Monday, January 28, 2013

Manti Te'o - Is There Really Anything Left To Say?

I will not even pretend as though some of you on the Interwebs have failed to hear about the Manti Te'o "fake dead girlfriend" story. It has been covered ceaselessly, and there really isn't much left to say, right?

Well...not so fast. Like everyone else, I assumed that there was no way Te'o was uninvolved with this hoax. He'd have to be monumentally stupid, I thought.

But then I read Professor Ilana Gershon's account of the story and realized that I had missed a key point--one which I have written about on my blog before.

Gershon has spent years studying Samoan culture, and says that hoaxes such as this are prevalent--and in fact, they far predate the internet. Such hoaxes used to be perpetuated through phone and hand-written letters, only now are becoming more common with access to superior technology.

She noticed that Te'o in his interviews consistently talks not about right or wrong, but about honor and shame. Samoan culture--like the culture of the Biblical era--was one in which the honor or shame given to your family is of the highest importance. In addition, it is a collectivist culture, also like the Bible (and unlike America).

What does this mean for Te'o? Well, several things, Gershon says, which lead to such hoaxes like this lasting for years:

* Samoans place family obligations far above dating. It would be understood to Te'o that he would sometimes be unable to meet with his girlfriend because instead he had to meet with his family. Likewise, if her excuse for not meeting up with him was to cite family obligations, he would not question it. In their culture, this would be seen as the norm.

* Samoan dating and marriage is not just two kids falling in love, but the joining of two families. So Te'o would have actively tried to make it as positive to his family as possible--even telling white lies or encouraging his "girlfriend" to send texts of Scripture to his family. He did both of these things, with the goal of showing that she was not going to make the family ashamed.

* Te'o no doubt could have checked up with relatives in her community to learn about her, but would never have thought to do so. He wouldn't want to insult or shame his girlfriend by implying to others that he had doubts about her--and in a tight-knit community like L.A.'s Samoan culture, such an inquiry would have been well known.

* Samoan Mormons (like Te'o) often tend to be a bit on the naive side when it comes to such situations. It is assumed that people are going to do the right things, and even when (for four years) they do not meet in person, it is not actually that surprising that he did not think ill of this person with whom he talked Scripture and marriage and love.

The key point is that Te'o was duped precisely because of the clash of western culture and his honor/shame, collectivist culture. The irony is that Samoan victims themselves--wishing not to shame himself, his girlfriend, or his family--will actually lie and exaggerate the relationship in order to help everyone "save face."

The reaction on the Te'o situation is a stark reminder of how easy it is for us to see things through our own worldview rather than theirs. I found it--as did many others--impossible to imagine how Te'o could not be behind the whole thing. But now that I reflect on his culture, I see how someone who is collectivist and honor-shame oriented could indeed be taken in by, and help (unknowingly) perpetuate, such a hoax.

It is a good reminder for all of us as we read the Bible. For the people in our Bibles view the world much more like Te'o does than the way that we do; thus it is important for us to get "in their heads" if we wish to truly understand what is going on.

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