Monday, 22 August 2011

Understanding Culture 101

In the wake of the Utøya massacre and its insidious perpetrator, the ever ongoing debate on multiculturalism is a hot topic once again. And as always, when certain political factions or elements start debating this concept and its inherent evil, I do not know whether to laugh or cry. Because it is a simple fact that culture is never clean nor monolithic. Not even when it tries to be.

On one level, defining cultures requires a consensus and set parameters to define the specificity of one compared to another. However, most of the political factions interested in this are actually not so much interested in consensus as in being able to provide the vision to govern the definition. The reason for this is, of course, always to separate us from them and clearly establish the difference between ourselves and our Other(s). But anyone who tries to define a cultural enclave in this manner will always (without exception) stumble on the finishing line. No matter how narrow the parameters are made, it is impossible to exclude all those one wanted to exclude, and the narrower the parameters are set, one also increases the equally inevitable risk of excluding people one wanted to include. In short, whatever makes up any definition of any culture can never be absolute, or entirely fixed for the matter.

This does not necessarily mean that we should abandon cultural definitions altogether, but it should make us aware of the imprecision in their natures.

So, what does this mean? Simply put, culture is something that arises in social contexts, in inter-individual meetings, when the ego means an Other. Furthermore, this central metaphor also expands to an intercultural usage (if you will pardon the confusion for a second). That is to say, when one imprecise cultural definition meets an Other imprecise cultural definition, new cultural references arise in that meeting. This is unavoidable, because culture is both resilient and innovative in its nature.

Do not get me wrong. The equation is obviously not that simple. If it was, colonialism and imperialism would never have been a problem. The difference here is that colonialism and imperialism is not so much about a meeting between cultures as one culture violently attacking another. The main factor here has to do with power, and it can arguably be invoked on any situation where one cultural enclave uses force to apply its own cultural definition over others; either to dominate them or to eradicate them. And even in such instances, history has proven that the meeting is not unilateral anyway. There is an old saying that claims that you are what you eat, and apparently even colonisers and empires are affected by what they devour and digest.

But this is not the case here in Sweden (nor I would dare argue, in most European countries or in the US for that matter). Islamic culture (because as always since at the very least 9/11, this debate is about Western civilisation (and possibly Christianity) being overrun by Islam) is not in any position of power here. Nor, differently put, in any position of power greater than any other minority (and most certainly not greater than any majority). Swedish culture (whatever that is) is not overrun by excessive Islamic references or specific values. If anything, one could argue that Swedish culture or identity runs a greater risk of being overrun by Anglo-American values, but you rarely hear political groups like the Sweden Democrats complain about that type of cultural import as opposed to favouring Swedish culture.

And I would bet that they eat pizza as well. After all, pizza could arguably be seen as rather typical Swedish food. In fact, you cannot go anywhere in Sweden without finding a pizzeria. This is more or less true for any small town in the country, but this was obviously not always the case. Nor do we need to go very far back in history to find a time when it certainly was not (the mid-20th century saw the introduction of pizza into Swedish culture, and it was not an immediate success either). Similarly, the epitome of Swedish food – the Swedish meatball – is Turkish in origin, and was integrated into Swedish cuisine much like the pizza, only a couple of centuries earlier.

In short, the notion that the multicultural society is something new is a myth. Culture has always been a mongrel dog of many mixed breeds. And that is partly what keeps it alive.

I am not saying that there are no values to traditions. I am, however, suggesting that we have to understand that traditions themselves are never entirely fixed. We may talk about how a proper Swedish Christmas should be spent, for instance, but in all honesty, if we define proper as "the way they were celebrated 100 years ago" (a fairly short amount of time for judging these things), I honestly wonder how many of us truly do. Or perhaps even more strongly, how many of us even know what that would actually entail? And that is not even taking into account local variations. In more cases than not, our strongest sense of our traditions are our own memories of how things is or was, specifically for us.

Much like language, culture is a living thing. What was will not always be what is; nor will what will be be guaranteed to last forever. Culture is an ocean of ideas, values and traditions, mixing and mingling as the waves and the tides move. And we are creatures adrift on those mighty waters, sometimes pretending that we are in control of their movements.

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