Monday, September 26, 2011

Why Study Culture?

Sameer and I both lived in apartments south of the university. We used to walk home together from the library.

"In my country," He loved to talk about Nepal, ". . . in my country, we never, never drop our parents to the old folk's home. They live in your house, you will treat them with respect. And when your father tells you what your career you will have, that is your career. That's how we do it. Family unity is more, more important than any desire of an egomaniac child."

And then it would be my turn. "In my country. . ." I'd try to explain how the American theme of Independence affects the way we live family life--but I couldn't do it without the sense of guilt for our inconsiderate and self-serving ways. I was enchanted by Sameer as he continued to offer me opportunities to question life as I knew it.

(image source)
I began to realize that what I had always thought to be human nature, wasn't. Culture is more than
a set of holiday traditions, or a type of food. It's a web of philosophies, values, morals--it's the screen through which a group of people sees the world. The most genuine purpose of the study of culture is to learn how to remove your screen and try on someone else's.
"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." (To Kill a Mockingbird).
Understanding vs. Imperialism

Columbus Landing in Indias by Theodor Debry
This kind of propaganda ironically suggested that
native peoples welcomed European explorers.
(image source)
But historically, the purpose of the study of peoples and cultures has not been to increase mutual understanding and respect. I have in mind the European Age of Discovery and Exploration. The original purpose of anthropology was to study cultures in order to reinforce the belief that Western Civilization was superior. It was from these studies that the West developed terms like "savage," and "primitive" to describe people it didn't understand. Even the word, "exotic" was patronizing, because it meant "other" traditions were interesting, not because the people offered a take on life that was enlightening to one's soul, but because the trinkets and traditions were decorative, entertaining, or erotic. These belittling views of peoples who were different served to help explorers justify unethical trade practices, the violent uprooting of natives for the sake of colonization, imperialism, and slavery. "It's okay to take advantage of these people, because they are inferior," the Europeans reasoned.

Harriet Beecher Stowe's,
Uncle Tom's Cabin
(image source)
Eventually, there came along literary attempts at the sympathetic portrayal of "other" cultures. The Noble Savage and Uncle Tom were characters invented by hegemonious whites attempting to be subjective, generous in their portrayal--but the characters were fictional persons (now understood to be unrealistic), who, at the time, served to reinforce the idea that the best, most moral savages were those who adhered to the white man's version of morality, conformed to the white man's customs, and even loved the white man, as if not only forgiving the white man for taking away the dark man's freedoms, but approving of the white man's dominance.

But that's not a problem anymore, is it?
Does there remain in contemporary American society the belief that certain peoples are savage? Yes. We just use different terms. When we speak of cultures, or groups that we believe are innately immoral, we use words like  "helpless,""lazy," and "illegal." We imagine that we are the ones being taken advantage of, explaining that these people are trying to take away our hard-earned resources, as if they were the imperialists. We vilify them for what we believe to be a great immoral weakness: lack of economic self-sufficiency.

This idea of seeing "other" groups as immoral, is called cultural hegemony.

Antonio Gramsci
(image source)
Cultural hegemony is the philosophic and sociological theory, by the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, that a culturally diverse society can be dominated (ruled) by one social class, by manipulating the societal culture (beliefs, explanations, perceptions, values) so that its ruling-class worldview is imposed as the societal norm, which then is perceived as a universally valid ideology and status quo beneficial to all of society, whilst benefiting only the ruling class (Wikipedia).
Don't be turned off by the term, "Marxist." Remember, Marx and his fellow scholars were not the people who implemented communism, they were simply the philosophers who were willing to think critically about the problems aristocracy and capitalism naturally pose. In the U.S., this "ruling class" refers to the groups who are privileged, that is, people with mainstream power. The ruling class is the great inheritance of Western Civilization's values, the resultant system of power that benefits primarily whites, men, the educated, the middle and upper classes, Christians, and heterosexuals.

Here are some examples of the kind of statements the American mainstream makes to perpetuate the idea that the below-mentioned cultural groups are morally inferior. (These refer to the sin of lack of economic self-sufficiency):
American Indians are so lazy, they drink and gamble their lives away, refuse to become educated and make something of themselves, and they're constantly making up reasons for new lawsuits so they can take more U.S. tax dollars for themselves.
Why should we keep sending charity to starving people in third world countries? They don't make wise business investments, they buy what they will, and then beg for more handouts! We try to "teach a man to fish," but when we return, we find that he has traded his fishing rod for a loaf of bread, and is now just as helpless as before! What a lecherous, money-grubbing fiend!
Mexicans need to leave us alone. If you didn't come here legally, you're not really an immigrant and you don't deserve any rights. If your little farm didn't work out, move to some other part of Mexico, because it's not fair for my tax dollars to have to pay for your kids to get free education here.
Why are there so many African Americans on welfare? It's like these people teach their kids, "Hey, go ahead and blow off school. Oh, and you don't need a job, either, 'cause the government will give you everything you need anyway."
The great irony of these criticisms, is that in many historical cases, these cultural groups were self-reliant until Western culture discovered them. And by "discovered," I mean took over, raped the land of its resources, slaughtered, enslaved, or banished it's people. Even in the best cases of Western influence, there came such an upheaval of previous culture. Old traditions that maintained the values of the people had contributed greatly to the community's ability to provide for itself, to fulfill its needs. But when the West introduced new kinds of materialism, substance abuse, and violence, tribal societies could no longer live in simplicity as they had before. Because the West rocked and punctured the boat, some of these cultures still lack economic stability, and what's worse, the West (and its resultant power system) blames them for their inability to stay afloat.

I don't propose a simple answer to the world's economic struggles. But I do know that it's not good enough for persons of privilege to simply tell others to "be responsible," or "get a job," or "stop freeloading." In order for real universal self-sufficiency to occur, universal opportunities must exist, and that's impossible in a system where certain kinds of people inevitably start out as the underdog. (Yes, that's the case even in the U.S.) Thoughtful change must start with this awareness.

Understanding Mexico

Here's how the study of culture has helped me understand the lack of opportunity in one part of the world. I've never been to Mexico, but many conversations with Mexican people, and some academic reading about the history of the country, have helped me understand why many spend thousands of dollars, risk arrest, and in many cases, rape, starvation, and death trying to unlawfully cross the border to the U.S. And why they don't just go somewhere else in Mexico or Central America to get a job.

Many come as official or unofficial refugees, because they are fleeing the murderous drug cartel mafia. Many come because they have benefited from Mexico's excellent high education programs, but there is a severe shortage of professional employment even in major metropolitan areas like Mexico City. Others come because Mexico doesn't have any labor class employment opportunities worth looking into. Let me explain some background.

These kinds of problems exist in Mexico, because of the serious economic class differences. As in many parts of the world, Mexico doesn't have the social programs that make U.S. capitalism work well. I'm not even talking about welfare here. I'm talking about simple things like respectable minimum wage, laws against monopolies, and decent funding for public education. At many public schools in Mexico, students are required to purchase their own textbooks, because they government doesn't pay for them. That's why many parents pull their kids out of high school early. This policy perpetuates the existence of a low-skilled labor class who will work for very little money.

These people can no longer succeed with family farms, because the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA, 1994), the legislation that removed import-export tariffs on trade between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. NAFTA allows the U.S. to sell its cheap, government-subsidized produce to Mexicans. This sounded like a good idea to Mexicans (cheaper food) until they realized it was keeping them from buying from each other.

There are no laws strictly regulating internationally-owned factories in Mexico. So, would-be farmers have no choice but to work for the many U.S.-owned businesses that pay the equivalent of $3 a day even for work that requires expertise, like assembling television sets. These American business owners are seriously taking advantage of these Mexican citizens who don't have realized labor rights, and the Mexican elite have historically encouraged this relationship. (Empire and Revolution: The Americans in Mexico Since the Civil War by John Mason Hart) Wage abuses by such companies have fostered the environment of desperation on which the illegal narcotics economy thrives.

Low wages, failed farms, poor education, distrust for the bribe-taking law enforcement--these are problems that exist all over Mexico, so how would moving to a different part of Mexico solve the problem?

In addition to that, many Mexicans may lack a respect for the "strict rule of law" that Americans value, because in Mexico, it's common knowledge that laws and law-enforcement are corrupt. So, what's right, and what's law are often not the same thing to them. Some undocumented immigrants see themselves as civil-disobedients who have broken the border law, because they believed it was the right, moral thing to do, given their circumstances. Many undocumented immigrants from Mexico are confused as to why they are perceived by Americans as immoral, "illegal" people--and many believe it must be racism.

Okay, I've learned something . . . now what?

Understanding a few things about a culture is only the beginning. Be wary of generalizations. You shouldn't patronize a group as "helpless," or champion them as "noble," anymore than you should incriminate them as "lawless." A culture is just a group of individual human beings.

The keystone, the real reason to study culture, is that as we begin to study one another with a willingness to question our prejudices and even our societal values, we embark on the journey for Equality.


  1. Hello,

    I met you a few weeks ago for at the NAACP workshop. I finally got a chance to read your blog and it is truly worth reading. I admire your boldness to take this challenge on and write about things that might otherwise make many uncomfortable. However, when is the truth exactly comfortable? I look forward to reading your posts on regular basis and as I said before, you should consider sharing your work outside of your blog as well. Take care!


  2. If you didn't come here legally, you're not really an immigrant and you don't deserve any rights.

  3. Thank you. I am a sociology major working to study abroad. This blog helped make my ideals tangible :)

  4. COME ON. can you be a little more educated? you focus only on white people as if western culture specifically is demeaning and belittling towards other cultures. if you are going to talk about why we need to study other cultures, you need to provide examples from other instances in history to be a little more fair and diverse. how about the chinese? their name for their country literally means 'middle kingdom', as if they are the center of the world. arabs own black slaves, and to this day, still do own slaves and have philippino indentured servants. this is a result of feeling culturally superior. so don't be so damn biased and small minded. ALL cultures feel superior to other cultures.