The Culture Fetish
by Benjamin Studebaker
Many people on the left believe that all cultures are of equal value and that, above all other things, a people’s culture should be preserved and prevented from any kind of assimilation or westernisation. Today I would like to challenge this line of thinking–not, as is commonly done, with an appeal to western nationalism and decaying imperialist sentiment, but by accusing this line of thinking of being reactionary and logically unsuitable for the political left.
First, let’s be clear about what is meant by cultural conservation–the idea that every culture is equal in value, that no culture can be placed ahead of any other, that languages and existing cultural practises of all kinds should be preserved, that westernisation should be avoided, all in the name of promoting cultural diversity and avoiding cultural hegemony by the west.
There are several broad criticisms I’d like to make:
- Quality of Life: Cultural conservation frequently opposes higher order left-wing goals
- Anti-historical: Cultural conservation imposes an artificial and historically unnatural development path upon civilisations
- Inherent Conservatism: Cultural conservation is indistinguishable from domestic tradition preservation and should be considered part of social conservatism, not sociological leftism
- Inherent Imperialism: Trying to prevent other populations from adopting western cultural practises is ethically indistinguishable from imposing western cultural practises upon them
I will consider each in turn.
Quality of Life:
Developmental goals for poor states and societies, including things like economic development, health care, and education, can be and indeed are frequently stymied by existing culture. For example, there are many communities that use rare languages that are not globally popular. Many people on the left advocate for these languages to be preserved and for these communities to continue using these languages, even though their continued predominance over more global languages cuts the community off from the global economy and reduces the life prospects of its members. Another such example would be the preservation of traditional medicinal or construction practises, even though such practises lead to higher mortality rates, or the education of young members in traditional crafts at the expense of the mathematical, verbal, or scientific skills needed to prosper in modern society, or communities continuing to live on tribal territories or reservations cut off from outside technological and economic progress. The continuity of cultural practises that work against technological advancement and standard of living improvements thwart development goals and hold back the progress of the civilisation in question. They result in an unnecessary continual poverty cycle for these communities and a loss of economic potential for the states in which they live. Leftists, who are above all against the institution of poverty, should not deny societies the opportunity to adopt western cultural practises when those practises will augment quality of life and increase the community’s pace of technological progress. The members of these communities should not have their quality of life diminished in order to be a means to the culture fetishist’s diversity goals.
A further criticism is that throughout history, cultures and civilisations do not develop in vacuums, never coming into contact with neighbours. Technological and cultural developments frequently spread geographically through the interactions among people. Languages, religions, technologies, art, sport, trade-able goods, all have historically spread from place to place, from society to society. This sharing of knowledge and cultural practises allows different cultures to learn from each other and choose to make changes to themselves in order to continue to progress and adapt. A culture cut off from all others cannot adapt to changing circumstances and loses the opportunity to learn from others. Many proponents of cultural conservation do indeed wish to learn from currently existing divergent cultures, but they would deny these cultures the same opportunity to learn from western culture and consider adopting its practises. They emphasise the demerits of western culture and claim these communities are better off developing independently, but no culture has ever successfully developed modern technology in isolation. Things like modern medicine, modern architecture, and modern agriculture are simply unknown to many of these cultures or severely under developed as a result of their isolation. While they may not be aware of the gap in their quality of life, it nonetheless exists, and keeping them in the dark about it in order to encourage continued fealty to tradition and diversity is a cruelty.
Preservation of all cultures and languages as a point of principle is also extremely conservative. Many of these cultures include practises that westerners would be loathe to live under. Many of these cultures are sexist, or do not permit various religious or political freedoms, or continue to use out of date technologies resulting in reduced quality of life, and so on. To encourage these cultures to continue these practises harms people and reduces their quality of life. The very same people who advocate for cultural preservation in other cultures are often also people who oppose cultural preservation within their own culture. Perhaps they would like to see more equality of the sexes, or more rights for LGBT people, and so on. They would deny the opportunity for other cultures to develop and progress while embracing the fruits of development and progression for themselves. They might argue that “development” and “progression” are subjective, that I am wrong to state that some cultures are “progressing” while others are not, but if you reduce the meaning of “progress” down from “positive improvement”, which is indeed subjective, to “any change at all in any given direction”, an objectively verifiable observation, you see that not only are culture fetishists opposing policies that might, under our own views and sensibilities, help people, they are also opposing any change at all for its own sake. Opposing change on principle irrespective of its results is a highly conservative position, and such supposed leftists should be made to abandon their label.
Finally, preservation of all cultures and languages against the wishes of said cultures or without offering further options to said cultures is a kind of imperialism every bit as malevolent as anything practised in the 19th century. What the cultural fetishist is saying is “I know what is best for you (i.e. independent development) and I will seek to impose this upon you.” That is no different ethically from a 19th century imperialist saying “I know what is best for you (i.e. industrialisation and Christianity) and I will seek to impose this upon you,” except that the cultures impacted by the 19th century variant now have roads, railways, antibiotics, and other things to show for it. By no means should we return to the imperialist view that holds that western culture is the answer to everyone’s problems and that it should be universally imposed, but the converse, that western culture is the answer to nobody’s problems and that it should be universally avoided, is just as bad in principle and arguably has worse consequences. Imperialism in its rawest terms is the notion that some people should tell other people how to live. Whether that’s “live like we do” or “do not live like we do” is immaterial. For these cultures to preserve their practises even when said practises are harming them so that western sociologists, linguists, and others can study them for their own amusement is every bit as imperialist and silly as it was to force those cultures to provide westerners with mineral resources in days past.
The left has an obligation first and foremost to the people in poor countries and their needs. Diversity must not be prioritised over helping people to develop the technologies and cultural practises necessary to support a higher quality of life. Doing so is irrational and illogical.