December 7, 2006

Culture - Harmless Custom or Curse?

Culture - Harmless Custom or Curse?

Culture is one of those somewhat ethereal notions that most 'New World' natives donÕt think much about. We come from a wide variety of backgrounds in the 'Old Countries,' and after a couple of generations, we all meld into the great, consumer, secular, society that is both mirrored and parodied at us. Sure, we keep some vestiges of the old ways, conveniently modified and denatured to fit our busy lives; but overall there's a remarkable homogeneity. That was the case, that is, until the last few decades. What the dawn of the 21st century has demonstrated is that the notion of culture is not simply some quaint, benign set of customs and mores passed down from one generation to the next to preserve some sense of collective identity. No; there's more to it than that. Much more; and it's not all cozy.

As long as 'culture' is about superficial things like feast days, dressing in traditional costumes, or eating ethnic food, everyone's happy; no harm done. But, we have witnessed growing tension between major cultures as, for instance, in Europe where the burgeoning Muslim population is finding itself in conflict with European societies. Globally, the Bush administration has created and pursued what amounts to a 'modern crusade' of an ostensibly 'Christian' West versus the feared 'Islamo-fascist terrorists.' These have become very serious conflicts, based on inherited collective beliefs on both sides. There are smaller examples that are worth mention. In Canada, the Sikhs have won some major concessions for their particular culture. Sikh men who join the RCMP do not have to remove their turbans to don instead the famous hat that is part of the now-ceremonial red uniform. In some provinces, Sikhs riding motorcycles are exempt from wearing a proper protective helmet. In some cities, Sikh males can wear their 'ceremonial' daggers (the 'kirpan') in public places such as schools, where anyone else would be charged with a weapons offense.

As these examples indicate, the worst instances appear when culture and religion intermingle-- as they inevitably do. In fact, one can argue that all 'religions' are merely specific types of culture. This is because true religion is an inner experience, a relationship between a human and his God (however defined); it is beyond culture. These mass movements with their hierarchies, their membership rolls, and their administrators and treasuries are cultural institutions that have grafted some kind of religious beliefs into their shell. Like all culture therefore, institutionalized religions are artificial... mere constructs of human imagination. Regrettably, they never admit this fact. Every major religion insists that it has the only absolute truth, and that all others are in error. Maybe even this stance could be tolerated, except for the sad reality that, too often, the men leading these religions, like sanctimonious drug lords, are determined to make everyone consume their product. In the end, I can't make any real distinction between religious custom and culture-- they are in all essentials, the same thing.

In France, there is ongoing anger among some Muslims because the head-scarf worn by females was banned in public schools. Now some British officials are under fire for asking Muslim women to remove the veil when appearing before government officials (e.g. judges). Holland is considering a ban on wearing face veils in public. And then there were those cases in the US where it was acceptable to celebrate Divali or Hanukkah, but by some curious twist of logic, one could not mention Christmas except by allusion. Those are relatively inane instances of the clash of cultures. But it gets uglier. What about the practice among some (mostly African) societies, of female genital mutilation? When immigrants from those groups carried on the practice in Western nations, they justified it as 'part of their culture.' What about so-called 'honor killing' of women who are considered to have broken some sexual code, whether willingly or otherwise? No problem: if it isn't sanctioned by religion, it's just cultural. Hence, when considering the extremes to which cultural practices can reach, the question must arise: how far can a modern, enlightened society tolerate abhorrent or counterproductive practices under the guise of culture?

Maybe we could ask another question: is there anything sacrosanct about culture that it should be excused from tests of reason? Some people love the variety of human experience inherent in diverse cultures. Others can't venture far outside the confines of the world they know and trust, and would like to see the world homogenized into one, bland culture. I think it's clear that, in the balance, we are better off, richer mentally, having a variety of cultures. Equally clearly, I believe, is that we are not well served by anti-social practices that have become cloaked in the veil of culture. To the true believers I would ask, if the kirpan or the turban are ceremonial, then why not reserve their use for ceremonial occasions? No one would object if men wore turbans or women wore hijabs in the temples or places of assembly used by these religions. It becomes objectionable when the adherents of a particular sub-culture enjoy rights that are not dispensed to everyone, purely on the basis of so-called religion or culture.

On the matters touching on physical harm (FGM, honor slaying, etc.) there can be no exemption on the pretext of culture. These are clearly inhuman and immoral practices and must not be tolerated. An ostensible gray zone has emerged recently in North America with regard to the practice of polygamy, mainly by a few zealous members of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints. Defenders claim, predictably, that it's a question of freedom of religion (which I regard as the same as freedom of culture). Investigation has discovered cases of girls as young as 14 being forced into marriage against their will; of young women forced to marry men decades older; and of men who can't even remember the names of their numerous children, born to numerous wives. These stories illustrate the dangers of counter-cultural practices founded on self-serving or questionable custom. There is a line where individual rights must take precedence over tradition, especially tradition that has no basis in necessity or in ethics.

I realize that there is a problem with my outlook. It could be argued that I am imposing my own, culturally induced understanding of ethics over those of the affected sub-cultures. The argument comes down to a challenge of the authority of a given religion, since all cultures must resort to their associated religion in dealing with matters of morality. Now, my response is that it is obvious that none of the religions has prima facie proof or evidence of its natural superiority in spiritual matters. The sheer number of faiths, and the dispersion of their beliefs and their place of origin demonstrate that none can be objectively viewed as uniquely endowed with total truth. Therefore, it is reasonable to seek an objective standard that is beyond the reach of the babble of religions, though it may take the best points from any of them.

And, incidentally, I am not arguing that the Western, secular way of life is inherently superior to other cultures. Certainly, though, there are laudable features of the secular society-- just as there are some reprehensible ones. Demonstrably, the separation of church and state is one of the most important and beneficial aspects of 'traditional Western society.' We have recognized the flaws in mono-religious societies, and have taken reasonable steps to avoid such dangers and ensure equitable religious liberty for all. Yet today we have an influx of immigrants who would like to invoke that hard-won constitution to take on rights that inhere, not in the person, but in the particular collective to which they belong. This desire for faith-based exclusivity is, in my opinion, a troubling trend. It is, though, preferable to those who would simply replace the constitution with their particular 'holy writ' (be it the Bible, the Koran, or whatever). I have absolutely no confidence in the ability of any 'faith-based' government to treat the population with a fair or even ethical hand. (And that goes as much for 'Christians' as for any other religious culture.)

The dispassionate observer can hope that the secular state will hold; that it will not be hijacked by any special interest group, especially one that claims special insight handed down to them by God. One fact favoring the prevailing of the secular state is the number of competing cultural/religious interests all wanting to assert their hegemony. The government cannot favor one over another, so that maintains some balance. However, there is one special-interest culture that has risen to prominence in secular democracies, and exerts an influence over government that varies from subtle to blatant, depending on time and country. We don't think of big business as a culture, even though we have come to speak about 'corporate culture' as a recognizable characteristic of large enterprises. Yet, essentially, corporations represent a form of culture, and they lobby hard to ensure that their cultural outlook receives favorable treatment from government. So, we have succeeded, largely, in separating church and state... but, have we been equally diligent in separating state/government from the pseudo-religion of corporatism?

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