Publicado em 31 de março de 2006
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Cultural diversity of perceptions and practices

It seems that a sense of responsibility (grounded in parenthood) is found among all groups of human beings. However, the way in which responsibility is assumed and accounted for is deeply embedded in each cultural context.

The self, "the other" and the living world around them

As pointed out above, perceptions of the human being and of her/his relation with nature and the cosmos are at the heart of each culture (the most inner circle).
Cultural / religious conceptions about the notions of the self, the other and the relationship between the two as well as the (inter)relationship between the human beings and the living world around them, differ. Highlighting these differences may be deeply revealing in the sense that they may provide a fundamental understanding of responsibility in human communities around the world.
These varying conceptions may be of essential importance to shed a light on questions like : where does the idea of responsibility come from? Is it an inner attitude or is it imposed? Does it come from a person’s free will (his free choice, his autonomy) or is one simply meant to assume responsibilities? Who assigns Responsibility to whom? For what? Who accounts to whom for what? How does one determine whether someone has exercised her/his responsibilities successfully?

Lamis EL NAKKASH [1] draws attention to the fact that "in a culture dominated by a firm belief in fate and predestination as the Arab Islamic culture is, the extent of a person’s responsibility for her/his choices and actions, indeed the whole idea of free will and the freedom of choice, is problematic."

Another remarkable difference between various cultures is that contrary to Western languages, an expression like : “I take responsibility” would not easily be used in African and indigenous cultural contexts like those of the Maori in New Zealand or the Andean peoples in South America. Why? Because in these cultural contexts the individual “I” is subordinate and subservient to the community. So, there, people would ask an individual who says “ I will take responsibility”: “Who do you think you are to “take” responsibility? Who then will define your responsibility? You yourself? And to whom then would you account for that responsibility?”. In their cultural understanding, responsibility is defined by the group the individual belongs to or for particular things by God or the gods. It is entrusted to someone by that group or God and s/he will have to account to the group or God for the way s/he exercises it.

In the book Genesis of the Christian Bible, God after having created the universe, the earth and the human being, passed on responsibility for the earth to man. In this way man and earth entered into a direct relationship. Man was told to "master" (or "nurture" depending on the translation) all that lives on the earth. The Maori consider that the relationship between man and the earth still passes through God. Their perception of their environmental responsibility is related to the gods. When they start to work the land, they know they "destroy" it, so they have to ask permission from the gods.

"Duty" as distinct from "Responsibility"

We are all responsible of everything and everyone and accountable to all. And I myself more than all the others.

In many cultural contexts an important distinction is made between the idea of "responsibility" as a matter of (free) choice and "duty" as an obligation enforced by another’s will: the will of another person, a group, an authority, fate or God himself.

Ina RANSON [2] points out that this distinction became a crucial issue in Germany after the revelation of the crimes committed by Hitler’s Nazi regime during the Second World War. Was passive consent or active participation “because we simply had to fulfil our duty” a justification? Or did fulfilling one’s duty not take away one’s responsibility for the atrocities inflicted on millions of people, in particular the genocide of the Jews?
Questioning personal and collective responsibility in the framework of Germany’s catastrophic past has given birth to new German words and concepts: Verantwortungsketten (chain or network of responsibilities), Mitverantwortung (co-responsibility), Verantwortungsanteil (part of responsibility), (We are part of a chain…there are only degrees of distinction between each of us and the driver of the train that drove the Jews to the gas-chambers.)

How to explain the break down of civilisation during Hitler’s regime in Germany - to whom attribute responsibility: only to the ruling establishment, to intellectuals, to more or less active or passive followers…? Was there something dangerous in the conception of duty-obligation (to the State) inherited from the Prussian tradition? Was there something wrong in German intellectual and cultural tradition? (“the duty to obey...?)

Among the initiatives trying to offer concrete answers to these painful questions, there is the “Dietrich Bonhoeffer Association” which carries the name of the in Europe well-known philosopher and theologian who was executed by the Nazis. Bonhoeffer was deeply convinced that in a situation of injustice everyone is responsible and has the obligation to resist (Widerstandspflicht: the duty to resist). It stresses that today Western science and techniques are transforming cultural and political systems in nearly every part of the world; by our mentality and style of life, we are co-responsible for this process and cannot ignore its possibly destructive consequences.

"Duty" not always distinct from "Responsibility"

A language "says" its culture. It reveals the "sense" (meaning and direction) of social practices. In the framework of our subject it is therefore interesting to note that while in many languages a clear distinction is made between "duty" and "responsibility" these two concepts are considered identical in many African languages.
For instance, in the perception of the Kabiyè people of Togo [3] the notions of "duty" and "responsibility" are the same. They are represented by the word suutu which means "charge, load, burden" in the literal sense as well as in a figurative sense. There are no separate words for them.
In practice the father or the traditional priest or the chief does assume tasks but does not account for the way he exercises his duty. The satisfaction of those for whom he is responsible, is what counts. The idea of duty or responsibility pertains mainly to the present time.
For instance, the traditional priest is chosen through a specific rite. The relationship with nature is taken care of by him. It is the traditional priest who will say whether or not human beings can enter the forest. If it does not rain in time for the period of plantation, the traditional priest is threatened by the people; they will tell him that he has not accomplished his duty, that his heart was not pure when he prayed to the gods. The priest must be monogamous. If he looks at other women, he is not pure. When the traditional priest is threatened verbally, he may ask forgiveness from the god of the rain.

In Senegal, a group of Senegalese linguists, composed of religious leaders (imams) and literacy teachers who were in charge of translating the Charter of Human Responsibilities, were confronted with the problem that the word "responsibility" does not exist in the national language Wolof as an isolated concept, that is as a term which is sufficient to itself. A ten-day long consultation with all sorts of people took place to find an acceptable way of rendering the idea of "responsibility" as understood in the Charter. The principle and the practice of responsibility do exist in Senegal but are expressed by various terms according to the circumstances and the persons involved. Finally it was agreed to create a new word. This is not uncommon in Africa as with European colonisation many new concepts were introduced (development, planning, gender sensitivity, women’s emancipation, etcetera). The new word is a combination of "duty" and "future".

[1] Lamis EL NAKKASH and Tarek AL NOAMAN : paper for meeting Intercultural Research Group on Responsibility, India, May 2005

[2] Ina RANSON : paper for meeting Intercultural Research Group on "Responsibility", India, May 2005

[3] KAO Blanzoua: paper for meeting Intercultural Research Group on "Responsibility", India, may 2005


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