Normal is as Normal Does

It’s July 4th in the United States, and we here celebrate the audacious experiment in self-government that was launched through the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident…,” it’s hard not get chills and goose-bumps,even  centuries later. We must remember though that the Declaration launched a war and the Founding Fathers would have been hung as traitors had they failed. Hence the Declaration concludes with a statement that “…we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” This wasn’t rhetoric, it wasn’t chest beating, this was existential, it was the giving of a life to advance a cause.

In the 19th century the Civil War came, and Abraham Lincoln spoke about the nation having a “new birth of freedom”, as it struggled with the implications of its founding principles and grappled with the pragmatic compulsions of competing interests to assess indeed whether “…any nation so conceived could long endure.”  I grew up with this and it seems “self-evident” to me that these are rousing sentiments and moments in history.

Last week we were serving a client in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It had been twenty years since I had been back. My wife had to wear an Abaya (it’s not a veil, it’s something that goes over your clothes, and covers your hair, but not your face).  It made sense in the desert heat, and as every other woman had one on, she didn’t feel singled out. Our clients were a Shariya (Islamic law) compliant bank. They were well informed, well educated, curious, eager to hear what was happening in the world, interested in books and ideas — it was very encouraging. Moreover, they pointed out Saudi Arabia has the largest number of new business schools and educational institutes opening of any place in the region, and in percentage terms, they said the world. That these are true educational institutes not madrassas or propaganda mills is fantastic. The local papers told stories of courageous women campaigning for women’s rights arguing that the relative subjugating of women is tribal and parental, and has no real basis in early Islam. They have a way to go, but it’s wonderful to read that this is a matter being debated and hopefully advanced.

The Abaya is normal in Saudi Arabia, our fireworks are to us with hot dogs and beer and hopefully shorts and t-shirts (despite the torrential rains we’ve had in the Northeast this year). We all think our heroes are the right ones, our mores the most moral and sane, our “normal” the right barometer for civilization-at-large.

I am not a relativist. I prefer shorts, and I like a place where women can fully exercise their rights and express and hopefully fulfill their personhood. But I also realize condescension is fatal to understanding. And without understanding we can’t communicate, we can’t help build bridges from other cultures to some of our insights. Equally we cannot then learn what they may have to teach us.

Preferring my “normal” doesn’t mean ignorance of what others cherish and value is what I should aim for. Perhaps I can expand my sense of the normal, perhaps I can grow and extend my vision. Perhaps we can choose to be more together, rather than less, apart.

When cultures make this choice, and countries, and communities, and perhaps even families and other affiliations, like companies, the world moves forward. Let’s dedicate this 4th of July, or any other observance globally of freedom and possibility, to this perennial movement.