Pi Attitude Zone: Affiliation & Cohesion

Brazil’s New Middle Class [5]: A Revolution In Isolation

Protest has been a global theme in mid-2013.  Commentators push the idea that recent social upheavals in Brazil are in some way similar to demonstrations in Turkey and Egypt.  They aren’t.  The similarities are at best superficial.  Brazil is different. 

Since colonization began 500 years ago, this vast country has felt a profound sense of exceptionalism.  Deep down, Brazilians wonder, why would anyone bother being anything but Brazilian?  To hear them talk, Brazil is the biggest, the best, the coolest (“legál” in Brazilian Portuguese  slang) and the terrific-est place on earth.  If foreign bores, drones and tight-asses can’t see this, it’s their loss.  

The reason could be rooted in Brazil’s unique social history (see earlier Pi blogposts in this series), which has left its citizens viscerally averse to foreign scrutiny and interference.  There has been a long-standing tradition of producing two different reports on important issues:  a warts-and-all realistic version for domestic consumption, and an air-brushed version laughingly dubbed  “Pra inglês ver” (literally “For the English to see”.  The concept apparently goes back to the 19th century, when British gunboats patrolled Brazil’s  Atlantic seaboard to enforce the international interdict on slave-trading, then still the mainstay of Brazil’s economy.  If confronted by a British patrol, there would be no mention of slave cargoes.  The ships’ manifests showed only imports of “chickens”). 

Circumstances change, but attitudes persist.  To this day, most Brazilians are really not keen on foreign interference.  If the country is going to change, Brazilians feel, it should continue to change within the “Brazilian Model”, and not get absorbed into bland homogeneity with “The West”.  An example is public anger against FIFA, the Zürich-based body overseeing the hosting of the 2014 World Cup football.  Brazilians widely resent their government meekly forking out billions for overpriced “FIFA-standard” stadia while falling woefully short of anything like “FIFA standards” in domestic public services, transport and infrastructure.  Why should foreigners get what they want, while we Brazilians get palmed off with second-best?

The isolationist impulse seems to transcend class and ethnicity.  Brazilians resent being thought unsophisticated, and the quickest way to turn people against you is to start talking about Brazil as an “emerging” or “third-world” country.  The idea of Brazil being bracketed with the BRIC nations makes sophisticated Brazilians hoot with derisive laughter.  At the other extreme, popular culture as embodied in Carnival, Samba and Capoeira may be a lure for foreign tourists, but they remain fiercely Brazilian, proudly resisting international “Disneyfication”.

Probably unconsciously, Brazilians can be dismayingly disengaged and offhand with foreigners, attitudes which will pose problems when international tourists descend on the country for the World Cup and the Olympics.  A few sophisticates will generously make allowances for your unfortunate failure to be Brazilian.  But what you tell them in Portuguese will strike them as being at least five times as important as what you say in English.

At a practical level, of course, Brazil can “protect its international privacy” simply by sticking to the Portuguese language, which is now almost exclusively spoken in the world by Brazilians.  Portugal has only one-twentieth of Brazil’s population of 200 million .  Sure, there are 50 million people in former Portuguese colonies like Mozambique and Angola, but less than a quarter of them speak Portuguese as their first language.  As a result, Portuguese has now virtually become a Brazilian language, and very few people outside the country speak, write or understand it. 

This in itself puts a significant cultural barrier between Brazilians and “estrangeiros” (foreigners).  There are deep-rooted reasons why many Brazilians prefer it that way.

Zone: Affiliation & Cohesion Country: Latin America Product – Communications