We talk a lot about culture. But what does that actually mean?
To me, a culture is really an amalgam of sacred habits accumulated over time, the sum of all the things that the group believe, say and/or do that they feel makes them distinct from any other tribe. But the fact that a belief or a behaviour has become part of a culture says nothing about its value.
Let’s face it: many cultural practices are primitive, unjust and downright barbaric.
Take shark fin soup, for example. A traditional Chinese delicacy that involves the capture and mutilation of live sharks who are then thrown back into the sea without fins. But as outrageous as this practice is, there is no outrage. Why? Because it is ‘cultural’ which is shorthand for:
1) It is not our place to tell other people how to behave, and
2) The practice is too old, too deeply ingrained in the mindset to be changed.
Every culture on earth (no matter how sophisticated) has, at its core, at least one atrocious and primitive practice that survives to this day only because we make these two excuses for it… and the more we apply excuse #1, the more true excuse #2 becomes until simply we cannot imagine the culture without it.
Consider the Spanish passion for bullfighting, a practice that can be traced way back to the Moorish invasion of Andalusia in AD 711 and has existed in its current form since 1726. It inspired the creation of Flamenco, the paintings of Goya and Picasso and the writing of Hemingway and is central to the Spanish tourism industry.
Yet in 2011 the people of Barcelona ended their 700 year love affair with the tradition, which proves that #2 is not valid; age is no excuse for cruelty. Which raises an intriguing question: if the Spanish can give up bullfighting, what other awful traditions can humanity finally be free of?
Which just leaves us with excuse #1: it’s not our place to tell others how to behave. I’m a little more sympathetic to this argument but only because ‘telling others how to behave’ sounds like a heavy-handed version of something friends do for each other all the time.
Would you allow a friend drink and drive? It’s a practice that is often excused as ‘part of our culture’ along with misogyny, racism, bullying and the appalling behaviour of some of our sporting ’heroes’. If we’re really ok with this kind of thing, let’s just say so. If not, let stop the excuses.
Let’s reclaim ‘culture’ as a collection of ideas worth spreading, not an excuse to accept the unacceptable.