Culture: Division or Diversity?

An interesting question was raised by commenter spaceagesage about our poem “what is culture?” (likely to the last line “do we need another word to further divide”) that prompted this post, and I hope to address it.

I feel many are too quick to embrace labels, branding themselves (and others) as full incarnations of some concept, set of cultural currents, or lifestyle. What is often overlooked, likely because its so obvious, is to first acknowledge our shared humanity. Engaging as individuals, instead of as representatives of some group or other, will more likely increase the potential of understanding, instead as seeing one another as walking sets of memeplexes.

In social situations I’ve been asked the dreaded question “What’s your background?”, usually a innocent question fueled by curiosity and as a conversational icebreaker. It’s likely because there are some visual distinctions in appearance and I appear to have come from somewhere else, despite the fact that I speak fluent english. I came here as a young child so have no great insight into “another culture”. So I pleasantly reply that I’ve lived here most of my life, and that’s that. Then I feel we can engage as individuals without the other innocently constructing bias based on some past experience of a culture or ethnicity.

The relationship between identity and culture is a deep, complex one that we hope to explore in future posts. In a crowded world with great potential for conflict, the question of culture cannot be simply dismissed as a semantic one. How we negotiate this question may be pivotal on how we deal with common challenges we’re likely to face in the near future.


3 Responses to “Culture: Division or Diversity?”

  1. spaceagesage Says:

    As part of cultural diversity training for a university’s housing department where people from 64 different countries lived, I learned we are often so unaware of our culture that we are like fish in a fishbowl full of water. As fish in our own bowl, we don’t notice the water until we are placed in another bowl (culture) and then all sorts of differences erupt for us, creating the potential for the “us versus them” mentality. We learned that whatever bowl you are raised it doesn’t matter to you, because that is what you grow up with. I never understood American culture so fully until I traveled to Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Spain, Portugal, and Italy. I found the anthropological insights fun and invigorating rather than divisive. That doesn’t mean I don’t rather proudly live up to my label as American or Christian or third degree black belt; I just don’t let the labels define me or create boundaries for me. And if those labels offend someone else, I just remember this book title (never actually read it), “What You Think of Me is None of My Business.”

    99ppp: Culture can often be simply summed up as what one thinks others think or believe. I don’t see why I would have any pride in a culture, since the concept is very abstract and amorphous, and often one not chosen but projected. It’s like the fish taking some pride in the water around it, using your fishbowl analogy.

    I don’t take offense in people asking about my background as I mentioned above, I find it curious. In some cases, it is best to discriminate.. to see the individual.. instead of assigning the presumptions that often come with cultural labels, whether positive and negative. Thanks for your comment.

  2. We are, all of us, creatures of the culture in which we were born into and raised. Our native tongues, for instance, contain values, assumptions, and attitudes of which we are unconscious.

    Our clothes, habits, gestures, mannerisms, beliefs, and values, are inheritances from our families and societies. If any of us had been born in another country, into another culture, and had a different native tongue, we would have been completely different people.

    Let’s not delude ourselves. There’s very little which is original in any of us.

    99ppp: No one is denying the influence of those around us here. What I contest is any firm universal definitions on what those abstractions delineate. Who decides? Who defines? That is the questions raised by the poem, and what I wrote about in the above. I prefer to deal with the person in front of me, rather than an collection of amorphous presumptions I may have about some idea of their “culture/society” or other.

    I highly doubt each of us sense the world in identical ways. I can sit with a family member and dislike a meal s/he likes. Only I know how I sense the world, I can only approximate how others do through our coarse communicative tool called language, where terms are debated constantly. See

    People conceptualize what patterns they see and call them culture and often dispute what that entails. Without people, there is no culture, not the other way around.

    Since total mass/energy is neither created or destroyed, one can argue that nothing is original except in form.

    And concerning delusion, I doubt there is some objective (Big T) Truth that anyone can claim a monopoly over. Often that just describes sets of individual descriptions of perspectives that happen to overlap in some places.

  3. spaceagesage Says:

    I like the way you think through these ideas. Let me offer this: Am I not the sum of my experiences? Culture is a part of that. If you deal with me, are you not also dealing with the culture that formed me, whether either of us want to define or delineate it? Yes, I too, deal with people as people first, but I try to be sensitive to cultural differences so as to not offend unnecessarily and to enhance understanding. If I know you don’t want to see a farm animal butchered, I am not going to invite you out on a farm when a steer is slaughtered for meat. If I know you are a vegetarian, I am not going to serve you meat when you come over to dinner. I would not be defining you by these things, I would simply be trying to be a friend. I understand some people ignorantly label and pigeon-hole other people based on cultural differences, but don’t even those people need us to look at them with sensitivity and understanding instead of defining or delineating them as divisive?

    99ppp: You may be the sum of your experiences, but it would be presumptuous of me to anticipate how you contextualize them. I don’t see the need to project an identity to a guest if s/he indicates they don’t like eating meat. I guess I prefer verbs to nouns. I don’t identify as a omni/carnivore, I eat meat.

    I agree with your last statement. I submitted that ACTS or IDEAS like culture can be divisive, not people. This is the unfortunate consequence of identity, while it is a linguistic shortcut, it tends to incarnate some quality onto an individual when they can change their mind. I can share what I do, think and believe without declaring who I am. I see your intention is to anticipate what may or may not offend another which is admirable, and I submit through asking and listening one can assess how to treat another with respect without relying on any presumptions I may have about a culture.

    I really appreciate your comments. While we may differ in point of views, it sure sparked some interesting discourse. Thank you. 🙂

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