

    Jonathan Green, I have no idea how to help you with music and hand movements for “Book of Mormon Stories”… But you do raise an interesting issue. Perhaps others could jump in here…

  10. So Wilfried, we should disband the Polynesian Cultural Center? The Church has a myriad of existing folkloric dance groups, etc. that tour as ‘cultural ambassadors’. I agree that they rarely are an accurate representation of the cultures they are meant to display; but is there another way of going about this? Should we be interested in institutionalized displays of culture?

  11. Thanks, Steve! No, absolutely no disbanding of the PCC. A wonderful thing, and a great source of missionary work, besides what it does for paying the studies of so many students. I once published a text in Belgium lauding that amazing initiative. But please let us read what I said: to avoid some drawbacks, in certain circumstances, there are suggestions to help us better understand and/or present the “others” as part of “us all”. And this with the full swing of all our folklore groups.

  12. Minerva –

    It is not your fault. Incoherency is not unfamiliar to me. You got alot the jist of what I was edging at, and sadly I have to run to catch a flight and can’t devote the time required to explicate myself properly. One point is that multiculturalism seems antithetical to many very important issues (like universal human rights), hence my admission of the sin of cultural imperialism. Concurently to not buying into multiculturalism, I retain a sincere value for diversity (not in the identity politics connotation).

    Thank you for your further analysis of muliticulturalism.

    I’ll bet that even though you think of yourself as culturally Mormon, you are really American to the outsider.

  13. Great post, Wilfried. There should be a course at the MTC based on these ideas. Thinking back to the time when I and my Wasatch Front buddies were all serving missions, I recall that the photographs we sent to each other all tried to one-up the depiction of “otherness” in our respective areas. Even I — though Southern California which was no competition for Korea, Japan, Italy, Spain — would be sure to send around pictures of graffiti-strewn crack houses, or impoverished rural trailer parks, rather than any showing me playing basketball or eating McDonalds (or better yet, attending church) with those that lived there.

  14. Is all the preceding meant to ban the depiction of “other cultures” in our Church programs and magazines? Of course not. We could fill pages with a description of positive aspects too, like the importance of preservation and protection of cultural traits and traditions, but without some of the handicaps described.

    How then?

    And can you really be serious when you say that in another country US culture won’t be represented by the square dance and cowboys that is presented in that other country’s version of the alienating, colonialist, primitivized, falsified and kitscherized, exploitative and abusive international fashion show or cultural heritage night? I disagree. One of the many reasons that Europeans hate Bush so much is that he plays right into this cowboy, square-dancing stereo-type that they believe encapsulates American culture.

    Finally, this post is ironic if read in conjunction with many others in the Bloggernacle, many of them authored by fellow internationalist Ronan Head, that the Church doesn’t recognize its international membership enough. There aren’t enough multicultural pictures in the Ensign or “minority” faces in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Now, attempts to do so are merely imperlialist, colonialist, arrogant, superior, false, kitscherized, exploitative and abusive. Don’t be fooled by lip-service respect and honor that the Church gives to the various cultures of its members. In reality, the Church is merely ghettoizing any of its membership that doesn’t happen to be American by allowing such membership to be depicted through traditional cultural dress, dance, song and food.

    I’m having trouble figuring out what you think would be best here. On the one hand, you are noting that such depictions aren’t real because, in truth, modern life and society have erased these distinctive cultural traits, homogenizing Western society so that no Bulgarian villager really dresses that way anymore nor engages in those dances. That was all a romantized, idyllic past, if it ever happened at all. Your arguments actually seems to rest on an assumption that such erasure is a good thing and to dredge up the old-school distinctiveness, which doesn’t exist in reality anymore, is insulting. This seems a surprising assumption for someone using such descriptives as alienating, colonialist, primitivized, falsified and kitscherized, exploitative and abusive in conjunction with this process. On the other hand, you want a deeper appreciation of each culture; somehow we are supposed to achieve that while at the same time avoiding things that could smack of your list of descriptors. So Germans shouldn’t appear in Lederhosen because that is a ghettoized romantic description of them that (artificially) preserves a feeling that Germans are somehow distinct from Americans or Belgians, or Egyptians, etc.

    But wait, is the distinctiveness of a culture good or bad? Do we want to preserve it or pretend it’s not there–fully assimilated? Your post left me confused on what exactly you were criticizing about how the Church approaches its many cultures. A cultural night in America shouldn’t depict other cultures in this way? A cultural night in Berlin likewise? The cultural night needs to show how fully assimilated they are? Or the opposite? Or the cultural night should be eliminated altogether and the BYU folkdancers shouldn’t celebrate the folk traditions of other cultures anymore through their depictions of such in dance? Or we need to find a way to more clearly celebrate these distinctions?

  15. How true, Greg ( # 13 ). There was a time, perhaps still, that missionaries going to Holland would go to a “folklore photo shop” where they could dress like a Volendammer and have their picture taken against a backdrop of a 17th century Dutch kitchen. Pictures would be sent home and to friends as “proof” of their otherness abroad. Nothing wrong with that as such: fun and a lasting memory. The problem starts when that becomes about the only thing, and the souvenirs brought back home are limited to a pair of wooden shoes and a mini-windmill. What missed opportunities…

    About the MTC: I do not know if and how they prepare missionaries to intercultural experience nowadays. My wife and I were asked, many years ago, to teach the “cultural lesson” to missionaries going to Flanders. But I guess we did not respond sufficiently to the folkloristic expectations for they only wanted lessons on Bruges-canals, Bokrijk (“how our ancestors lived”), lace and medieval castles. I imagine that a serious introduction to intercultural understanding and communication, interfaith dialogue, acculturation – without all this becoming academic – could constitute a helpful part of missionaries’ preparation. Which is more than little rules of “what not to do in order not to offend the natives”.

  16. Wilfried, souvenirs and P-days aside, it seems like most missionaries have precisely the kind of experiences that would foster (at least a partial) intercultural understanding. As a missionary, I spent most of my time with people in their homes, as they went about their real lives and real work, away from the picturesque and the touristy. Of course, as a missionary my conversations were limited to a small subsection of the lives and interests of the people with whom I worked, but it was still, I think, an authentic subsection.

  17. John Fowles, thanks for the lenghty reaction (# 14 ). In my post I tried to put in as many nuances and caveats as possible, fully aware of the complexity and sensitivity of the topic, but they seem easily overlooked. To all your statements in connection with extreme conclusions I say: you’re absolutely right. It’s in the finer gradations, in the balance, in the weighing of factors, that we need to find the common ground where members of the Church of very different origins and backgrounds can feel respected and understood. Sometimes we may need more distinctiveness, sometimes less. It requires careful analysis and cautious suggestions. I tried to make some, without losing anything of Mormon contributions to festivals and celebrations.

  18. Rosalynde, you’re certainly right to remind us of the high importance of the intercultural experience of missionaries as they meet people in their homes. The exchange about missionaries focused on the folklore emphasis. As I said: “The problem starts when that becomes about the only thing”. Of course, thousands of missionaries can look back at a unique and enriching experience. At the same time one could wonder how and to what extent that experience affects the rest of their lives and especially how it can be fostered to have (even) more positive effects than now.

  19. Well, in the spirit of Wilfried’s latest post, I’ll indulge in a bit of reminiscing. I served my mission on the island of Kyushu (Southern Japan). As luck would have it, I spent all but three months of my mission in “rural Japan.” I rarely saw other “westerners” since they tended to stay focused in the larger metropolitan centers of Fukuoka and Kumamoto (and others).

    However, I did have several encounters with “gaijin” (which translated literally, means “outsider”). This discussion brought them to mind.

    First, I was invited to a party at the house of one of our “investigators.” She apparently had her finger firmly on the pulse of the foreign exchange program in the area (which honestly, might be why she was so interested in us). So there were a variety of nationalities in attendance, including a pair of North American graduate students whom I happened to be sitting next to. They were having a fairly deep discussion about various aspects of Japanese culture and how it tied into Western philosophy, which I?ll admit, went straight over my head.

    At one point they agreed that Japanese culture is probably impossible for a westerner to get a handle on. I did understand this point and felt like I had come to a similar conclusion myself. So I ventured ?Yeah, try getting them to convert to Christianity!?

    They both just stared at me for a second then made some noncommittal noises and returned to their beer mugs. I got the distinct impression that my remarks were not entirely fit for intelligent conversation.

    At a later point in my stay, I was lectured briefly by a random German on how I really ought to leave the Japanese to their own beliefs and mind my own business. I never got this reaction from the Japanese people themselves, but I quickly realized that even if they did hold similar beliefs to the German fellow, they were much too restrained to directly express them.

    But I noticed more than ideological differences between myself and other foreigners in Japan. I noted that Mormon missionaries in general, seemed to have a vastly superior grasp of Japanese language, beliefs and culture, whereas most of the other ?outsiders? seemed to still be playing around with travel guidebook superficialities. I even found that I had a comprehension of Japanese people that was equal to (or better than) some Americans who had been living in Japan for over ten years.

    I was wondering why this was a few years ago and a statement from C.S. Lewis on an unrelated topic came to mind. I can?t give the quote verbatim, but here?s the gist of it:

    ?Only he who walks against the wind truly understands how strong it is.?

    C.S. Lewis was talking about how only those who successfully resist temptation ever really see it clearly. But I had my answer to where my own cultural understanding had come from.

    For two years, I had been actively fighting Japanese culture. I had been encouraging them to abandon behaviors they had grown up with and act in ways that were alien to most Japanese people. There were also much deeper paradigms of thought that had to be accommodated or overcome. I remember the opposing World War II generals Rommel and Patton commenting on how they felt like they knew their opponent intimately after grappling with each other across North Africa and Western Europe.

    I suppose that’s how I felt about Japanese culture. It was an old respected enemy that I had flung myself against so many times that it had almost become a part of me. I realized that I had insights into Japanese national identity that most other Westerners visiting or living in Japan would never have.

    Cultures are different. Often profoundly different. There is certainly a lot of insight to be gained by inter-cultural discourse. The dilemma is how to gain that insight respectfully.

    I know this is going to seem initially distasteful, but I would propose a knock-down, drag-out fight as one of the better methods.

  20. A few comments from a lurker:
    1) Was in Salt Lake a few summers ago for a multicultural festival with my Swiss mother-in-law [who has lived in Provo for 30 years and misses Switzerland very much] and a Swiss cousin [visiting and studying English for the summer]. Mother-in-law sang in the Swiss choir, full-on Swiss attire, alpenhorn, the whole bit. She clung to this kitschy vestige because it was all that was available to her of her homeland: a few outfits, songs and occasionally singing with other people who loved and missed Switzerland. The cousin rolled his eyes during the whole performance and told me that, of course, he preferred rock. Of course, he was Swiss to his very core, and didn’t need a kitsch-like substitute to make him feel Swiss: maybe, I don’t know, he would have enjoyed rodeo to give him a taste of “America.” A kitschy, culture-like substance, as many of you have pointed out, is a substitute for a real sense of belonging, which is really difficult to have unless you are immersed in the culture. However, in the mainstream US, where we often almost forget that other societies, languages, ideas exist, perhaps kitsch is a useful reminder that there is someone else out there, even as it objectifies whoever they are.

    2) In re: the line of comments about women in the church being reduced to Victorian-era stereotypes. I guess I will have to state the obvious that when the general mass of authoritative voices are male, they are inevitably going to see women as the “other” and simplify that view. Though women in the church often do also buy into this simplified idea of women [domestic, nurturer v. aggressive, selfish, non-nuturer] I have to think that if there was enough talks in general conference by women, enough voices of authority who were women, then the full range of what women are would be on public display and such simplistic dichotomies would be out of the window. I can’t imagine ever saying that there are two kinds of general authorities or male missionaries, but how many times have I heard that there are only two kinds of female missionaries [the go-getters, and the basket cases]. In the church we recognize the full range of experiences that men have and have yet to do so for women. All women in the church pay a heavy price for this, and I have found this worse in married wards than in single ones: the women who choose traditional roles and those who have non-traditional roles often feel tremendously threatened by each other, as if they were different species rather than on a continuum of choices. As one of the only non-traditional women in a conservative church and social environment, I feel this quite acutely.


  21. Seth Rogers, that was a fascinating comment from personal experience. I particularly like your statement: “Cultures are different. Often profoundly different. There is certainly a lot of insight to be gained by inter-cultural discourse. The dilemma is how to gain that insight respectfully.” Yes, that aspect of respect was, and I hope sufficiently clear, the core of my post. And it often is a dilemma.

    Guenevere’s comment exemplifies that dilemma too in a very visual way when she talked about her Swiss mother-in-law: for her mother-in-law the “kitschy vestige” is awfully important, and apparently she is also proud to show it at public occasions. For others, it’s an embarrassment. How to deal respectfully with both feelings is a challenge, but also a wonderful challenge because it teaches us to be more sensitive to each other’s needs.

    The example of the “Swiss” dress reminds me also of the variety in “representativeness” of dresses. In this case the Swiss costume seems to express a number of virtues and strengths, like cleanliness, wealth, health, joy… That is not always the case of other “national” costumes, so they cannot fulfill the same purpose and could give the “wrong” message. Next, what do we do with nations that do not have such a typical dress at all and where the citizens do not really have an external token to identify with?

    The women’s issue that Dave brought up (# 1 ) and which Guenevere just commented on, is a topic on its own but ties in with the concerns we discussed. The term “Victorian” was mentioned. Even this may already be a remarkable “folklorization”, for I understand “Victorian women” were not of the kind the traditional portrayal gives us. Who knows more about this?

  22. Somewhat apropos of this thread, I recently read that the notion of ancient Scottish family tartans, where one’s family is tied to a particular color and pattern going back to medieval times, was invented by textile companies as a marketing ploy in the 19th century.

  23. When I referred to Victorian, I was referring to the very common Victorian stereotype that women were either “angels in the house” or essentiallly prostitutes. Statistics have shown that there were indeed a disproportionate number of prostitutes in Victorian England, thus suggesting that the dichotomizing stereotypes of women in some way led to women living out these stereotypes. [there were, of course, many economic reasons for this, including the general inability of women to earn a living in a more reputable way, again reinforced by the idea of women belonging in domestic spheres.] Interestingly enough, many scholars have pointed out that contemporary Victorian Mormon society often rejected this limitation upon women [and admiring it as well], and then post-polygamy, embracing the Victorian concepts of women-mother-domestic-goddess.

  24. Thanks for the update on Victorian stereotyping, Guenevere. I came across this site on Victorian women, which indeed shows the wide variety of functions according to class. As to morality, I cannot find the source now, but I remember reading that Victorian women were often not the “strict and prude” kind, as represented nowadays in the usual portrayal. Probably another consequence of stereotyping, which is a characteristic of folklorization and which brought us to this topic.

    Greg Call, thank you for adding the element of commercial manipulation in folklore traditions. I imagine there must be quite a few examples where present-day “national” or “ethnic” elements (at least the non-sacred) were originally just local commercial products, launched as new fashion or recipe, which overtime were promoted to the point where they identify as national or ethnic. Nothing wrong with that of course, as long as we keep the perspective.

Comments are closed.