Monday, July 16, 2012

Cultural What?

Following up on Friday's post with more thoughts inspired by the shit-fest over a writing on Steampunk shamans. I made this a separate post partly because Friday's post was already insanely long, and partly because here I'm stepping out of the realm of writing, and into the real world.


I have a problem with the way people use the term 'cultural assimilation'. It tends to be applied to a wide variety of practices, without much regard for how different they are. In my post Friday, I did the same thing, just calling everything that involved ideas and practices from one culture crossing into another cultural assimilation. That was the usage in the conversation that inspired my thoughts, and I wanted to stay within that dialogue, not sheer off into a tangent. That being done, here's the tangent.

I see what is generally called cultural assimilation actually being three different things.
  • If I adopt some aspect of another culture into my life and habits, if it changes my thoughts and the approach to life this is cultural assimilation.
  • If I seek to make a living off of copying another culture, to use its 'exoticness' as a way to get attention, of just to make myself look cool this is cultural exploitation.
  • If I try to dictate what is 'good' or 'bad' about another culture, or if I apply terminology from one culture to another, different culture this is cultural paternalism. 
Anthropologists are often guilty of cultural paternalism. The use of 'shaman' is a classic example of this. In a way, they don't have a choice. As scientists, they need to have a common terminology that they ccan use to discuss similar practices in a wide variety of different cultures. So they take a term that they understand, and that has a somewhat broad definition. Then they are able to ask questions like 'how is marriage among the ______ people of ________ different or similar to marriage among the ________ people of ________' Is it cool that they take terms from one culture and forcibly apply them to different cultures? No. But they are kinda stuck in a linguistic bind, since the other option is for all anthropologists to learn the languages of all the people they are studying, so they can use the words from each individual culture. And there are way to many languages in the world for that to be a realistic option. So yeah.

And western culture follows that pattern. Again, partly out of necessity. Would I prefer to be able to refer to the spirit-workers (yeah it's a shit term, I'm trying to avoid 'shaman' and IMO 'medicine man' is just as bad) of each Native American tribe, African tribe, Amazon tribe, etc, etc etc by their proper names? Yeah. Do I have any way to learn those proper names? At most, a handful. And no equivalent term exists in English. So with apologies, I will probably continue using the word 'shaman' (actually, spirit-worker is kinda growing on me) and if I meet anyone from those cultures I will tell them "I'm sorry, I don't know the word I should use. I'll be happy to use the word in your language if you can tell me what it is."

Actually, the whole shaman thing is small potatoes compared to some of problems anthropologists have causes with casually flinging words around. I don't mean to denigrate the upset it has caused people of other cultures, and you have every right to be upset with the word 'shaman' being applied, willy-nilly, to your traditions.

But you want an example of cultural paternalism that has caused real damage, take a look at the word 'marriage'. For the most part, when we talk about marriage in another culture, it's a translation. Whether you are talking China, India, Germany or Mexico, there is a word that means basically the same thing as the English word 'marriage'. So when we talk about people in Japan getting married, we know that in Japan they call it something different, but it's a similar idea of people making a commitment to live and raise children together (plus sex, right?).

Now, take a look at the Musou walking marriage. It sounds like a neat set up. Yet is has nothing to do with what any Native English speaker would define as marriage. Yet because anthropoligists have applied the word 'marriage' to some arrangement in every culture, regardless of how well it fits, we have people assuming that marriage, as the word is defined in English, exists in every culture, and making statements like this:

"In every society we find the following type of community: men and women committed to sharing their lives together, in the sort of community that would be naturally fulfilled by their conceiving, bearing, and raising children together. This is marriage. That such a community does exist in every society is indisputable."
by Patrick Lee
That's right, anthropologists being too lazy and culturally paternalistic to bother learning appropriate terms for the way different cultures organize their family structures when they don't include lifelong commitment between a man and a woman, enables idiots like this.

Let's step out of linguistics for a minute and look at politics. Am I the only one who thinks there is something fucked up in the US obsession with forcing democracy on the rest of the world. I got nothing against democracy. It's worked well for over 200 years here. But Great Britain has done pretty well with itself as a constitutional monarchy. As did Thailand for hundreds of years. I am just as much against tyrants and autocrats as any properly indoctrinated American - but come on people, democracy is not the only functioning form of government and forcing it on other cultures is just another form of the privileged, paternalistic attitude that has been pissing the whole world off for the past several decades.

Yeah, cultural paternalism usually sucks.

Why I don't have an issue with Cultural Assimilation

Okay, I think (hope) the problems with cultural exploitation should be obvious. Anytime you are using someone else for your own gain, it's just a shit thing to do. So I'm not going into a long spiel on that point.

But what about cultural assimilation?

I've looked at this from every angle I can think of, and if there is an aspect of privilege in my thinking I'm missing, feel free to whack me upside the head. Ultimately, I don't see the problem with this one.

I don't see a problem with American comic books and cartoons making their way to Japan, inspiring manga and anime, and they in turn making their way here and inspiring a generation of geeks.

I don't see an issue with fusion cuisine, or my friend who decided that Buddhism made more sense than any other religion. I don't think there is anything wrong with learning the folklore and mythos and beliefs of cultures from around the world and sharing the ones I find meaningful with others.

Cultural assimilation is the natural exchange of ideas. There is always a risk, when there is a power imbalance between two cultures, of ideas being forced on a culture or exploited to another cultures benefit. And it is important for those of us from western culture to be aware, to not inadvertently overstep the bounds of respect and mutual exchange.

And yet, the only way cultures grow is through learning new ideas, new ways. In and of itself, I don't think there is anything wrong with cultural assimilation. In the world we live in, I am entirely in favor of it. I would like to see my culture grow, and learn new ways. I hope we can learn from cultures around the world and change for the better.

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