Try the new FT.com

June 10, 2011 10:05 pm

The delights and dangers of diversity

  • Share
  • Print
  • Clip
  • Gift Article
  • Comments
 
Dominique Strauss-Kahn©Reuters

Rift: Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former director of the IMF, at his bail hearing in New York last month

A wise Italian engineer friend dropped this profound remark into the middle of a conversation in a restaurant in Rome; or you could say into the middle of the cacio e pepe, the delicious simple Roman pasta served with pecorino cheese and black pepper, and the Morellino di Scansano, the soft black-cherry-scented wine from the Tuscan Maremma. Gianmario said something like this: “for the most part people from different cultures understand one another just fine; they can talk and laugh and do business and no doubt other things besides; but there is an obstinate 10 per cent that does not overlap, which you always have to watch, which can be the most fertile ground for misunderstanding.”

I’ve thought about his remark many times in the past month or so, and especially in connection with l’affaire Strauss-Kahn. This is not the place to go into the substance of the allegations or the fact that in the kangaroo court of the blogosphere the former director of the International Monetary Fund was found guilty, not just of the alleged crime in the Sofitel Hotel but of a whole string of other unproven offences before he had faced trial. The point was that whatever did or did not happen in the Sofitel, a fascinating range of rifts between French and Anglo-American attitudes was revealed.

Predictably enough, the English and US press could not resist triumphalist glee at the sight of a supposedly sophisticated Frenchman possibly caught with his pants down but I found myself uncomfortable with both the “French defence” (if such a thing exists in chess) and the Anglo-American attack. The line that, as the French journalist Agnès Poirier put it in a TV debate, “there is no bridge” between the actions of a “séducteur” and those of a rapist, certainly looked fragile, as DSK’s reputation was shredded. But then the Anglo-American attack had all the smug, unself-knowing self-righteousness – how sophisticated a séducteur was JFK? – that could make you exclaim that even a despicable rapist is better than a mass murderer. Part of the unself-knowingness was the easy betrayal of the principle that someone is innocent until proven guilty. And if everyone in the US and Britain thinks DSK is guilty, 57 per cent of French people apparently believe he is the victim of a plot.

I also found myself thinking back to the first time I intimately encountered French culture. Aged 17 I lived with a family just outside Paris as an au pair, looking after a baby and doing other things I was probably not very good at. The baby’s parents were rather sophisticated bourgeois bohèmes who did not speak any English, so my first task was to learn to converse.

I remember one Sunday evening when Laurent and Béatrice came back from a lunch party and spent more than an hour discussing whether the colour of a blackcurrant dessert had been natural or artificial. How you could keep a conversation on such a subject going for so long was a mystery and a revelation. Another evening, driving with Laurent into central Paris, I found myself flinching as he shot several red lights. “They are only there to try to slow you down,” he remarked with magnificent insouciance. And then there was talk of sexual exploits – “Ah yes, I was around 13 then and sleeping with all the girls from the Opéra” – which made me feel both envious and inadequate. It did not occur to me that there might have been an element of bravado; the conversation was just so wildly different from any I could imagine my parents or their friends having.

Back at the restaurant in Rome, I was asking Gianmario if, this time, Berlusconi would go to jail. He gave me an almost pitying look. “I think the last time I discussed this it was also with an Englishman,” he began, before explaining that coming from a Piedmontese family of soldiers and surgeons he found Berlusconi’s antics shameful. But of course at the time of writing there is no sign of the Italian premier disappearing behind bars and indeed he has until recently enjoyed popularity ratings not so very different from those of our eminently respectable prime minister, and vastly better than those of the clean-looking Nick Clegg. The fact is that many, many Italian men, perhaps not so many Italian women, continue to admire and envy Berlusconi, despite his apparent disregard not just for propriety but for most of the serious problems facing the Italian polity.

Gianmario’s 10 per cent was an approximate figure and amusingly mathematical for an area very hard to quantify. But if such deep rifts can exist between fairly similar, western cultures, then surely the potential for even deeper ones must exist when religious, social and political traditions are further apart.

Still, by focusing on the 10 per cent, we ignore the rather marvellous fact that – if Gianmario is right – humans can agree on the 90 per cent. The success of western classical music in Asia, symbolised by but not confined to Lang Lang, is one proof of that; the aspirations towards freedom represented by the “Arab spring” another.

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

  • Share
  • Print
  • Clip
  • Gift Article
  • Comments

EMAIL BRIEFING


FT Weekend

Get our newsletter by email each Saturday. Alec Russell, Weekend FT editor, handpicks a selection of the best life, arts, culture, property and news coverage

Sign up now

LIFE AND ARTS ON TWITTER

More FT Twitter accounts
SHARE THIS QUOTE