In Defense of Culturalism
In Defense of Culturalism
By Michael E Berumen 4-24-10
I am a culturalist. I am guilty of culturalism. These neologisms mean that one culture is superior to another. I maintain that all cultures are not of equal value. Some differences may be simply a function of nonsensical, anachronistic behaviors, such as animism. While I would argue that ignorance is not always harmless, it is not necessarily immoral, and it is often simply undesirable or even quaint. On the other hand, some cultures are imbued with traditions that are decidedly immoral, for example, cultures that have traditions of slavery or the abuse of women. This is not to say that a culture is entirely without value because of one or more odious or outdated traits. It may produce great art, for example, but, simultaneously, it may also have deplorable and widespread customs of oppression and intolerance. Often times the habits of a particular culture are defended on the basis of “tradition,” as though something being an entrenched tradition is in and of itself a justification for a particular set of behaviors. Years ago as a student I was told that we ought to respect the traditions of other cultures and that we should not judge their customs using our own standards of value. This is nonsense.
I take as my meaning of culture a standard anthropological meaning, which is to say a society's pattern of human knowledge and behavior, including the beliefs, traditions, attitudes, values, language and practices that characterize a people in a place and time, and how those are transmitted to succeeding generations. These cultural attributes often precede and inform the kinds of institutions and practices that inhere in a state, tribe, or group.
Permit me to illustrate what I mean when I say that some cultures are inferior to others. Cultures with traditions that oppress women, such as stoning them for adultery, denying their political rights, engaging in the practice of female circumcision, etc., are inferior to cultures that do not engage in such practices. Cultures that prize superstition over science and reason are inferior to those that do not. Cultures that follow a caste system and cultures with traditions of slavery or involuntary servitude are inferior to those that eschew such oppressive practices. Cultures that encourage martyrdom through the killing of innocents for ideological or religious reasons are inferior to those that do not. Cultures that place loyalty to the tribe, family, or race over equality under the law are inferior to those that do not. Cultures that routinely place the interests of the community and state over the interests of the individual are inferior to those that do not. Cultures that encourage war and conquest over the weak, or that sanction violence as entertainment, are inferior to cultures that promote peaceful coexistence with their neighbors and encourage peaceful cooperation among its citizens. Cultures that foster the rule of might or charisma, authoritarian cultures, are inferior to those that promote democratic values, liberty, and the rule of law.
One might substitute the term “nation” for culture on some of the foregoing propositions, but it would not have the same meaning by doing so, for culture is different than nationality, and, while culture surely serves to condition national traits or institutions, it can be a greater force and transcend nationality. A culture might be exogenous or indigenous to a particular nation; it might encompass the whole of several nations; or several cultures or subcultures might subsist within a particular nation.
One also might use race or ethnicity as a synonym for culture, indeed, some people surely would; but, this would be mistaken, for race is not culture and race does not create culture; they are not inextricably related, and, indeed, race is essentially a bogus concept from a biological and genetic perspective, anyway, and to no small degree I would argue it is a cultural construct. I submit that whereas one nation or culture might be superior to another in terms of several key attributes, one “race” is not inferior to another by virtue of its race or biological makeup. Racism is not only unfounded biologically, it is morally deplorable. Culturalism, on the other hand, is not mere bigotry. It is justifiable and even morally required.
Modern anthropology developed many of its principal methods and outlooks in the first part of the 20th century. In order to maintain objectivity, anthropologists were encouraged to avoid using their own value systems as frames of reference. Anthropology was therefore primarily a descriptive discipline. This transformed itself into a kind of relativistic thinking, whereby social mores could only be assessed by that culture’s standards of reference, and it encouraged the belief that there was no universal or preferred standard by which to measure the value of one culture’s practices against another culture’s practices. In other words, all cultures were given equal footing, and any assessment of their value or merits was thought to be subjective and “unscientific.” This kind of relativistic thinking crept into ethics and any number of other issues, whereby all sociological matters had to be evaluated in context or by circumstance, and not by any objective point of reference. By the 1970s, it became a commonplace to think of multi-culturalism, tolerance of all cultures, even encouraging their coexistence and cultural diversity, as an intrinsic good. I reject this notion.
Cultural relativism also has had the untoward effect of raising tolerance itself to an absolute value. We are therefore led to believe that tolerance is an unalloyed virtue. I should like to say unequivocally that tolerance is not an intrinsic good. Toleration of a morally repugnant practice, religious, political, traditional, or otherwise, is not a virtue. Tolerance of genocide, oppressive practices arising from religious codes, or customs involving child slavery, for example, is not only condemnable, it is morally reprehensible. Tolerance is to be encouraged when an individual’s actions or beliefs do not bring harm or injustice to others, not when doing so enables the infringement of the fundamental rights of others.
With this in mind, religion is too often given free reign for its abhorrent practices simply because it is religion. We are told we ought to tolerate the faith of others, as though religious beliefs and practices are viewed as being beyond reproach, or freedom of religious expression ought to be unfettered. This, too, is nonsense. I personally do not like any form of superstition, whether it is organized or not. On the other hand, if it harms no one else, I have no issue with letting people believe or do what they choose. People have engaged in some of the most reprehensible practices known to man in the name of religion. We see this in bold relief in the Islamic faith, today, where people are enjoined to persecute or even kill infidels and apostates, among other oppressive practices. Some of these actions are based on scriptural references that are at once clear and repugnant, though apologists obfuscate by suggesting these are taken out of context or anachronistic. One wonders exactly by what formula some of the commandments of The Prophet (or for that matter, those taken from the Old and New Testaments) can be ignored by followers while other must be taken literally. Fundamentalist fanatics can at least claim consistency in their observance.
In any case, it is not that I think Christianity, Judaism, or other religions are superior to Islam, for I most certainly do not. It is that in recent times followers of these religions (not without exception), through the gradual absorption of the precepts of the Enlightenment, and the lessening of privation and the increasing education of the general population, have come to ignore the more repellent prescriptions of these religions, whether arising from the sacred texts or the religious hierarchy whose business is to interpret them. In other words, much of the venom has been removed from religious observance, notwithstanding some clearly odious scriptural injunctions and the sordid history of religious observance up to very recent times. Most Islamic nations have not undergone the same cultural, political, economic, and scientific revolution as the West has in the last two or three hundred years, though progress has been made in several notable instances. With that said, nations one might have characterized as part of Christendom not so long ago wreaked more horror on the world than ever before in the 20th century in two world wars and a host of smaller conflagrations it perpetrated across the globe, ranging from the Middle East to Southeast Asia.
I should like to go a step further than I have thus far. I believe that cultures that have adopted the liberal ethos of the Enlightenment, a respect for reason, democracy, and of individual liberty, and more specifically, the general traditions that have emanated from the West, with roots in Greco-Roman culture, informed by aspects of Judeo-Christian traditions (much watered down), and filtered through the Anglo-American experience, with many smaller influences from a variety of sources (e.g., the Germanic jury system, the Napoleonic Code, etc.), is in the broadest sense superior to any other culture, both in terms of its moral efficacy as well as its utility in reducing human suffering and encouraging prosperity, which seem to me to be objectively justifiable and laudable goals. In other words, I believe the “super-culture” that one might broadly define as being western, one that is Eurocentric in origin and evolution, which also has infiltrated substantial parts of the world and other cultures, is clearly superior. Moreover, not only is this now becoming the world’s dominant culture, I contend that this development ought to be encouraged.
This, again, does not overlook the value of other cultures, for it is obvious that other languages, arts, food, and customs also have merit. But the major features of the Eurocentric culture, most particularly as filtered through the Anglo-American experience… a culture which places a premium on science and reason; individual freedom; the consent of the governed; and the rule of law… is superior to other cultures where these features have been largely lacking or, in some notable instances, where their opposites have flourished. It is true that one might find aspects of these major traditions in other cultures that predate the West’s influence. However, for the most part, these were not major or widespread traditions for extended periods outside of the influence of western European cultures, and even in the West, these traditions have only come to maturity during the last several hundred years after a long and painful evolution, and they have become pervasive in many countries of European origin only over the latter part of the last century.
Thus, I unashamedly contend that the Eurocentric culture I describe is incontrovertibly superior on objective grounds to much of what we see in the Islamic world, tribal Africa, Russia (while quasi-European, it lies largely outside of the western tradition), and much of Latin America and Asia. This is not to say, again, these cultures are bereft of value, for clearly that is not the case. Today there are exogenous strains of the Eurocentric culture in each, and some instances, there has been a notable adaptation and infusion of western values, most particularly in Asia, the country of Japan being the most obvious example that comes to mind.
Now, some of these cultures decry the ubiquitous McDonalds and Walmarts, modern risqué dress, or the sexually explicit films and music of the West. Such aesthetic matters, however, are not a central concern of mine. And while I prefer the music, food, films, and dress of the West, I don’t argue that our customs in these areas are in any way superior to other cultures, and I would agree these preferences are wholly subjective, without clear, objective, standards by which to measure them. I would argue, however, that the rule of law, individual liberty, tolerance, democracy, and economic freedom can be rationally and morally justified, as I have labored to show elsewhere in my writings.
This is by no means a “No Nothing” (the 19th century anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic movement) argument for nativism, either. Immigrants coming into a country can to a very substantial degree fuel progress with their willingness to work hard, and they help to transmit more desirable traditions to their own homelands through interaction with relatives and ordinary commerce. And it cannot be denied that they can also bring customs that make the host culture richer and more vibrant. But we should make no mistake, here: there are traditions that we ought to deplore and reject, for example, the mistreatment of women, oppressive religious traditions, and a lack of respect for the law (not to mention smaller, though still important things, such as health and sanitary habits). To the extent they occur, such aberrant customs not only deserve our opprobrium, but they should not be tolerated by society.
One of the principal and defining components of culture is language, for it is the means by which values and customs are transmitted, and by which many traditions are executed in social intercourse. With this in mind, I believe it is not only prudent, but absolutely essential that all immigrants be required to understand the language spoken by the majority in order to adapt to the most essential customs of society. Language is important because it acts as an indispensable ingredient to function responsibly, productively, and equally within society, as opposed to existing on the periphery of it, thereby Balkanizing the social order with mini-cultures that subsist separate and apart from the mainstream of society. We have observed exactly this kind of development various places in both Europe and the United States. This creates inequality, isolation and tensions that can result in disaffection or even violence.
This is not to oppose bilingualism, but to point out that a host culture and its language are inextricably bound together, and that understanding the host culture's principal language is essential to social integration. As western culture expands, and as we have already seen occur in commercial, diplomatic, and certain technical and academic venues, it seems likely that one language, most likely English, will become the dominant means of expression. While I fully understand the pride and comfort arising from familiarity that one takes in one's native language, and some will undoubtedly view this as outrageous and Chauvinistic, I think this evolution towards a single language, notwithstanding its origins, is ultimately to humanity's benefit.
I do not believe in national exceptionalism, at least not in the sense that one nation has a historical purpose giving it a unique, prior moral standing, one such that it exists on a higher moral plane than other nations. Some believe in what is known as American exceptionalism, and they seem to have something like this concept in mind. It has resulted in a kind of jingoism and arrogance causing reactions variously ranging from amusement to great offense by other nations. It is clear that a nation that has enslaved millions, practiced acts of genocide with its indigenous peoples, and engaged in several unjust wars of conquest, among other transgressions, cannot easily claim superior moral standing.
This is not to suggest that the United States, or for that matter other nations, including some that have perpetrated some of the greatest horrors in history (e.g. China, Germany, Japan, Russia, just to name some in recent history), have not also made extraordinary contributions to humanity. I would be willing to concede that the United States has made some singular salutary contributions, notwithstanding some of its historical blots. I do not know enough about each nation on the globe and its history to assert that one nation stands abov
e all others in moral rectitude or as a standard of excellence, such that it is a bellwether of morality, an exceptional nation. However, I do know that no global power, now or in the past, would pass muster in this regard. I suspect there are some nations, Iceland comes to my mind, which have a great deal less to be ashamed of than others from a historical perspective. The whole concept of one nation being the greatest nation or exceptional in its moral standing, strikes me as patently absurd, though such jingoistic appellations have become standard shibboleths in American politics.
With all of this said, I do believe an argument can be made for a kind of cultural exceptionalism, such that some of the major cultural themes, several of which I’ve already adduced, can be said to stand above others from a moral standpoint and in terms of their overall social utility. I would submit that the culture, broadly defined and arising from the western tradition, and specifically informed by the Anglo-American experience, is exceptional from this vantage point, and particularly when measured against other cultures with opposing traditions.
To sum up, I believe multiculturalism not only is not an intrinsic good, but that it lacks moral justification. What is more, I believe the western culture, broadly defined, is superior in its major traditions and attributes, and therefore, exceptional when it is measured against all other cultures. Furthermore, I believe these customs can be justified on objective grounds, and that any number of contrary practices can be shown to be wrong. I also believe, broadly speaking, that the western traditions to which I’ve referred ought to become the dominant strains of culture, worldwide. And as I've suggested, it would be preposterous to suggest other cultures are bereft of value; however, these things are often of secondary importance when compared to traditions that place value on the worth of the individual, rule by the consent of the governed, science and reason, and the values of political liberalism and the Enlightenment. I am therefore quite happy to be a culturalist.