Saturday, September 14, 2013

Why Alice in Wonderland Really Pissed Me Off.

Over the summer, I listened to an audio book of the old classic story, Alice in Wonderland.  Instead of being magically transformed into a childhood version of myself and caught up in the delight of the characters, I was startled by my reaction to the stories. I was disgusted. I felt a familiar feeling of nausea mixed with anger that usually means my “justice sensors” have been tripped. Confused, I began the process of asking myself why a children’s story would trigger such a strong reaction in me.
Then, I realized. Alice had been dropped into a world with different rules, norms, and cultures than those to which she was accustomed. The characters didn’t look the way that people in her world looked. The world didn’t operate according to the principles and values that she had been socialized to hold dear. Because of the nature of the fictional story, I kept expecting Alice to become fascinated with this other world and learn the customs and practices from those who were different than her. I expected her to be intrigued by those who had new insights and engaging cultural practices. I waited for her to ask questions and begin the process of understanding this new context.
But she didn’t. Instead, Alice chose to rigidly hold to her own framework and judge the creatures and worlds she encountered according to her own belief system. Only a child herself, she harshly judged a mother’s parenting. Dumbfounded and unwilling to consider the impact on the recipient of her words, she insisted to a mouse that he should not be offended that she prized her cat on her ability to catch rats. She hurt creatures when she was larger than life without the tiniest bit of regret for her actions. She yelled and disrupted a court process because it did not work within her expectations of the justice system.
Alice was a cross-cultural traveler who chose to hold everyone she met against her own cultural standards, despite the fact that they lived in a completely different world than she did. She was judgmental, disdainful, and unwilling to consider her own biases and blind spots. Sadly, not only did Alice cause harm by entering this other world, but she grievously missed out on all the magic, beauty, and experience that it had to offer. Alice is everything that I do not want to be, and everything that I fear that I am.
Without self-awareness and humble curiosity, we are all like Alice. Those of us who have lived comfortably in a broader culture that matches our individual culture (white, heterosexual, middle class, etc.) have especially strong Alice-like tendencies, for we have never been forced to consider the fact that “the way things are” could possibly be just “the way things are in our world.” Things have always worked a certain way for us, just like they had for little Alice, and we have a choice to make when we encounter something different. Shall I hold tightly to my views, lest my picture of the universal nature of my world be challenged? Or shall I acknowledge my views and open my hands to explore and experience the broader world around me?
Let us not be paternalistic, ethnocentric travelers like Alice. Let us live and love well, without demanding that others adjust to our way of doing things. Let us be flexible and willing to adapt, rather than demanding that others adapt to us. If we do not, we will miss out on the magic and wonder that these other worlds have to offer.