the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world
Culture is learned belief, practices, and abilities. More succinctly, culture is anything that can be learned. This compares with, for example, innate abilities, whether determined by instinct or by physical strength or structure: the ability to reach a tree branch is innate, while the ability to climb a tree is cultural.
Belief includes what is generally called knowledge. Very few things, however, can genuinely be known. Typically we apply the term ‘knowledge’ to beliefs that happen also to be true; but then we all believe that everything we believe is true, and again very little of that is knowable.
Historically, the understanding of culture has centered on the transmission from one generation to the next. By that standard, though, an item becomes culture even if it is transmitted only once and remains historical culture after it has died off, while a new discovery never counts as culture if its discoverer dies without passing it on.
There are three main elements of culture:
Language is the use of symbols — arbitrary signs used to represent concepts. The most important form of language is speech, where the signs in question are sounds made with the mouth; all non-deaf humans have will have at least one spoken dialect as a native dialect, and spoken language will remain primary. While secondary to speech in importance, and mostly used to represent spoken language, writing is nonetheless an important carrier and record of culture and ideas.
A religion is a shared, organized system of belief. Religion serves two main functions, cosmology and ethics, which tell us, respectively, how the universe works, and how to behave within it. Not all religions do both, or do both equally. The largest systems among conventional religions are Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Chinese religion. Scientific materialism exists alongside the recognized religions, the primary belief system of many in the world, and professed casually by many believers in the conventional religions, despite numerous points of contradiction.
Material culture is the culture of objects. This includes how we live in general — food, shelter, clothing, most things classed as technology. Groupings for material culture are quite different from language and religion. For example, food culture is heavily influenced by physical geography; migrants carry language and religion with them, but must often adapt their agriculture to local climate, soils, and topography. Clothing and shelter are obviously dependent on climate. Material culture tends to be more regional, then, crossing broader cultural patterns.
Culture changes over time, as new things are learned, less-useful things are forgotten, practices adopted or altered or abandoned, sometimes for obvious reasons and sometimes not. Culture is, of course, not merely shared with succeeding generations. The same learnability that creates culture in the first place means that it can be shared with other peoples. Any given group of people can share elements of their culture with other groups, while borrowing elements of the culture of other groups.
We can speak of a culture as a shared set of beliefs, practices, and abilities, drawing from any one or more than one of language, religion, and material culture. Such sets of cultural items used to define a culture must necessarily be heuristic, to serve the interests of the person selecting which items to use in the definition. There are, of course, conventional cultures, and conventional cultural nations defined by them. But culture has no exact boundaries — in space, certainly, but also in the abstract, and in populations. Individuals can identify with cultures; but assigning individuals empirically to discrete cultures is complicated by the fact that cultural elements are so easily and frequently shared among peoples.
Culture and the identitarian left
The flawed view of culture within the Western cultural far left, a heavily-identitarian group, has given rise to the concepts of “cultural appropriation” and “cultural imperialism”. Only with a failure to understand how culture operates does the concept of cultural appropriation make sense. For those who use the term, cultural appropriation is the taking — or candidly, the stealing — of cultural elements from one cultural group, an oppressed group, by another, a privileged group. In this view, any elements of culture developed by a particular nation are the property of that nation, with the nation being imagined simulataneously as a cultural, ethnic, and identity nation. Any member of a privileged group adopting any of these elements is engaged in a further act of oppression, and is expected to cease and make amends. But almost no culture develops in isolation, and most cultures now are further connected to others due to globalization, so borrowing is even more common. It has always been the case that cultural elements will be adopted by other cultures when they are in some way successful — whether in a practical or an aesthetic sense. And the cultures that are supposedly being robbed and oppressed were themselves built out of borrowings. Because the cultural groups in question are not centralized organizations, the only way to make amends — in material and monetary terms, as generally conceived — is to compensate a select subgroup of the supposed originating cultural group, whose only connection to the development of the original elements might be racial.
Geniune imperialism, the rule of one people over another, is still a significant part of our world; there are many states in which a dominant (imperial) population holds governmental power and a subordinate (sub-imperial) population is excluded (and, contrary to the far-left view, this includes a proportionate share of economically-developing and non-Western states). In such cases, the imperial population’s culture will be spread to the sub-imperial population, sometimes forcibly, but not always. Cultural borrowing happens normally, and cultural items spread both ways in an empire; and there are many incentives to adopt parts of a dominant culture voluntarily. Cultural imperialism supposedly happens when entities without political control — always based in the wealthy West — nonetheless foist their culture on other groups. The point of this term is to seize the negative connotation of ‘imperialism’ for a relationship without the attendant coercion. But the cultural and economic groups and organizations responsible for spreading these elements of culture are often not invested in the power of their home societies, and the cultural groups adopting these elements have their own agency and their own reasons for the adoption, and, again, are not being coerced.
The cultural far left also attempts to utilize the negative connotation of ‘racism’ whenever possible, but applies it to situations where the issue is culture, not race. This is particularly true with respect to Islam, which has become a matter of special concern to the left since 2001 September 11. Prejudice against Muslims per se (which identitarians misleadingly call “Islamophobia”) cannot be racism, because Islam is not a race. Furthermore, belief is not an immutable characteristic, nor is it a neutral characteristic. Belief is a matter of values, and opposition to a set of beliefs is not inherently prejudiced. There are valid reasons to oppose particular beliefs. Secularists and atheists frequently disagree with all religions. Members of other religions should naturally be expected to disagree with Islam, just as Muslims disagree with other religions; where two sets of beliefs are in conflict about truth, at most one of them can be right. Conversely, prejudice against Jews (itself frequently misleadingly called “anti-Semitism) often is racism, because the term ‘Jews’ does not necessarily refer to a religious group. It can also refer to an ethnic group, and it seems likely that the hatred of Jews that has been a longstanding problem in Europe is not based on Judaism, but on Jews as a race.
© O.T. FORD
Home of the Stewardship Project
and O.T. Ford