Monday, May 01, 2006

Is cultural membership a good or a bad?

I was taken aback reading an article on cultural exemptions and expensive tastes by a reference to Kymlicka who apparently suggests that cultural membership is a good and, indeed, on that is crucial for autonomy. I suppose I should read the book—I’m only starting on this research on multiculturalism in a serious way.

Nevertheless, to my untutored intuition, cultural membership is, at best, neutral and potentially bad. Cultural membership has to be distinguished from the consumption of cultural artifacts—cuisine, costume, arts and crafts, sports, and various practices. It’s good to have access to these items—the more ethnic restaurants and street festivals the better. But consuming the goods associated with a particular culture, however avidly or comprehensively, isn’t being a member of the culture. To be a member of a culture is a matter of behavior, social ties, and beliefs, in particular, beliefs about how people, at least people who you identify as fellow members of your culture, ought to behave.

Cultural membership is something people rarely think about. It’s like having a particular telephone number—assigned, immutable but for the most part trivial. Culture consists largely of innumerable trivial habits and practices: how close you stand when speaking to a person, whether nor not you queue and how strongly you feel about it, etc. As with telephone numbers, there’s nothing particularly good in cultural membership even though changing cultural membership is a hassle.

There are some less trivial features of cultural membership: the stories we know, and the history with which we identify. Last night I watched the nth costume drama on the life and times of Queen Elizabeth I. We all know this story in detail though with a lot of confusion—her various lovers, semi-lovers and marriage prospects, the ruffs and plucked eyebrows, the Protestant Reformation, the Spanish Armada and the “I, a weak woman” speech to rally the troops. On the American branch of the culture tree, we know about George Washington and the cherry tree, honest Abe walking through the snow to return a penny when he mistakenly overcharged someone, etc. Here again, even if it’s a hassle to change, one culture is as good as another: in becoming Americans, immigrants get loaded with the Queen Elizabeth, Geoge Washington and Abe Lincoln stories, and much, much more.

But there are also deep, non-trivial features of every culture that are positively detrimental to people’s interests—rules, role obligations and taboos. Every culture has them—but some have more than others. Some cultures are more constraining, make less room for individual differences, and treat deviants more harshly. Back on the Sopranos, Vito is on the lam in a cute little tourist town in Vermont because he knows that having discovered he’s gay his Mafia colleagues are out to whack him. No problem being gay in Vermont he discovers.

I gather from the article that cultural accommodations are supposed to be licensed in the interests of fairness to immigrants and cultural minorities so that they can retain the deep features of their cultures and maintain some sort of dual cultural membership. But why is this supposed to be a good for the individuals in question? We aren’t talking about ethnic cuisine here or even cultural stories—you don’t need to be a member of the culture to consume these goods. The deep features are the rules, role obligations and taboos—bads, not goods. And when it comes to immigrants and cultural minorities in open, tolerant, cosmopolitan societies, shedding cultural baggage is liberating even if it takes some effort to get over the hump. Vito resists and gets into a fistfight with his lover-to-be before letting go of the rules and taboos of the Mafia culture that hemmed him in.


Sanpete said...

You may be using a more narrow view of culture than some. I tend to view it more broadly. Here's the American Heritage Fourth primary definition of "culture":

The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.

That is, it's everything that's transmitted nonbiologically. A culture would be a particular version of some of those things from a suitably defined place and time. There can be cultures within cultures, overlapping cultures, and so on. You belong to several cultures: Western, American, English speaking, some kind of religious culture (at least marginally), academic, philosophical, feminist, etc.

Taken in that broad sense, it seems plain enough that you can't grow up to be anything much like a typical human without being a member of a culture, or cultures, at least to the extent that you are given the constraints, training and experience that a culture offers. You wouldn't be able to speak, you probably wouldn't reason so well, wouldn't know how to feed and clothe yourself in anything like the way you do now, etc. The constraints are as important and valuable as anything else. The rules that govern everything from grammar and table manners to how to treat your elders and neighbors contribute to your life and who you are in essential and beneficial ways. Obviously they can also have their downsides. In general, cultural rules and roles have both advantages and disadvantages.

Cultural accommodations are good to the extent they help preserve the good things about a culture without disproportionate costs, I suppose. That can include the rules. Are the rules the deepest part? How about the language and worldviews imbedded in language, history and such? Even the food. Consuming Chinese food doesn't really preserve it in any very deep way--it's just as likely to turn it into MacMing's. If you do preserve the culture of Chinese food in some deep way, you have to enter the culture to that extent. I think there can be more depth in more parts of culture than you allow.

Shedding cultural baggage can be liberating, and it can be a costly loss, or both. Fewer constraints isn't necessarily better.

Boofykatz said...

Taking up Sanpete's point, there are a myriad groupings we might call cultures - a lazy noun which I think ought to be avoided SFAIRP - such as, for instance, western liberal culture. If we are to avoid the self-defeating conclusions of post-modernism and Rortyesque pragmatism we must surely commit to some set of social ideals which are bound to be labelled by the intellectually lazy a 'culture'. Sorry about the use of scare quotes - they seem to be culturally institutionalised.
I think your narrower interpretation of culture as it is, it seems to me, intuitively intended in multiculturalism, is perfectly valid. Having said which, it would be cowardly in the extreme to take what seems to be a common leftist view - that 'culture' is, of itself, valuable. What is valuable is the maximum self-determination of the individual consonant with the maximum self determination of the majority of other individuals. I think that there are few 'cultures' which can accommodate the liberal ideal and that it is incumbent upon us to promote those which do and to oppose those which do not. Here endeth my argument against multiculturalism as a dogma.

Sanpete said...

Boofy, the linguistic point about overuse of the word "culture" is perhaps not crucial, but I'm interested in why you think the word should be used in some more narrow way in general. Current usage seems to be in precise harmony with the core meaning of the word. How would using "culture" more narrowly or less often help us avoid the ravages of post-modernism? Calling something a "culture" or "cultural difference" doesn't prejudice the question whether it's good or bad unless you're a cultural relativist, which it appears you aren't. For those who are, merely using a different word seems unlikely to overcome the aspects of their beliefs you object to.

The use of "culture" in discussions of multiculturalism is more narrow than in some other contexts, as you say. The paradigm case in discussions of multiculturalism is an ethnic or national culture, and secondarily cultures that are sometimes regarded in similar ways in discussions of tolerance, such as regional or gay culture. However, ethnic and national culture is still a very broad thing, and my points about the benefits of culture still apply. Language and other essential ways of functioning in the world are transmitted by means of such cultures. Those crucial benefits give a sensible meaning to the idea that being part of a culture is good and necessary. The particulars of the benefits are of special value to those whose natures have been in part determined by them and so depend on them, but they are often of value to others as well.

In general, it seems a good thing to preserve and encourage what is good about a culture, and to respect the differences in tastes and ways of doing things that matter to others. That may sometimes entail some tolerance for things we don't value ourselves, or that may even seem wrong to us (like poi), as long as they don't seem so wrong that it overrides all other factors, or something like that. Very few multiculturalists would fail to oppose practices like suttee or slavery, however well accepted in a culture. Most of the debates about how to deal with other cultures concern greyer areas, such as how much pressure should be allowed on children to marry within the group, the roles of women, and so on. But one can be very much in favor of the broad goal of multiculturalism and still oppose very strongly the points in a culture that seem harmful, just as we do in our own culture.

Boofykatz said...

"Very few multiculturalists would fail to oppose practices like suttee or slavery, however well accepted in a culture. Most of the debates about how to deal with other cultures concern greyer areas, such as how much pressure should be allowed on children to marry within the group, the roles of women, and so on. But one can be very much in favor of the broad goal of multiculturalism and still oppose very strongly the points in a culture that seem harmful, just as we do in our own culture."

This is my point, the line between suttee and general misogeny is fuzzy, to say the least. I am a cultural relativist, but only in so much as cultures are well adapted to fit the real world. I feel strongly that outmoded cultures need to be weeded out. My philosophy of living, as opposed to my epistemology or metaphysical position, is that we should regard ourselves as cultural gardeners - nurturing that which is good and weeding out that which is odious. Problem be'en, the choice is personal. I almost said subjective there, but I subscribe to a panassumptional coherentism which to me fits best with my rather whigish view of humanity.

joeytheo23350955 said...
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John Wilkins said...

When I did my philosophy thesis on the communitarian critique of liberalism, Klymicka had the clearest understanding of the critique but didn't let cultural membership have the last word. What is crucial about liberalism (the concept of self-respect, or the harm principle) is not replaced by cultural membership (when the self is ONLY respected due to cultural membership or one can harm oneself in order to remain in a community).

But it is now 15 years since I've read Kymlicka, and perhaps he's changed.

H. E. said...

A nice response to Kymlicka is Janet Halley, "Culture Constrains," in Okin, Is Multiculturalism Bad For Women. She notes that even in Kymlicka's liberal multiculturalism, the costs of exit from one's ancestral community can be prohibitive because to maintain the community they have to be so.

Her case is this: Indian land on reservations is owned by the tribe. If it isn't so, lots of individuals will sell their land to developers and leave, and the community will lose its distinctive Indian character. But because individuals don't own their land they have no equity and find it difficult to leave.

There are lots of other cases. The Amish pull their kids out of school after 8th grade, which means that they have few attractive opportunities in the outside world. Amish kids only have a short window of opportunity to get out--Amish who leave after they're baptized in their late teens are shunned by the community, including their immediate families. In spite of this the attrition rate is high--in one community near a town, 37%. People really, really want to get out. So there's a conflict of interests between those who, either because they have a brute taste for that way of life or because they've invested heavily and have no other viable options, and those who want out. This goes also for immigrant communities and other cohesive cultural groups.

The worry is that Kymlicka greatly underestimates the costs of exit--and the extent of the desire of members of small, cohesive cultural communities to leave and assimilate to the mainstream culture which make it necessary to jack up the costs of exit in order to preserve the community.

I'm not a Rawlsian liberal and don't have no truck with "self-respect," autonomy or whatever. The issue to me is that there's an irreconcilable conflict of interests between individuals who prefer to maintain a culturally distinctive way of life and those who prefer to assimilate. We can't simply assume that most people, or even that a large minority of people, all other things being equal, prefer to maintain their ancestral cultures.

Sanpete said...

Don't know anything about Kymlicka. What does he say that raises the worries you have? I'm wondering who the enemy is here, and why.

What do you think Indians should do with their reservations, and the Amish with their young? What should we as a group do about each (should they be legally constrained)?

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