Sunday, July 19, 2015

Cultural Imperialism and Preserving Cultures

It seems in modern times it is mandatory to bemoan "the Americanization of the world" and decry "the loss of native cultures", or, in more general terms, to make a big deal of the evils of "cultural imperialism". I admit, I never could make sense of this objection, as I explained in "Stupid Quote of the Day (January 11, 2012)", but I also realize my previous explanation managed to overlook a few very important points. So, I am going to take a few moments and reexamine the question of cultural imperialism, and ask "what do we mean by cultural imperialism"? Who is to blame? What is the harm? And, finally, assuming it is in some way bad, what is the cure and what would it cost? And not just financially, but in terms of the effect upon those who are asked to preserve those cultures.

The first, and most significant, issue, is found in the terminology that critics use. The terms, and phrases, are heavily loaded with the language of military action, of conquest, or subjugation. "Cultural imperialism" itself suggest an invading, conquering army. Similarly, talk on this subject tends to focus on products seizing markets, conquering competitors, forcing their way into societies, subduing the populace and so on. Whenever one hears people speak about this supposed ill, it gives the impression of a hostile act, a violent assault upon an otherwise passive foreign land, with US products somehow bashing their way into the hands of consumers.

But is that accurate? In any way?

The truth is, American products "invade" markets because consumers in those market want them. Some will claim it is "invasive advertising" and so on, but I have argued elsewhere advertising is not magic ("Regulated Speech") there must be some desire for advertising to reach, and no matter how pervasive advertising might be, a product must provide some real benefit to maintain a market. Thus, it seems, this supposed imperialism is not an American, or western, assault on foreign lands, but rather a desire in foreign lands to enjoy the same goods and services as we do in the west. They want jeans and Coke and Hollywood films and consumer electronics and all the rest, and so they seek it out. We are not invading these markets, they are inviting us in.

Some might argue, whether it is the result of western invasion or native demand, it is still a problem, as this process is resulting in homogenized cultures and the lost of native cultural traditions.

There are several issues with such objections. First, there is the most obvious question, why we would want to ensure the survival of every culture? Second, we must also ask, since cultures come and go naturally, with no culture surviving forever, why are we opposed to this process? Are we going to stop all cultural change, in the name of preserving native culture? Or just third world ones, while allowing the developed world to continue to change? Third, we must also ask, if native cultures are of such value, why are those who live in them so ready to abandon them for foreign alternatives? And finally, if we are to "preserve" these cultures, how will we do so? And what costs will this impose upon those who live in such cultures? (All of which suggests a final question, is this not a rather bigoted, patronizing view, arguing westerners are mature enough to allow for cultural change, while poor benighted third worlders need to be forced to preserve their culture, which is valuable, presumably because it is primitive and quaint*.)

In some ways this first point reminds me of my essay "Environmentalism for the Economy". In that work I argued that people understand evolution as a beneficial process, yet strive to keep businesses afloat rather than let them fail naturally, thus driving an evolutionary process. A similar problem also exists with environmentalism ("Extinction", "Environmentalists Versus Evolution", "Societal Evolution"), the efforts to preserve "endangered species" actually seem somewhat contrary to the claims of "preserving nature", since nature certainly has no interest in ensuring every species persists forever. And I ask the same about cultures. They come and go with time, as we shall discuss later, so why must we preserve each and every one? If cultures disappear naturally to make way for new ones, why should we bemoan the loss of a culture? What is the point? Especially if the people who actually live within that culture express an interest in change, is it not perhaps a sign that the culture is due for a change?

Which almost answers our second question as well. After all, if we are to preserve every culture because of some inherent value, then we must be saying there will never arise a new culture. Of course, this seems strange, since the same people who often argue for preserving foreign cultures are the ones who press for gay marriage, for reduced discrimination on the basis of sex, race and so on, and a host of other cultural changes within our culture. If each and every culture is so inherently precious that it must be preserved at all costs, should we not apply the same rule here and strive to remove all changes in western culture? Of course, culture is changing all the time, so we then must also ask, what is the definitive version of each culture? Are they going to preserve the foreign culture with all the western elements it has absorbed? Or roll it back to some presumably pristine state? And if that latter is the case, then should we roll back changes in our own culture to some past state which epitomizes our culture? And if so, when? Which is yet another problem, as culture, being in constant flux, varying with time and location, is almost impossible to define. Are we preserving the culture of city X at this year? Or city Y two years ago? And if we are preserving both, where do we draw lines to divide them? As you can see, it is a problem which presents us with impossible questions. Though, as most who argue against "cultural imperialism" are themselves guilty of oversimplifying foreign cultures and seeing them as monolithic, unchanging entities which changed only once we westerners arrived (a rather bigoted view we will discuss shortly), then they do not recognize the impossible questions they would need to answer.

This brings us to the point which must be addressed and so rarely is, if these cultures are so precious, then why are those living in them so willing to abandon them for foreign alternatives? Or, at the very least, to accept foreign alternatives alongside their native versions? It is not as if they have no local choices. Almost every nation has some domestic film industry, for example (though many are hampered by strong government regulation), yet outside of Bollywood, and to a lesser degree Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and, maybe, Indonesia**, western films have enjoyed greater success than domestic film industries.Similarly, clothing, food and drink, music and the rest are all available locally, yet western versions enjoy mass appeal. Sometimes, local musicians, writers, clothiers and the like will try to emulate western models, and may even enjoy some success, but that just shows that, it is not specifically western goods that are being sought, but the style of goods themselves. In other words, they do not love rock music because it is western, they allow in western music because they love rock. All of which argues they do not see the supposed value in their culture.

Of course, those arguing against "cultural imperialism" will say there is some inherent value in the culture even if the locals do not see it, but that is nonsensical. It is akin to the environmentalist argument about nature having some inherent value we must preserve. ("The Lie of Environmentalism") If something is not desired, then it has no value. And if these westerners are so enamored of this culture, then let them choose to live their lives that way, rather than insist others must do so as there is some inherent value those foreigners fail to see.

Which brings me to the last official point, the cost of "preserving cultures". As I said above, these westerners are not going to make themselves live in these "traditional cultures", giving up modern conveniences and social mobility and a global perspective in the name of some ill defined value they want to preserve. No, they want to force others to forgo their own desires, to give up access to foreign goods, services and ideas, so these westerners can feel good about having stopped western imperialism and preserved some foreign or primitive culture. In short, the cost will be paid by those who have no desire to stop change, for the benefit of a handful who, in the end, will probably never even see the culture they are so excited to preserve.

Not that we should be surprised. This sort of patronizing, arrogant world view is part and parcel of this subject. Cultures are valued precisely to the degree they are primitive or foreign, and despised to the degree they resemble the culture of the United States. Not only that, but the residents of such cultures are seen, not as choosing to embrace the west, but rather as passive entities, having western culture forced upon them because they are too ignorant to recognize the value of their own culture. Or, rather, not exactly their culture, but rather the quaint, simplified amusement park version of their culture that these people imagine it to be. And the cost, the considerable burden of being forced into a state of perpetual stasis, of an eternity without a hint of cultural change, is not to be paid by enlightened westerners, but rather by these same benighted little third world people, who must be forced to embrace their valuable culture and told to turn away from the western culture they ignorantly seek. In short, it is a pretty condescending, bigoted view of the world.

There is, as always, much more to be said, but in the end, the question is rather simple. Do we trust people around the world to make their own decisions, to choose what they wish to buy, to watch, to read to wear, to hear and so on? Or do we refuse them access to supposed cultural contaminants? Deny them choice? Force them to live in an unchanging culture, even as our own culture remains in flux? That is what these arguments about "cultural imperialism" truly hide, the question of whether or not people in the third world and elsewhere are to be treated as adults capable of making their own decisions, or to have their choices made for them by the supposed betters -- usually western liberal intellectuals and politicians? And is that latter option not a worse form of imperialism than simply agreeing to sell them what they desire?


* I wrote before that certain people have an instinctive tendency to see value only in the foreign or primitive. I argued in "Rousseau's Foolish Legacy" and "The Dishonesty of Avatar" that it was due to a rejection of their native culture, which made them see value in those things most different from it.

** Canada enjoys some success for entirely different reasons. Because of state subsidies, there is a glut of Canadian produced children's programming on television in the United States (mostly shows which would have been produced anyway, but simply moved to Canada to take advantage of the subsidies). Likewise, many syndicated television series film in Canada to avoid some union restrictions and other costs. However, as I discussed in "Canada, Subsidies, The Free Market and Intractible Reality", the actual feature film industry is largely a failure, mostly because these subsidies remove commercial concerns which drive Hollywood, resulting in the production of many films of supposedly superior artistic merit, but which lack any audience appeal outside of a very narrow market.

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