Note: This kind of wound up being a manifesto. I didn’t mean it to be, and I don’t quite think it’s what blogs should be for, but, well… Trying to extend across cultural boundaries is a tricky, complicated issue, and I don’t think any reasonable position on it can be explained in a curt, simple manner. And this isn’t. It’s long, and I tried to be thoughtful, because this subject requires both those things.
I also edited the title, because I don’t think my viewpoint is really representative of White Male Westerners, really.
So here’s a confession: I have an innate distrust of what people say. About anything.
This goes back a long way. It’s the way I’ve always worked, and it works pretty good to me, first applying a lot of doubt before achieving certainty.
This is because, at the root of my being, I tend to assume people will always be self-motivated, so anything they say is either intended to serve their own interests, or to justify their own positions, usually by cherry-picking or distorting evidence.
Despite this, I consider myself a positive person. I like people: I even have a fondness for how they just can’t help themselves, and always have to edge someone else out. So I like them, and I accept what they are – selfish, short-sighted, and frequently petty, because honestly, what can you do? – I just don’t trust them, especially what they say about themselves.
So I’ve always been deeply distrustful of the concept of “culture.” While to most, the word “culture” has this harmonic resonance to it, a sense of connection and pride and tradition and the eternal, to me, I can’t help but distrust it.
For one, it’s important to remember that a culture usually isn’t eternal: it lasts until the people who know it and maintain it leave or abandon it. The lifespan of a culture has been speeding up the more people can shift around in the world, until nowadays a culture – which has no distinct stop or start points – usually doesn’t “feel like” (I put this in quotation marks because this is such an imprecise terminology) it has a strong effect for more than three or four decades. Later cultures might try and hold onto that passed culture through story, ritual, myth, etc, but they aren’t directly recreating the culture, but viewing it through the lens of their own moment, their own experience, their own feelings. They’re making up a new one every time, essentially. And the longer this goes on, or the older the culture being celebrated, the more distorted and disparate things get. Sure, we can celebrate our ancient ancestors, because it makes us feel connected right now – but history can be spotty, so for all we know we might be celebrating a bunch of cannibals and rapists. How do you know you aren’t just projecting what you want to celebrate onto the vast, blank canvas of prehistory?
For another, cultures, like the whole of human action, generally hurt as many people as they help. This is, naturally, a wildly variable and ridiculously subjective call. But we see it everywhere, as people try and hold on to their culture while also admitting, you know, maybe parts of it do allow or even encourage spousal abuse. They might say, “Yeah, maybe my culture didn’t allow women to work, or vote, or own land.” Or, “Maybe my people did encourage men to be violent toward one another – especially men of other cultures.”
There is and will always be a constant conflict between celebrating our roots and also acknowledging that many of the perceptions, morals, and roles our roots maintained were wildly harmful. So what do you do? Do you keep all of it? Do you try and keep just parts of it? And if you do keep parts of it, if you do excise the bits of your culture that you don’t like, are you really still part of that culture, that imprecise and subjective moment in history? Or are you just some pampered kid with pretentious affectations trying to attain a place in history?
The thing that runs through all of this, the thing that really makes me leery of celebrating culture rather than accepting it as an implacable, choiceless force, akin to a natural disaster, is that this is a dialogue we’re having about ourselves. And when people talk about themselves, they prettify themselves. They justify themselves. They explain themselves in their terms. It’s a conversation about ourselves, with ourselves. So, as such, odds are it is rife – and I mean just rife – with bullshit, with assumptions and blindspots and affectations and artifice. It’s just what happens.
So I tend to take culture with a grain of salt. Sure, we love it – we love it like we love our families. But do you really want to live with your parents your whole fucking life? Do you want to only talk to your family, to only know your family, to try and uphold the family traditions, even if grandpa’s traditions involved laying the strap to any girl who tried to go to college? Probably fucking not. But you still love them, and you have to accept them as they are.
And at some point, you have to leave them. You have to go beyond what your family knows, and see the world, and form your own opinions about it. And you have to do so knowing that you’ll be seeing that world through a lens shaped, formed, and affected by your family. You have to know that you are not seeing things as they are – you are seeing things as they are distorted by how you have been shaped by your family, by your culture, by your people.
And that’s what culture really does: it affects, contributes to, and distorts the individual human experience. Just like any other force in the world: war, death, natural disaster… These are things we can’t stop, but they still decide who we are.
So when I – a privileged, moderately educated, whitest of white dudes – read through the Cultural Imperialism Bingo Card, I get it, and smile. I smile because I understand that a lot of the comments featured are vain proclamations intended only to make those who speak them feel better.
And I do get that the West, by what I feel is pure, random chance, managed to attain a ridiculously lopsided amount of wealth and power in the past couple of centuries (raindrops in the bucket, time-wise), and ran with it, as (and you never know, this might be a Western way of thinking about it) anyone would, because we’re human.
I also get that whenever anyone walks into power, and has the world served up to them on a plate, the first thing they do is assure themselves that they’ve earned this. They need to justify why they’ve got it so good. And usually this means cherry-picking, rearranging the narrative so that they’re the hero, or at least the beneficiary of some kind of impartial, if not benevolent force. Or they claim that they did this themselves, without anyone’s help, or random chance – their position is their accomplishment, so let them bask in it. This, too (and here I note again that this might be a Western conceit, who knows), is just what people do.
But I don’t think I get the conclusion from the Bingo card that most do, or that the creators intended. Maybe it’s just because of how I think about my culture, that of the ones who have it made and assume that that’s the way it should be, but when I think about any culture, it’s usually in terms of, “How is this probably limited, short-sighted bullshit?” Because I do feel that that’s the Default Mode for most human beings, and I think it shows up in every single culture in the world.
My reaction isn’t about culture, really. My reaction is about how people experience the world, as individuals, and how that experience is distorted and marred by a variety of factors, some of which we’re complicit in. Sometimes we choose to see it one way, and often I feel that choice is motivated not by compassion, nor objectivity, but vanity: we want to feel justified in who we are. We want to be the heroes of the story. We want it to be All About Us.
So in the battleground of culture, which is, in a way, a conclusion that draws from a wide breadth of experience and data, be aware that what people say isn’t how things are.
Doubt them. Doubt people. Even if they’re talking about justice, tradition, pride, and identity. Especially if they’re talking about those things. Because in the Intellectual Periodic Table, those are the most volatile and dangerous ideas out there.
And we know that ideas can hurt. Lord, if you’ve learned anything from history, please let it be that ideas can hurt.