The Question of Culture - A Response

I’ve submitted the following response to this editorial in the Samoa Observer.

Dear Editor:

It seems that we are trying to paint a broad brush of our culture using the single faalavelave bristle. As a result, those who use that lone bristle to characterize and stereotype the entire culture as being bad or corrupt are committing an egregious fallacy.

Culture by definition is far more inclusive and encompassing than its specific constituents discussed so far in this new episode of an apparently perennial issue. Though some abstract aspects of culture (values, principles, beliefs, ideals, etc.) have been sporadically mentioned, the discussion and debate seem to have been steered more towards one area, that of material culture as practised and carried out during faalavelaves. Be that as it may for the sake of this discussion. But culture, actually, also can, is - and perhaps more importantly - more non-material than material. Hence, for me, the locally pervasive maxim “E sui faiga ae le suia faavae” (Practices change but principles/values do not) is profound and relevant within the context of that dual nature of culture.

And because of its local widespread familiarity and acceptance, I'd like to use the maxim to introduce - and base - my own views on the issue. (The meaning of the expression seems universal therefore I am not ready to ascribe a local (Samoan) origin to it.) The maxim delineates between two main things - faiga (practices) and faavae (principles/values). It does underscore the precedence of one over the other, that is principles/values over practices in terms of permanence, stability and importance.

In this case, the principles or ideals are more permanent than the fickle and ever changing practices and material demonstrations. (It's akin to the Greek/Plato’s theory of forms, where the idea/form is more real than the actual material object.) The volatility aspect of our material culture is evident through the years. The nature of the exchanges today during faalavelave is not the same as it was during the 1800's, 1900's or even a few years ago. For example, I remember vividly the time that povi (cattle) were not part of the exchanges for funerals, weddings, etc. Now it is the norm, in most cases. These are the faiga that change on a consistent basis. And even changes and modifications, in and of themselves, are still part of the culture based on culture's general definition of being the sum total of the learned behavior of a group of people.

So what about the non-material aspects or faavae (principles/values)? Are they any less important? I'd say no. In fact, if anything, they’re actually the driving force in many of our cultural practices. We perform an ifoga (traditional apology) because of love and need for forgiveness. We say tulou (excuse ourselves) when walking in front of other people because of respect. This is also part of our unique gagana faaaloalo (language of respect/politeness). We take a si'i (gift) out of love and compassion. Incidentally, the hefty size (monetary and otherwise) of the si'i does not and should not necessarily be an absolute indication or measure of a family’s love as givers and donors. A so-called “status/honor-based giving” should be reexamined and replaced with moderation (maybe?).

Being the materialists that we oft-times are with our cultural faalavelaves, I wonder if the more important principles of love, compassion, respect, etc. - hence our motives - behind the whole exchange/gifting can sometimes become trivialized, lost or corrupted as a result of the emphasis and priority we place on the material side of the culture. I think therefore that a shift in emphasis to the non-material and the inner source of most of our cultural practices is what we need. At least an honest and serious evaluation of the more invincible and impalpable elements may help modify and simplify some of our faalavelave practices.

Economically, simplicity often breeds felicity. Simplicity should also trump publicity. For example one church recommends and encourages simplicity and frugality in giving, urging its members to give, privately, a gift (monetary or in-kind) instead of a lavish and posh si'i. In that way the family with the faalavelave is much less obligated to reciprocate, at least not publicly, the "private gift", and yet still feel the same and sincere love through the personal and private gesture. The family may/can in some nondescript way reciprocate your gift but without the cultural fanfare and publicity which often contribute to the surge and inflation of the overall costs and expenses of the faalavelave.

The point about economic benefits of faalavelave has some merits. The upward trickle (in taxes, capital, employment, etc.) to businesses and eventually government is true, however, the reverse trickle to the consumers/people can sometimes be late, deferred, detoured or, worse, non-existent. This often happens when there’s so much corruption in government (Ahem!) And so it's always the people who find themselves at the short end of the stick in such a strategy.

Moreover, unconditional love, using moderation and simple heartfelt gestures should rule the conditionality and equality of some of our quid pro quo traditions. It’s another example of adherence to higher principles.

Once again our focus should be to examine (our hearts?) the more permanent and immutable faavae, which in turn will change, affect and modify - hopefully simplify - the mutable faiga. I believe that this isn't asking a lot especially from a people who are inherently devout fellow Christians and therefore do a lot of things from the goodness of their hearts. Indeed, Mahatma Ghandi may just be correct in saying that "a nation's culture resides [more] in the hearts and in the soul of its people."

Ma le Faaaloalo lava,
LV Letalu

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