Culture, culture everywhere and not a drop to drink

by The Editor

FreedomARTICLE: ‘My culture’, ‘our culture’, ‘one must respect culture’, ‘in our culture’, these are some of the phrases that dominate South African public discourse. But ask anyone to define exactly what they mean by their culture, its precise parameters, values and principles, and you will find yourself staring at a blank face. It is the ultimate ‘get out jail free card’ in any argument (perhaps along with race), evoked in an unthinking manner, as if beyond scrutiny or criticism from first principles. Morally untouchable. Were we more honest about the general nature of many such cultures, we would, no doubt, be fairly horrified.

Culture, culture everywhere and not a drop to drink

By: Gareth van Onselen

9 January 2013

No culture is ever defined in full detail, even those informed by strict political or religious doctrine. By its nature, it cannot be; it is an allusion to something, rather than something itself, and thus highly fluid and subjective. ‘My culture’, that phrase so often evoked as explanation and excuse, is never entirely stipulated, nor are its parameters defined and its philosophy set out. This plays into the hands of moralisers and the unthinking alike.

It serves for the cultural zealot the following purpose: as a superficial explanation for a particular behaviour, it is the suggestion that some specific thing was necessitated by some more general attitude; one morally righteous by virtue of nothing more than the fact it exists at all. But that justification – ‘it is my culture’ – is never presented as a coherent framework in which one idea flows from and is built upon another or a position gauged against a set of values or ideals. It is merely a vague reaction, one driven more by emotion than rational consideration. And yet presented as reasonable and logical regardless.

Culture is the sea that surrounds us; one might describe the vast expanse but you cannot hold its water in a glass and the limitless mystery of its depths can only be examined by short, focused exploration. Or, put another way: there is such a thing as culture but only in the general sense, as an abstraction, and it becomes increasingly unstable the more specific you get.

The argument that culture is simply ‘the way of things’ often has in its favour longstanding historical precedent and therefore rarely are its first principles ever properly interrogated. Indeed, in exploiting this relationship, between the specific and the general, culture survives critical examination in the public mind, and thus engenders unthinking explanation and, often, irrationality too.

Here is an interesting question: If you had to take whatever it is you consider ‘your culture’ to be, could you describe it in both abstract and particular terms? That is, could you definitively describe your culture’s component parts? Or say whether your culture is one that promotes and upholds principles like accountability, transparency, freedom, excellence and opportunity? Can you say why that is? And if so, how? In other words, on what basis your culture holds that position? Then, the real test: do those abstract ideals measure up to a specific circumstance? It is usually at this last hurdle that many of those people who advocate a culture as democratic or a safeguard of freedom fall.

The general response to that exercise will be to agree that a culture, whatever culture – certainly one’s own – upholds all those well established principles; for it is a natural inclination to try and align one’s personal beliefs with best democratic practice (often far less so when addressing other cultures). But on closer inspection, such a claim does not always hold true. One might maintain, for example, that a culture values equality but in truth its effect is to subjugate women; or that a culture supports and endorses respect but, in fact, its real effect is to encourage deference and obsequiousness in the face of authority. Our rituals and attitudes are a litmus test for our convictions; and too often we pretend them defensible when in truth they are abhorrent, all in the name of culture.

Because any ‘culture’ is an abstraction, it has no actual devotees (as much as those who believe they are might protest otherwise), merely stereotypes and archetypes. They are the imagined army under imagined direction from an imaginary general. And those that would advocate for a specific culture in dogmatic fashion have great difficultly accepting or dealing with a far more messy reality; one where many influences shape identity and no one force is defining or absolute. Hence so often cultural demagogues and populists talk only generalisations.

It requires a great deal of self-awareness and, indeed, confidence, to honestly map one’s personal convictions against best democratic practice and, for many, it is too easy to claim the virtues attached to the latter while, in reality, to act in a manner contrary to them. That said, while that is both disingenuous and dangerous, such delusion pales in comparison to those that would openly and robustly defend a culture which stands opposed to those principles and ideals that best define freedom. They are backwards and regressive and constitute the real enemies of enlightenment and progress. They often hide behind the protection political correctness offers and society is at pains to speak out against them. That is a mistake. No cultural practice that violates democratic rights should be tolerated.

If one considers freedom and its requirements as an ideal cultural type, the natural question that follows is to what extent a given culture and the demands of a modern democracy (a culture of its own) are congruent; in other words, what is the nature and effect of those various other cultures that co-exist within a democracy – do they augment or undermine freedom?

The answer to that question can be a depressing one. But an exercise in self-evaluation is worthwhile nonetheless, if only to map the disjuncture between the imagined and oft romantised ideal and the reality, in order that the gap might be narrowed.

  • Gareth van Onselen (@GvanOnselen) is the Editor of Inside Politics (@insidepols), Winner: Best Political Blog 2012.

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