(For the purposes of this post I mean ‘culture’ to refer to a people’s traditions and everyday activities, not ‘culture’ in the sense of the Arts).
I’m sick of the world ‘culture.’ I’m tired of hearing things like “I want to travel and learn about new cultures,” or “I want to immerse myself in culture” or other such hackneyed expressions, as if going to another country and wearing some sort of robe and eating food you’ve never heard of is the greatest thing you can do to ‘expand your mind.’ ‘Culture’ is often everything that’s wrong with somewhere – it’s the unthinking (emphasis on ‘unthinking’) things people believe and do because that’s what they and their ancestors and their ancestors’ ancestors have always done, meaning, ‘these are the activities that were derived hundreds or even thousands of years ago when mysticism was science and people literally could not have done anything else, but we keep on doing them today because that’s noble, and how dare you say there’s anything wrong with them, you racist asshole.’
Culture is bad because, at its essence, it strives to never change. We even have multi-national institutions like UNESCO that spend millions of dollars a year to make sure some places of ‘cultural significance’ never change, ever (this is fine from a pedagogical point of view, but pity the poor people living in these areas who are forced to toe the line). It is culture that breeds and sustains the hate that starts wars, that says it’s okay to rape women because they ‘flaunt it’, that says guns are cool, that makes people want to lie down and die in ‘sacred rivers’ so that ferryboat travellers in major world cities regularly see corpses washed up on shore.
It is culture that convinces families to abort female foetuses because boys are better, that makes people afraid to travel at certain times of year because ‘that’s when the ghosts come out,’ culture that destroys economies by shaming women who want to go to work. It is all the prejudicial bullshit that artificially elevates one group above another, or else keeps entire groups in fear of something that doesn’t exist, and too ignorant or unwilling to challenge that belief. At its heart, culture is the enemy of evolution.
Philosophy – encompassing critical thinking, logic and science – in spite of culture, is solely responsible for the advancement of the human race. Look back in history and compare the number of philosophers and scientists who weren’t persecuted or ridiculed to those who were; you would need maybe a rowboat for the former compared to a galleon for the latter. Culture is frequently at odds with philosophy because philosophy often demands that culture change to address inequities or do away with harmful superstitious practices, and culture doesn’t like that. But at those moments where philosophy triumphs and the culture does change, how often do people scramble to go back? Yes, it has happened, because some philosophies can be poor or skewed, but true philosophy and critical thinking is as objective as possible and is reasoned out based on logic and provable (testable) fact, and so once a majority has finally come to understand and accept it, it can actually be quantified to them why their former norms were harmful; philosophy doesn’t try, or have to, force things on people down the barrel of a gun (those ‘philosophies’ that do are bastardizations and are always doomed to fail).
Here I will address two potential points of scepticism: the first, all culture isn’t bad, the second, aren’t culture and philosophy the same thing?
1) True – not every single cultural tradition is harmful. Many are benign, and at their worst simply encourage over-eating and rampant consumerism. I’m not saying that every single aspect of the past needs be erased so that we may forge ahead with some glorious new future (like another Mao-ist Cultural Revolution); but cultures that do not constantly self-critique and evaluate themselves are, obviously, doomed to stagnation. Evolve or die, etc.
2) No, culture and philosophy are not the same thing, because even ‘cultures’ as we conceive of them (usually unhelpfully along international political borders) are not uniform. Cultures obviously encompass their own philosophies, but philosophies themselves are not endemic to cultures – they can be transplanted, because at their essence they are pure thought or mathematics.
Here’s an example; how exactly would you describe ‘Chinese culture?’ Superficially you have the food and holidays (the first things we tend to think of), and then you might get into history and religion. Doing this, you come across Confucius, Buddha and Lao-tze, the so-called ‘Three Scholars’ of traditional Chinese philosophy and political scholarship. The schools of thought and descriptions of the cosmos perpetuated by these guys are so completely full and different that you could successfully structure an entire culture around any single one of them if you wanted to. At various points of Chinese history the influence of any of them has ebbed and flowed, with Confucianism generally instructing how the political system and the court should be arranged, and Buddism and Daoism influencing more the contemplative side of life.
But the point is, there were these three competing philosophies, each with its own adherents, but then as time went on you did have mixing of them together into the folk traditions of the people … and then, almost overnight, you had a foreign philosophy – Communism – come in and re-structure the entire society. Then, only a few decades later, the entire economy was again completely restructured along capitalist lines, but politically everything was still centrally controlled and nominally Communist. So what happened to Confucius and Lao-tze? And what’s happening now as ‘liberal’ ideas are seeping in? And remember, before all of that, they lived in caves and used magic bones to ‘predict the future.’
The Chinese have tried on philosophies like new coats, but underneath all of that you’ve always had beliefs like ‘boys are better than girls.’ Is that rooted in any one philosophy, or is that something that developed and was passed down culturally regardless of the political situation in the country? And where did the whole ‘men are better than women’ thing come from in every other part of the world, for that matter? Fundamentally, it was because men could always beat up women if they wanted to, thereby making them ‘superior.’ In this case, brute force – something that could be sustained without thought – won out. It’s only through philosophical thought – proof for all the ways it was harmful to humanity to keep women oppressed – that this has now changed in much of the world and is slowly taking root in the rest.
The Chinese example may be a tricky one given how abruptly and immensely things changed in just under a century, but my point in all this is that true understanding of the world comes from understanding modes of thought, comparing and contrasting them, and not being afraid to champion that which would bring betterment to a culture. It also must be understood that, given the globalization of information, philosophies are all international now, and there is nothing wrong with humanistic philosophies – modes of thinking that champion human rights and environmental protection – clashing with outmoded, malignant cultural superstitions. I’m a bit sick of the whole ‘neo-colonial’ school, or whatever you call it – basically the argument that we have to keep certain people living in trees since that’s what they were doing before the Europeans got there – that says you can’t ‘impose’ ‘Western thought’ on another culture, because I don’t know how often these ‘neo-colonialist’ ask the people themselves what they want. Do they want to keep living in thatch-roofed huts, or do they want to move into the city? If they want the huts, fine, great. But if they don’t … anyway, that’s a whole different thing.
Okay, I’m done. If anyone has issues with anything I’ve said, feel free to open up a debate in the comments.