Sunday, 5 September 2004

Culture is for yogurt

I get very annoyed by people who glibly use "culture" as an explanation to explain why anyone behaves a certain way. "Singaporeans are naturally conservative, because that's Asian culture", or even "I'm Asian, therefore I'm conservative". My argument against using "culture" as an explanation is in part based on the fairly common argument that group explanations do not encompass the whole range of individual behaviour: at some level, there's an element of free will in which you made the choice to be the way you are. (In any case, don't people making that statement find it kind of insulting to lump all of Asia together as one mass? Even if "culture" existed I doubt it's universal throughout Asia.)

But the argument is also dependent on something else: to think that some form of behaviour stems from culture often carries with it the implication that culture is fixed throughout time. Yet I suspect culture is extremely malleable, albeit at none too fast a speed. Which is to say, what we think of as "culture" I think is often just the response to political and economic conditions of a location. It's the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy: just because something follows doesn't make it the cause. So Chinese people can't be athletes? Ask Liu Xiang. I remember being very intrigued by something I once read in class, which pointed out that a Japanese newspaper during the Meiji period doubted that Japan could ever be an industrial power, given that its people were "lazy". And yet so many people today seem quite content to think that the Japanese were somehow always hardcore salarymen types. A similar idea is expressed here:
To Western observers of the Meiji Period, the Japanese exhibited none of today's stereotypical characteristics of a diligent, hard-working people. Karl Scherzer, a member of the first Austro-Hungarian delegation to the Far East, wrote in his diary shortly after the Meiji Restoration that the Japanese seemed much more cheerful, pleasure-seeking, and given to drink and showed more aversion to work than the Chinese he had observed.
It just seems so passive and fatalist to say "well, people who are (insert ethnicity) are like that", as though one's character were set in stone the minute of one's birth. I believe people are a certain way because of who they are as individuals, along with how they respond to their environment. What we consider "culture" is then often the result, not the cause: it has no fixity, but shifts with generations of people, forming and eroding slowly and simultaneously, like some geological process, awesome yet invisible.

quite wonderfully put. :)


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