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.