Tuesday, April 17, 2007

On Culture, Tradition, National Identity and Individuality.

On my previous post I touched briefly on culture, specifically on the fact that I am against the preservation of cultures. I thought I'd expand on that. My thoughts are quite controversial but I think I can make sound and reasonable arguments for them.

I was born in England and yet I have lived in a number of different countries. I'm really quite tired of being labelled as English as a primary descriptor of my identity. It is not. Yesterday I paid another visit to my dentist and he tried to make conversation with me about one of his daughters and the fact that she is a supporter of an English football team (that's a soccer team to American readers) known as the Bolton Wonderers. I told him that I have absolutely no interest in football and that I never have had.

He was surprised; "But you're English?", he asked, as though my distaste of football called into question the knowledge he already had of my place of birth. So I explained to him that, to me, football is 22 men chasing a bit of dead cow up and down a field trying to get it to go into one of two fishing nets. It simply doesn't interest me.

"That's very strange", he said, "All English love football".

"Obviously not", I answered. And this is the point I want to try and communicate here regarding culture, tradition, national identity, and individuality.

It is a gross and erroneous assumption to conclude that the geography of someone's birth determines their preferences or any aspect of their individuality, especially in an age when you can visit any English city and buy newspapers in 10 different languages (at least), food from 6 different continents, meet people from more than 100 countries and, by simply jumping onto the nearest internet connection, access thoughts and cultural practices from any culture currently on Earth and a large number of those already expired. Determining your own or anybody else's preferences by the accident of the geography of birth is a certain contradiction of the freedom of the individual mind to learn and choose.

To preserve a culture, in an active sense as opposed to in information archives, requires people to practice it. And it is interesting that this preservation, by actively practicing a culture, also seems to be a responsibility that falls upon those that have been born into it. How exactly would it be viewed if I, as a so called Englishman, moved to Africa to become Zulu and maintain the Zulu way?

I'll accept that cultures are less and less preserved simply by geography and in fact are transmitted now from parent to child as opposed to location to new occupant, but isn't this really the same thing? Through an accident of birth a child is expected to adopt an identity, an identity which often prohibits the adoption of behaviours or preferences that the child may otherwise enjoy. Few atheists have a problem in recognising that a Muslim or Christian parent has no valid grounds upon which to force Islam or Christianity upon their child as an inherited identity. We recognise that a view of the universe and its functioning is far too complex a thing to assume a young child has any understanding of the alternatives and so we recognise their right to learn before choosing. What is the difference with a culture? Aren't all the distinct preferences that constitute a human life equally complex and require at least as long to determine for oneself? Because I was born in England must I like football? Apparently so, if we are to accept common belief.

Must I also be cold and aloof, a hooligan, reserved, a great complainer in restaurants, and so on? Of course not. Neither should an Austrian child grow up with a love of lederhosen and sausages as opposed to saris and aloo ghobbi. The same is true of every aspect of "culture". If we are free then we are free to select that which we prefer from everything on offer. The individual aspects of any culture, from food to music and poetry belong no more to those that were born, by accident, with some tenuous thread of heritage to some often forgotten origin of that aspect than they do to any other that has had the fortune to experience it. Culture is nonsense. Cultural heritage is universal. A culture is nothing more than the practices that define it and the practices are each individually separable and free for all to choose.

But let's stick with this idea of preserving a culture for a while since it is such a bizarre but widely accepted ideal. How are we defining the culture that should be preserved and on what grounds? Why don't we preserve caveman culture and force children to grow up respecting and practicing the ancient rites of long dead hunter gatherers? I'm sure there'd be many complaints if some group tried. Why don't we pack kids onto Viking long boats and send them off to rape and pillage the coastal towns of neighbouring countries? At what point is something a culture and at what point do we recognise that the behaviour is something that is really better left behind or simply a personal choice? When does a culture start and end? Of course, a culture never really does start, it evolves, and it ends only when everybody following that collection of evolving memes has died. Cultures are dynamic. If we are going to preserve them then at what time in their evolution are we going to stick a pin in the passage of time and say "that's Zulu" or "that's English"? Are Zulu software architects Zulu?

And for that matter, why not preserve the cultures that form from the mix and abandonment of other cultures? Will we preserve McDonalds when the time finally comes? Do we really have to listen to 80's music and dance the robot dance for the rest of all time? For that matter, why not preserve the Nazi culture, which was by any measure an impressive time, full of ritual and imagery, in German history? It's all thoroughly ridiculous and upon analysis contrary to personal liberty and evolving standards and the increasing diversity of options. I'd even go as far as to call it racism.

"176 die in Taiwan plane crash, including 3 Britons" – we've all seen and heard headlines like that. Are the lives of those 3 Britons supposed to mean more to me because of an accident of birth, which in reality means I have no more knowledge of them and no greater connection to them than I do with the 103 Taiwanese passengers that died in the same crash? "British sailors captured", on what grounds should I care more about the injustice done to them than I should about the same injustice done to anybody else?

Don't get me wrong, I am not stating that I shouldn't care, I'm simply asking on what grounds does a tragedy or an injustice become more tragic or more unjust simply because I happen to carry the same passport as someone involved or happen to have been born within the same arbitrary boundaries of a nation that came into its virtual existence in the minds and documents of men a million years after my real relationship to these other men formed? Do you think we might be nicer to each other if we asked that question?

I have had great trouble for my attitude to national identity, culture and tradition during my life. Despite this it has remained largely unchanged. It's one of the opinions I seem to have formed very early in life, like atheism, and I've never found a valid argument to change. In England there is an annual remembrance day of those fallen in war and as a child I was supposed to go and stand, often in the rain, for an extended period of sincere boredom whilst music I wouldn't choose to listen to was played and wreathes were laid. It usually went something like this:

"Why do I have to come to this?" I asked.

"Because it's tradition", I was told.

"It's not my tradition. Can I go?"

"You ungrateful little bastard. These men died for you and you can't even spare an hour for them!"

"They didn't die for me. Not one of them had any suspicion I would be born."

"You wouldn't be here without them, your country men, who gave their lives for you!"

"I wouldn't be here without Hitler either, or a dinosaur that decided to walk one way around a tree instead of another. Should I stand in the rain to thank them also?"

"You evil little bastard …." And so on. I'm sure you get the idea.

But my point was never to belittle the suffering of others or their loss of life or even the certain heroics that are indeed attributable to many of my "country men" who died in the various wars, without whom I certainly would never have been. But I wouldn't have been if it were not for the brave Japanese, or even the cowards. I wouldn't have been without the gallant tin of asparagus soup that upped the zinc level in my grandfather's testicles for him to produce the precise batch of sperm from within which came the one that gave rise to my father. If we are going to base our honours on unwitting responsibility in the vast chain of consequences that gave rise to my life then we'd better honour absolutely everything. If instead we are going to honour based on bravery then why only honour the Allied dead? Is it not reasonable to inquire whether an equal proportion of our enemies were equally brave?

My point is I do respect that a great many people died in some very awful wars. I do respect that they made a sacrifice and I even respect that many of them made it with courage. But if I want to respect that then I think I'm far better off opening a book and looking not at some flowers around a monument legitimising their sacrifice but at the corpses piled high on all sides, showing me how truly illegitimate the artificial separators that allow us to commit such madness are. But, by the accident of birth, I am supposed to care that these are dead heroes and those are dead enemies. That may well be true but there is nothing to tell the two piles of corpses apart once the uniforms are removed and they were likely equal in courage and in pretty much every way, except by the forces of national identity and inherited cultural identity that allowed them the prejudice to call themselves different enough to warrant putting bullets through each others brains.

I am no pacifist and I think there are times to kill and I even agree with the heroes of the country in which I was born that they lived in such a time. But I wonder what really separates people when they stop taking pride in the accident of their birth and the behavioural quirks dictated by the "culture" they inherited before mutating it into another separatist cause? We are headed for more of these times so long as we determine that our "who" equates to the "where" of our births or the silly little rituals we were born to observe. And between those times of conflict we are destined only to shore up the crumbling walls of ridiculous traditions that we determine we own when it is clear we are really allowing them to own us. And we are all too ready to gift our children into the arms of restrictions and obligations that are anti-choice, anti-individuality, anti-freedom, and most importantly, when you get right down to it, at least partially anti-everybody else.

So, in my last post I made a statement that the charity that preserves cultures will be recognised as immoral because by preserving cultures you are actually preserving the right of parents or a group to enforce that their children remain within that group or somehow carry a burden of preserving ways that will conflict with individual freedom. You can preserve the pygmies for a billion years but to do so you have to preserve around 50 million generations of their children in a state of ignorance and isolate them from the benefits and options provided by the rest of the world. No parent has the right to insist upon that for their child. The preservation of a culture, an entirely non-existent thing, is a goal that ignores the dynamic and the freedom of an ever changing reality of knowledge and choice. Put them in the history books, video the practices and record the songs, and let them die. Cultures and traditions are interesting but they should own nobody. Jointly we own the knowledge of what has come before and we can choose from it anything we find improves our lives, pleases our taste buds or makes us dance. You don't have to be born into it to like it and you don't have to carry it just because your parents did.

Cultures are a burden, their individual practices may be so wonderful that every individual has the right to enjoy – but nobody has the obligation to carry it on and nobody has the right to oblige others to do so.

If you enjoyed this article please feel free to digg it down below.


Anonymous said...

I go to a University that is big into football.

It drives me NUTS when people assume that I am at all interested in what the school's football team is doing.

I think this is a brilliant post. Hopefully I'll find time to come back later and say something worthwhile.


chooseDoubt said...

Thanks for the compliment. I look forward to your "something worthwhile" :)