The Culture Card


There is a dangerous notion replicating itself around the world like a virus, reproducing without regard for its hosts' political views, and generally unnoticed except as a limited and purely local phenomenon. We've seen its effects in South Africa, where the brandishing of spears and shields in the streets has been defended on the grounds that such weapons are cultural. We've seen it in Northern Ireland, where marching through the streets in comical costumes is held to be a cultural right, overriding all other considerations. We've seen it in North America and Greenland, where slaughtering various mammals such as whales and seals is claimed to be part of the indigenous culture, and thus immune to ethical or environmental criticism.

We've seen it in England, too. Islamic organisations campaign to attain a sexist and backward-looking education for their children on the grounds that these qualities are cultural; white parents on cultural grounds remove their children from schools with large numbers of children from Asian backgrounds.; people with red faces (and sometimes red hair) who wouldn't know a turnip from a mangold wurzel, or a ewe from a ram, chase and kill small animals on the grounds that it's part of the countryside culture, to be defended against ignorant city folk. In fact, once you've been alerted to the virus Pseudoculturus, it seems to have taken hold wherever you look.

I suppose that all true-born Englishmen should be allowed to carry their longbows and feathered arrows on the streets of England, for those are their cultural weapons; that the WASP community should be allowed to campaign for the persecution of minority racial and religious groups, for xenophobia and religious bigotry have been part of WASP culture for centuries; that the majority of children should be taken from their schools and put down mines and up chimneys, for the notions of unproductive childhood and of universal education are Johnnies-come-lately, alien to the long sweep of English culture.

What exactly is meant by "culture"? In England, at any rate, most of the people who get disproportionate amounts of publicity for taking their children away from racially mixed schools wouldn't know a cultural value if it sat on their faces. What people mean by the term "cultural" varies. Sometimes they refer to what's "historical", or merely to what used to happen when they were young; sometimes they refer to what they've become used to, sometimes to whatever their religion tells them. The English person who complains that her culture has been eroded as often as not means that the occasional Indian, Chinese, or African film is shown on Channel 4 (instead of the usual diet of Americana), or that the corner shop sells spices and Basmati rice instead of (or usually as well as) tins of American baked beans and spaghetti hoops. If one in a thousand English people knows much about her own culture beyond the names of Shakespeare, Dickens, and Robin Hood, supplemented by a vague collage of images of Morris dancers and views from Edwardian Christmas cards, I'd be astonished.

The word "culture" comes ultimately from a Latin verb meaning "till" or "cultivate", and I think that for once we should take etymology seriously. A stretch of college lawn is no fit image for a culture, no matter how flawless, long-tended, or admired it may be; any culture worthy of the name should be regularly ploughed, its crops rotated, its structure improved with organic matter. And though fallow periods may do it no harm - may indeed be necessary for its health - they shouldn't be allowed to continue for too long. A culture which becomes self- conscious and unquestioningly protective about its own cultural values is (at best) on its way towards being a static, unchanging culture -- which is a contradiction in terms.

But that isn't the main point. The main point is that "culture" (and its slightly more parochial companion, "tradition") are used by a great many people as amulets to ward off disagreement, as earplugs against the arguments of those who threaten their prejudices. For example, there are those (I am one of them) who believe that the idea of separate schools for children from different ethnic and religious groups is a bad thing; we have arguments which we think demonstrate, if not conclusively then at least convincingly, that it is a bad thing. But those who defend the foundation of such schools often feel that they needn't pay attention to the arguments, needn't defend their views against their opponents -- they need only flourish terms like "cultural values", and argument is taken to be suspended. Again, when faced with some barbaric atavism like fox-hunting, the rational, concerned (and disgusted) person will get nowhere once the tag "traditional" has been brandished. People who are otherwise well-educated and intelligent seem to forget all normal standards of moral and logical discourse when challenged over their vile "traditional" pursuits.

This is a bad thing, not only because the suppression, or even the shelving of reason is in general a bad thing, nor because the practices defended in this way are often extremely undesirable, but because of the stultifying effects upon the cultures whose values are being flourished. If what is traditional becomes immovable, then society becomes stagnant. If what is otherwise indefensible is dubbed "traditional" as a guard against progress, then tradition is degraded. The next time we are presented with the defence "but that is part of my culture", we owe it to ourselves - and to our interlocutors - to ask "yes, but should it be?"


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