When we discuss Colombian security, we should note we face more than one threat/conflict keeping us from realizing a more peaceful society. Our very social ethics are also at fault. It may be wise to expand horizons by looking beyond our traditional sources for peace and security strategies. We can learn a lot from the Japanese, for example, about community cohesiveness and respect.
In Colombia, violence does not come solely at the hands of armed groups. We speak less about how we ourselves, in our daily interactions, treat each other with little dignity and little respect for the concerns of others. From the way we drive to how we try to hustle potential customers when conducting business, we seem to act solely with our singular selves in mind.
When individuals are treated merely as means to an end, their dignity as humans is said to be violated. We become understood simply as commodities, as properties, as objects, as things that can be exploited, exchanged, and/or eliminated for the sake of selfish ends. It is with this definition of violence I proceed and where most of the Japanese differ from most Colombians.
Our cultural disposition toward fellow neighbors is rooted in serving the self over, or at the expense of, the community. When the concerns of others are not considered, such disrespect becomes fertile ground for aggression, hostility, and exploitation. In turn, trust in one’s fellow human is very seldom given, which makes it difficult to foster a secure, organized, ordered, and peaceful community.
Sadly, the conventional Colombian ethic suggests that if you do not take advantage of others when they are weak or vulnerable, then you are a fool. Common expressions like “no de papaya” (don’t draw attention to yourself) illustrate the notion that individuals are constantly looking for targets to exploit and you should prepare yourself for potential exploitation.
Recently, Kenji Orito Díaz received a Humanitarian and Volunteer Service honor. During his speech, though unintended, an example he gave underscores our impudent culture. Orito Díaz spoke of how truly rich Colombians are because in Japan it can cost 160,000 pesos for a watermelon they may only have access to in August. He contrasted this with the fact that in Colombia, where such a treat is abundant, even when the fruit seller charges only 5,000 pesos for the melon, “one is so [shameless] that one tells the gentleman ‘I only have 3,000’.”
The word Orito Díaz used was “descarado,” which literally means “faceless.” While in Colombia this type of “faceless” act is common, in Japan the complete opposite is the case: saving face, not losing it, is the social ethic. The watermelon example was glossed over as a joke by speaker and audience because this behavior is so widespread, thereby highlighting our habitual tendency to disregard the needs and concerns of others.
In the narrative bubble where most Colombians reside there exists the belief that how humans behave in Colombia is how all humans behave everywhere. But such is, of course, not the case.
Living in Japan for the better part of 2010, I was shocked many times into realizing how different social ethics are between the Japanese and Colombians.
The way the Japanese have dealt with their recent crises via water (tsunami), earth (quake), and air (nuclear radiation) is testimony to the influence of their belief systems and social ethics. If such disasters had occurred in Colombia, riots and disturbances would have transpired. Yet, though Japan was slammed with the first recorded triple disaster in history, no riots or social disruptions arose. On this basis alone, the Japanese deserve our attention. They have been doing something right. They proved that such social cohesion, respect, and community is possible, not a fantasy, and, conversely, disproved the idea that such a society (even one of 127 million people) could never exist.
Such an attitude, however, is not only enacted during crisis, but also in everyday life.
A Colombian traveling through Japan may think the Japanese are fools for being too trusting. Yet, the kind of exploitation and violations of another’s dignity is seldom found in Japan, but habitually found in Colombia.
True story: A woman parked her car, left it running with a baby in the back seat, and walked into the grocery store. Fifteen minutes passed before she returned to car and baby with two bags of groceries by her side. I observed the entire incident from my bicycle. I waited until the woman returned because I feared a potential kidnapping. The Japanese community would have been shocked if the car was stolen or if the baby was kidnapped. The Colombian community, on the other hand, would have been shocked if the car wasn’t stolen and the baby wasn’t kidnapped.
I can leave my wallet on the table with USD $300 worth of Yen visibly sticking out, leave the cafe for 20 minutes to talk on my mobile, then return to find my wallet untouched. A businessman who has missed his train and must sleep in the station overnight does not have to worry that his briefcase will be stolen while he sleeps.
The Japanese have demonstrated that equipping a police force with firearms is not a necessary and sufficient condition for a society to be relatively peaceful, secure, organized, ordered, and civil. Compare that with Colombians’ historical obsession with primarily using arms to achieve peace.
Criminologist and father of Social Control Theory Travis Hirschi may have been on to something when he wrote the following: “We are all animals and thus all naturally capable of committing criminal acts. […] People commit crimes because it is in their nature to do so. The question that really needs an answer is why do most people not commit crimes?”
“Delinquency,” Hirschi claimed, “is not caused by beliefs that require delinquency, but rather made possible by the absence of (effective) beliefs that forbid delinquency.” Colombians’ belief system not only requires delinquency to understand reality, human nature, and the world and one’s place in it, but also lacks effective beliefs that forbid delinquency. Japan’s beliefs, on the other hand, are there to ensure people are secured from delinquent and hostile acts.
There’s a lot we can learn from the Japanese that deserves careful study, which this is not. However, it should be a start to challenge and dissect our presuppositions because Japan completely resides outside the box of the reality most Colombians have pronounced as absolute and universal. This should be the first step in potentially changing a belief system—recognizing it is unsound and limited. Just as we have looked at the Bible and the U.S. for ways to deal with our security issues, we should potentially look at other regions and societies of the world to see what may be applicable to our situation.
There are many interpretations of human nature and reality, and some have proven more effective for satisfying human concerns. For example, we must get past the Colombian idea that morality can only be derived from the dictates of the Bible. Belief in a god is not a necessary and sufficient condition for living ethically and for treating others with kindness. In many ways, Catholicism’s influence in the country has been a hindrance. It has led to the rejection of other interpretations of reality and human nature that could help to manifest a more peaceful society. It is time to look abroad to other codes of ethics for guidance.
We do not have to wait for government action for the quality of our lives to be heightened even a little and for our daily interactions to be more enjoyable. We can help the matter by changing our habits and choosing to conduct ourselves differently. As Gandhi so eloquently claimed, what distinguishes human animals “from all other animals” is our “capacity to be non-violent.” The Japanese have come to understand this idea quite well. It is an integral part of their cultural attitude toward conflict resolution and community building. What is remarkable is that their history, for centuries, was steeped and tainted with violence, until the middle of the 20th century.
So, can Colombians learn anything from the Japanese in terms of social ethics? Contrary to popular belief, in the dog-eat-dog world where most Colombians believe they reside, there may be a possibility for teaching old dogs new, more respectful, tricks.
Julián Esteban Torres López is an editor, writer, researcher, and educator with nearly two decades’ experience working with publications, historical societies, and cultural and research institutions, and has held leadership positions in the academe, the arts, journals, the business sector, and history museums. You can follow him on Twitter.