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An Unusual Word About Traditional Cultures

November 19, 2014

I’ve heard the following statement and its ilk issued many times in debates over multiculturalism “western culture erodes traditional culture”.

In a multicultural school of 70% students being from a non-English speaking background, this is always an interesting, amiable conversation topic. The argument is obvious to see. Look at Japan for instance. What you see is not ‘traditional’ Japanese culture in Tokyo, but modernity. Look for a clichéd cultural statement like a kimono and you will struggle. Look for sushi and you will find it, yes, but consider how the statement of a culture as signified by food is relatively reductionist. I think there’s something fascinatingly unique about Japan during its history, but in general – like many other cultures – the world has moved towards a relatively ‘modern’ culture.

Cosmopolitan, multicultural, tolerant, accepting. ‘Western.’

People argue that traditional cultures – those being areas of Western colonisation or where the West has expanded its influence – have or are being lost, and that this is a tragedy. I agree. The present is the best of all ages, but every past age and society has had some element of good. Our job is to find what is good in the past and add it to our own age. So the eradication of past goods for eternity is bad. All true.

This is where I add a new perspective – what about the loss of traditional Western and European cultures?

The cosmopolitan culture of many major cities is undoubtedly planted firmly on the backs of Western institutions and ideals. However, waves of immigration, assimilation and integration have seen Western culture change. And as with most cultural change, new growth can only occur after the destruction of the old. A new tree can only grow when the ground is empty. If a tree was there before, it must be rent asunder before a new seed can grow. This change uprooted many traditional cultures.

The America of today is not some early 20th century embodiment of the ‘strenuous life’ a la Teddy Roosevelt, nor rebellious like the Spirit of Independence. The Australia of today is lightyears away from the clichés propagated (and sent up!) by Crocodile Dundee. The Australian ‘laid back’ attitude is a myth in modern times, suggest modern surveys. And the lost sense of British culture is something that I’ll dedicate an entire future post to. All this is to say, cultures change. The culture in place today in many nations has been influenced by social trends, economic trends like globalisation and more. With these trends all cultures have, like economic systems due to globalisation, converged.

So I say to others “Grieve not for just the lost cultures of Asia and Africa, though the loss may be great, but also those of Europe. Every lost culture has something to learn from.”

A Case to be Particularly Concerned About Lost Western Cultures

NB: I know society is not perfectly multicultural, yet we will persevere

One very interesting point to raise in this discussion is that nearly all Western cultures are multicultural to a point. What do I mean? Countries from the US to Australia to Italy (taking African refugees) to others have all experienced significant immigration. In doing so, societies have changed for the better, but today there’s a dearth of monocultural estern cultures (maybe barring Nordic countries). In contrast, most other cultures have remained relatively monocultural. Japan or China, for instance, do not have waves of immigration inwards. Something like 99% of Japan’s population is of Japanese ethnic background. In contrast, recent studies show the US to be less than 50% Caucasian by 2043.

Now, obviously culture is not a direct product of ethnic alignment, but I think it’d have an impact.

This raises the interesting question – should immigration restrictions be allowed for “cultural preservation”? Also, what constitutes “national identity”? Do countries have a “national identity”?

Is the concept of national identity outdated in a multicultural society?

Quite possibly.

(Relative) Tolerance is a characteristic of our age. Which is fantastic. But it comes with consequences. To be tolerant is to accept and allow in. To be intolerant, in contrast, may mean saying “No, our culture stands for this”, or with traditional honour groups “this is honourable.” A society heavily influenced by postmodernism like ours, however, rejects such claims. There are many moral roads, many acceptable views. There is no objective truth etc.

The point is that a tolerant, modern, postmodern society, by its very nature, is diverse and rejects defining a national identity.

Now, of course, being tolerant is a part of national identity. Barack Obama’s statement that the US is a nation of immigrants built on the vision of truth, liberty and justice, is making a claim to the US national identity. But its different to other, more traditional visions of identity.

A question then arises – do these more traditional identities deserve to be enforced? Does immigration to ‘Western’ countries result in the creation of cosmopolitan societies? Should it be allowed in all such societies, or should we preserve elements of national identity?

These are tough questions with no easy answers. Ultimately, societies change. Culture changes. Anyone debating national identity is like trying to chase the train after it has left the station. You’re only debating it because some threat has arisen to your view of society… and ‘threat’ means that the change has already occurred.

Conclusions

Times change. Cultures change. Most, if not all traditional cultures have disappeared to some, including Western cultures. The changes wrought have largely been good, and reviving old cultures in their totality would be to give life to anachronisms. Furthermore, our memories of the past are just that – memories. We can look to old identities and put them on a pedestal. But on top of that pedestal remember that they were like us – flawed, fallible, and uncertain. They were not better than us.

But that does not mean we cannot learn from them. Like all things, let us take what is good from the past and use it today.

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