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Is your Culture Worth Defending?

I wrote earlier in “Racism is a Quest for the Unearned” how racism is simply a form of collectivism; perhaps, as Ayn Rand says, the lowest, most brute form of it. Racism seeks to kill off the individual by lumping him into a group based simply on a few superficial biological characteristics like skin, eyes, and hair. Racism is never worth defending.

Culture is one of the most difficult subjects to write on because most people don’t see it, or understand it, because they are too close to it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that “American’s don’t have a unique culture” which, of course, is utter nonsense. American’s most certainly do have a unique culture and people from other cultures very quickly can spot the American in a group of foreigners. And it didn’t begin in 1776 either, it began forming many generations before starting with the Pilgrims. American culture seems invisible only to those steeped in it. Think of it like being in a bath with 98.6 degree water. Because that’s how warm you are, you hardly notice that it’s there. Or perhaps that odd late spring day when the temperature is not hot and not cold but simply is and you can hardly detect the air around your body at all. People can only describe their culture once they have taken time to think about it. Other cultures seem interesting to us, fascinating, or even odd, when they differ from our own substantially.

Birds of a feather, really do flock together.

Before we define culture it’s important to note that many people confuse race and culture. Though elements of race infuse themselves into culture these two things are not the same. In fact, they are highly independent of the other. Secondly, it’s important to note there is an error (which many make) that culture, like race, is something beyond the control of the individual. This is very often highlighted by the mistaken “white privilege” argument that confuses race with culture. In similar fashion the “patriarchy” argument also confuses sex (like race a biological trait) with culture. People will mistakenly consider culture as not very important as well. Again, I suspect this is simply because they haven’t thought much about the subject due to being surrounded by it from birth.

Cultural groups composed largely of a single race will frequently have elements of the race entwined with their culture. For example, In cultures with dark skin they may choose body decorations, like clothes and make up that compliment their skin tone or they may fashion their hair in a way unique to how their hair grows as a race. In some instances such a group might also come to see people of another race as exotic or godlike. Many cultures first encountering whites saw them as something other worldly because they were so different. Whites, encountering others like the Polynesian cultures were very attracted to them.

One excellent example of both comes from the history of British explorer Captain James Cook.

It is suspected that the Hawaiians attached religious significance to the first stay of the Europeans on their islands. In Cook’s second visit, there was no question of this phenomenon. Kealakekua Bay was considered the sacred harbor of Lono, the fertility god of the Hawaiians, and at the time of Cook’s arrival the locals were engaged in a festival dedicated to Lono. Cook and his compatriots were welcomed as gods and for the next month exploited the Hawaiians’ good will. (History.com)

Cook’s men were very pleased with the women and would take advantage to get sex. This ended when one of Cook’s men died. The natives knew then that they weren’t Gods, they were mortals. This didn’t’ go over too well with the natives who attacked. Cook himself was killed in the melee and only a few men made it back to the HMS Resolution. An interesting bit of history that shows there are some cultural and religious mores that do tied back to how one race looks. There are some aspects of culture tied to race but I think it’s clear that is only a segment of what forms culture.

A great deal of culture is in what we call customs.

Customs are the things a stranger must do if they don’t want to be treated like a stranger anymore.

I’m guessing we’ve all heard a variation on St Ambrose’s famous axiom, “si fueris Rōmae, Rōmānō vīvitō mōre; si fueris alibī, vīvitō sīcut ibī ” which you’ve likely heard the first part translated as, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”. The second part is similar and says, “if you find yourself elsewhere, live as they do in that place”.  What was true in 300 A.D. is true today. It’s an important lesson on getting along.

One commonly known custom in Japan is the removing of shoes before entering a house. If you expect to show respect, and thus be respected, when you are in Japan, you should do the same. Failure to do so will make your host upset and likely get you thrown out of the house which you have dirtied with your shoes. In America, however, someone who asks you to take of your shoes before coming in is thought of as odd or overly fussy. A person who takes off their shoes in a stranger’s home in America is presumptuous. Padding around a strangers house in your bare feet, that’s just odd. That’s what close friends and family are allowed to do, not strangers.

In some cultures, such as Saudi Arabia and France, men kiss on the check when greeting one another. Clearly not so in America and Great Britain. In America, however, men are more prone to embrace one another than in England, though in places like Ireland they are more likely too. Just to what degree this is done and the manner of the embrace is learned over time. Some hugs are okay, some aren’t, and who you hug depends. Most men stop kissing their dad when they are little boys but still hug them into adulthood.

These cultural customs matter if you plan on fitting in and not being treated like a stranger.

When you are among another culture it is not up to them learn your ways but up to you to learn and conform to their ways.

This seems like common sense. St. Abrose got it as it related to certain ecclesiastical customs hundreds of years ago. We should get it as well when it relates to the prevailing custom of a nation.

The customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group define them and the importance of these things cannot be over stated.

Recent definitions tend to distinguish more clearly between actual behavior on the one hand and the abstract values, beliefs, and perceptions of the world live behind that behavior on the other. To put it another way, culture is not observable behavior, but rather the values and beliefs of people used to interpret experience and generate behaviors, and that is reflected in their behavior. An acceptable modern definition of culture, then, runs as follows: culture is a set of rules or standards that, when acted upon by the members of the society, produce behavior that falls within the range of variance the members consider proper and acceptable. (Haviland, Cultural Anthropology 6th Edition)

Imagine being an atheist. A really devote atheist (devote because atheism is a religion). One of those, no way there’s a god types that mock anyone who even displays a curiosity about deity. Imagine being that person then the heavens part and Jesus shows up. Real life, honest to goodness, Jesus, right there in Jerusalem. How many such people would resist believing it because of their previously held beliefs on the subject? Despite how much they say they want objective truth and evidence I suspect that no amount of evidence would be enough. That’s kind of how deeply culture is embedded in our subconscious.

Mere Exposure Effect

If you are exposed to something, the mere exposure over time, produces a change in the human psyche. Mere exposure to something creates a preference based on that exposure and not on real objective qualities of the thing. This can be true of food and customs. An African tribesman might think that a woman needs a plate in her lip. He doesn’t stop to think if this is objectively a good or better thing than not having a plate. He grew up with plated women and so he sees them as good and even required for beauty. I’ve often heard people say of beer that it is an acquired taste. People go from not liking it to liking it through mere exposure to it. This is probably why a lot of modern music gets fans. It’s played over and over on the radio. It doesn’t matter if the song is actually good as long as people hear it enough times they will come to believe that it is.

That you think your culture is wonderful may, or may not be a result of the Mere Exposure Effect which includes a Social Mere Exposure component as well. Many people who discuss issues of immigration and assimilation don’t understand that their own lack of exposure to another’s culture may be the only reason they dislike it. Given time and exposure they may very well find that there is a great deal of compatibility.

People are people. If you read a lot of history you will see themes of humanity repeated over and over again. The people in biblical times suffered from the same human failings as we do. The people of yesterday were just as smart as we are today. Their capacity to understand the world around them was not less than our own. They simply didn’t posses the knowledge we know have. But their brains were fully able to comprehend it once learned.

Because people are people, and people are the same yesterday and today, it’s more often than not that people have cultural mores in common. Differences are generally not all that vast a gulf as some people would have you believe.

Are All Cultures Equal?

The answer to that question really is the heart of the matter when it comes to the issue of migrants. They leave home and come to a new land. They take with them their learned behaviors. Some of those behaviors are the same as the new culture, some are not. Of those that are not some are at odds and others are just different. It is those behaviors that are at odds which concerns us. Those that are the same, or simply different but benign are glossed over. I think often those traits that are beneficial are also often glossed over. Where we run into problems is in those people who say there are no beneficial traits in other cultures. This is, of course, an absurd falsehood that demonstrates a shallow knowledge of other cultures. That’s understandable because it takes time and effort to learn these things. Those who lack knowledge should obtain that before passing judgement however.

The question of cultural equality is a tricky one. It is tricky because the answer lies in what one means by the question. From one way of asking the answer is yes, all of them are equal. They are equally able to manage the societal needs of the people. Western culture works for westerners just as well as !Kung Bushman culture works for them. That is one level of understanding when it comes to culture that is very important to have.

There is a line from the below video that I think summarizes very well the other way we look at the question of cultural equality. Mr. Adamson says, “I think there have been cultures who have maybe been able to deal with certain things in a better way than other cultures.”

When we are tempted to compare western culture with others, we must understand that some cultures haven’t even had to devise mores to deal with certain issues as those issues don’t exist in their environment. The western world is incredibly complex and has been for centuries.

While we may, therefore, say that not all cultures are equal, we should be honest about just why that may be. Generally speaking, when we measure a culture it should not be against our own but rather against how well the culture is able to handle the needs of the society.

Back to the actual question.

Fighting to maintain a particular cultural more that doesn’t actually work is generally part of the process of cultural change. People tend to work it out over time.

Using the force of law to alter culture has always been ineffective so fighting against such laws in defense of culture is worth the effort. It’s my opinion that one can expect a cultural change to take longer to set in when forced.

Change for the sake of change is bad but change for the sake of tackling new challenges is how cultures develop.

The actual question at the start was, is your culture worth defending? The answer in the broad sense is yes. Your culture has evolved over generations to deal with the unique problems commonly dealt with by your people. That works out great until new problems come up.

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