Against culturalism

My last post generated a substantial discussion on Facebook (i only wish it would have taken place here), which got me thinking about a phenomenon the Korean at Ask a Korean likes to call culturalism:  “the impulse to explain minority people’s behavior with a ‘cultural difference’, real or imagined.”  A culturalist encounters a clash between him and an individual of another culture and chalks it up to cultural difference.  ‘He’s from a different culture, so this clash is only inevitable.’  But it isn’t so.  It’s not inevitable, because we’re really all the same.  We’re all human, which means we share the same core values.  Isn’t that all that matters?  Why must we break down this commonality into unnecessary and cumbersome classes of ethnicities and nationalities and cultures?

In theory, a unified humanity would be best, but in practice, it doesn’t exist.  We all know this.  Of course it can’t be denied that despite us being one species, different cultures exist, and they clash.  Some of the issues i’ve been dealing with since my arrival here in Seoul are due to exactly that:  cultural difference.  Many advised me before i left the States and continue to advise me now that i’m here to go with the flow and try to assimilate to Korean culture, because i am the visitor after all, and i should respect the Koreans’ ways.  But i can’t do that, because i don’t believe in culturalism.  Like i said, we’re all the same, which means we are capable of working towards the same goal.  It’s because we’re all human that we owe at least one thing to each other:  respect.

When someone takes a culturalist attitude towards me, whatever interpersonal transaction that might transpire is immediately broken or nullified, because, once again, i am not a culturalist.  And when they refuse to drop their culturalist attitude, i continue to be unable to interact with them in any meaningful way.

When a Korean writes me off as a Korean-American and neglects to confront whatever might be “American” about me that displeases them, they are being culturalist.  When a Korean treats me any differently for being Korean American, they are being culturalist.  If anyone has a problem with any of my actions or words, whether it be typically “American” or “Korean” or just plain offensive, they should confront me about it, as i would with them, instead of disrespecting me without giving me a chance to explain myself.

Culturalism is objectionable because it unnecessarily disunites us and does nothing to resolve these clashes.  I refuse to subscribe to any culture, because i believe there is a better ideal for us to work towards:  a humanity of mutual respect—nothing more, nothing less.  

ADD.  I understand that for those who grew up in a single culture, it could be difficult to adopt a nonculturalist view.  It’s easier for me because i grew up with two cultures, and in straddling them, i’ve learned of the uselessness of and harm in explaining things away with culture.  I can’t think of a convincing reason for an enclosed, homogenous society to shed its culturalism for outsiders’ sake (though progress by way of successful interaction with other cultures could be one), but i think for all other societies, it’d be in everybody’s best interest to refrain from culturalism.  South Korea is certainly not enclosed, though it is still largely homogenous (this is changing, too, but slowly and with much resistance from the Koreans).  Since it’s not my place to decide what would be best for Korean society, i can’t say whether or not Koreans should eschew culturalism.  All i know is that i’m not comfortable being culturalist, and i wish others wouldn’t launch culturalist attacks on me.  I don’t treat Koreans any differently for being Korean, and i expect them to not treat me any differently for being Korean American.  Whether or not they actually will return the favor is a different question, but one can hope.


Filed under culture

14 responses to “Against culturalism

  1. Interesting post. I was going to say something along the lines of, “The Korean form of respect may be unrecognizable to you because it’s coming from a different culture” but then that would be culturalist. As for your statement, “In theory, a unified humanity would be best,” which implies a leveling of cultural difference, I would say that sounds boring! I have found that the times in my life that I have done the most growing, that I have been pushed into evolving myself and my mind to accept new and different ways to see the world and humanity, have been because of cultural differences. For me, a monoculture, no matter how much based on mutual respect, etc., would still be too comfortable for me.

    I think your challenge now (and mine as well going into Korea) will be to find a way to be comfortable in a different culture. Yes, people will stare at you. Yes, you will always be different and will be constantly reminded of this. But you are not defined by how different you are from them. You are defined by you, and therein lies your comfort.

    • n

      You bring up a great point. A monoculture could certainly be boring. I was thinking different species and different parts of nature would suffice to satisfy our curiosity, but perhaps not. We wouldn’t know.

      I think my challenge now would be to get people to understand that i can’t subscribe to culturalism without offending them. I don’t think i’ll ever be fully comfortable in a culturalist culture. I’m comfortable with myself, but not with people who pigeonhole me into culturalist stereotypes. I just hope that with time, i’ll learn to not let it get to me so much.

  2. As people from a multi-cultural society, and you yourself growing up straddling two different cultures, it’s easier for us to avoid being culturalist than someone from a distinctly cultural society. Most people you talk to might not even be aware that they’re being culturalist, they’re just being themselves i.e. not seeing any other viewpoint but that of their own culture. Having spent some time in Japan, which is similarly strongly culturalist, I came to the realization that people in such a situation usually can not see any other way of being because it’s so outside their environment. It’s just alien. They have so few opportunities to think outside of their cultural box.

    So I think to ask someone to understand that you don’t subscribe to culturalism would be like asking a fish to understand that you can’t breathe water. The fish doesn’t know that there is any other way to do it.

    Of course, I say this now from the comfort of my multi-cultural San Francisco Bay Area home. Talk to me again in 2 weeks and I’m sure I’ll have lots of harsh words for the insensitive, staring people of my new town. ^_^

    • n

      I mean, i have a little more faith in people than that. Surely they can understand that we live in multicultural world, and that an individual from a multicultural society with more than one culture making up her background could be uncomfortable with culturalism. Do you really think that’s a stretch? The human imagination is a powerful thing…

  3. Yes, sure, people who want to make the effort can. But who will want to make the effort? Your friends will, certainly, and those who feel constrained by the single culture of Korea will, but the ajusshi who stares on the subway, or the ajumma who make snide comments on the street as you walk by I doubt are in any hurry to have their worlds expanded.

  4. Yang

    I don’t want to sign on to my blog on the lab computer.

    I feel by your definition I’m very much a culturalist in that when something like what you are experiencing happens, I blame on the culture differences. And I do think that much of the “humanity” of an individual is based on that person’s cultural upbringing (I had a very hard time trying to convince my aunt in China that being homosexual is not crazy). And this country is made up of more cultures than anywhere else imaginable, but we deal it here with respect and acceptance (or we try to), rather than making harsh and negative judgments.

    Until and unless S. Korea and its people become more diverse, I think the natives will constantly make unfair judgments about people like you without giving you any chance to justify yourself, especially they are, like you said, making an effort to avoid being more diverse.

    I think it’s good that you are a non-culturalist, it’s an importance basis for you to be motivated to make an effort to communicate and hopefully convince others that we are all the same. But I think at the same time it may cause more conflict because you are so resistant at the idea of culturalism, while people around you, especially those who give you are hard time, are very much so culturalists.

    • n

      You know, i think it comes down to familiarity. Many of my recent posts have been about familiarity and our tight grip on it, so maybe that’s just where my head is right now, but i do think the more serious intercultural conflicts are caused by a deep-seated reluctance to loosen our grip on what is familiar to us, especially for someone else’s sake. After all, why should i give up my culture for you? It does make sense for someone to want to protect and hold onto his culture, but it doesn’t make sense to argue for it as if it were a commodity. What exactly is culture, anyway? I’m no sociologist or anthropologist, but i know this much: it’s not something you give or take. You can’t acquire it, and you can’t lose it. Rather, it’s an attitude you develop over time, and it just so happens that those who share a physical space also share values. At least i think that’s why different places have different cultures.

      So what are we fighting for when we defend our cultures? I’d say we’re fighting to be in a position where we can keep what is familiar to us—i.e. the products of our culture—and have things run the way we want. Comfort doesn’t come easily, and when it does come, we fight to our death to keep it.

      [After having written that out, it all sounds so very obvious. History, culture wars… I need to think through these things, though, cos sociology doesn’t come naturally to me, and history’s always been my least favorite subject.]

      It’s just another philosophy vs. psychology, really. In theory, we know we’re all the same, but when it comes to our desires and the reality of a multicultural world, we end up (inadvertently?) embracing our “differences” to protect what is familiar to us. This is me, this is you, and whatever is not me is a predator. The only way i can absolutely protect what is mine from you is to mark you as different from me.

      But that’s reality, and i have no interest in reality. If a better reality can be imagined, i won’t settle for what we have. And it doesn’t matter if it’s impossible to achieve. Values are not something to be achieved; they’re something to be upheld.

  5. Strigiformes

    I’m interested in what the Korean culture is now. I want to know what they believe, what they were taught, and what they think now that they are older and someone is trying to “threaten” their culture. I think in this way the Chinese are much more open, though they mostly say stuff among themselves and seldom show the people in question in their faces.

    “But that’s reality, and I have no interest in reality.” wow, I wish I could say something like that, but I guess I’m just too lazy to fight for the better reality and settle for this one. But I think at one point you need to accept the fact that you live in this world and whether you like it or not, you have to deal with things that you don’t agree with, even though there are so many better things you want this world to be. Maybe this whole trip is a wake up call, that you need to balance your philosophical life with this one.

    • n

      The Korean culture is just very closed off and homogenous. Everyone’s the same; there’s very little diversity. So Koreans have a hard time accepting whatever is different from them. The one thing that i don’t understand is why they react the way they do; it’s not like people like me or foreigners are out to change their society. We couldn’t even if we wanted to. We’re just different, and they somehow think that gives them a reason for them to be mean to us. And i honestly don’t think i do anything to offend them; i mean, i know Korean culture enough not to do that. Growing up under 1st generation immigrant parents tends to be pretty thorough training.

      From my experience, the Chinese are *much* more open. Having had so many Chinese friends in the US, i’m really going to miss the culture. I hope to visit the mainland before i leave. I really want to visit Taiwan and Hong Kong sometime, too.

      I do accept the fact that i have no choice but to live the reality we have. Otherwise, how would i live? I’ll never be able to change our reality, at least not on my own, but even if no one else can act according to my values, i have to continue to uphold them for myself. Which means even if they can’t reciprocate, i will continue to treat them the way i’d like to be treated.

  6. Melissa

    If we were all truly the same, then you wouldn’t be having any difficulty at all. We all have a common humanity, but we’ve all been raised to view the world in different ways. This isn’t just a culturalist (or interculturalist) outlook – it’s the reality. Koreans and Canadians and Jamaicans do really act differently. This doesn’t mean that we can’t find ways to get along, but it does mean that when you move to Korea or any other country that you might actually have to adapt. Good luck, otherwise.

  7. Jingjing

    This is such a great discussion. I wish we could hang out more! I think we are all the same, biologically and psychologically, but I agree with Melissa that “we’ve all been raised to view the world in different ways.” In addition, all humans adapt differently to the region that they were born. Our culture is dependent and shaped by the land itself. A person born to a dry, arid land cannot depend on farming for sustenance, while a person born to a rich land can depend on farming. The way that we survive shapes our culture. Take the Civil War for instance. The South depended on farming for sustenance while the North was more industrialized. The South used their way of life and sustenance as an excuse to enslave and oppress African Americans. Our culture and point of view is shaped by the environment- both the physical environment and the psychological environment.

    The biggest problem I have with culturalism is that most people mistake culture for education. For instance, when my Chinese relatives and I disagree about politics…they chalk it up as a cultural difference…because I am Chinese American. This is wrong, our differences are not cultural but educational. My education has led me to believe that the Chinese government is essentially a tyranny, not because that I grew up in America. Growing up in America has allowed me to have a different form of education, but Americanism did not cause me to think that way. When my cousins pick their nose in public and I tell them to stop, it is not cultural but educational. An educated person would know that picking one’s nose in public is insanitary and not polite. I think that political philosophers should focus on defining the difference between cultural differences and educational differences.

    • n

      You bring up such a great point, Jingjing. I believe that education is the beginning of justice, and that is one of the reasons i teach and have always wanted to teach. Morality is about understanding whatever is external to you and knowing what you can and cannot accept. The less you know, the less compassion you have. So i don’t think “culture” in the sense of culturalism exists; everything is simply knowledge.

  8. John

    Interesting discussion, but a more apt term for “culturalism” might be what psychologists call the “fundamental attribution error:” the tendency to ascribe a behavior to a person’s character rather than the situation/environment/context. Ironically, the fundamental attribution error is something endemic in western culture because we have the tendency to ascribe essences to things in the world. The westerner will say that the murderer killed someone because he was evil or insane, not because he had a hard life–as Chinese participants in one study claimed. We tend to focus on the particulars rather than the whole–or at least this is what I was taught in my cultural psychology class. Culture is a well-documented, obvious phenomenon.

    Instead of a layman’s complaints about a culture (in the spirit of the fundamental attribution error), cultural psychologists/anthropologists have more refined terms with which to analyze a culture or individual’s pattern of thinking instead of “____ culture.” For example, “tight culture” and “loose culture” are used to describe the acceptance of divergence from cultural norms. Another useful piece of mental furniture is “collectivism vs. individualism” which describes the tendency to think in terms of groups or individuals. Agrarian economies tend to be more collectivist because they require everyone to work together and people tend to be less specialized. As Jingjing said, these variables are largely shaped by the conditions of society.

    One of the best quotes about culture I read said something along the lines: Culture is to a society as memories are to a person. It encodes the adaptive behaviors for a society, so that people can prosper. If we look for the causes, it might make it easier to deal with the cultural differences.

    Perhaps we’ll come to appreciate some of the inner-workings of Korean culture over time. I learned to appreciate some of Russian culture and think I will learn to do the same here.

    • n

      I think what the Korean meant by “culturalism” is something a little more general: the idea that there could be polarizing differences at all between cultures, when there really aren’t any. But i do like the cultural psychologists’ way of characterizing culture(s); it seems the most objective. And i also like that quote about culture. Thanks for sharing!

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