The issue of “culture”

I think one of the most dominant pillars of the current Euro-American neocolonial project is the way it has used the notion of “culture” to oppress those in the East while at the same time freeing itself. There is little doubt that when a violent or negative event happens at the hands of someone who is not a white male, more often than not, that event falls on the shoulders of everyone in the race/gender/class/religion that the single person who committed the event is from. So when a Muslim man steals, this reflects on all Muslims. When a black woman abandons her child, this reflects on all black people. At the ideological level, this has become very predominant lately. When one Muslim is homophobic, not only are all Muslims homophobic – Islam itself is homophobic. When a woman spends hours in front of the mirror doing her hair, not only are all women obsessively into appearances – the female gender has some intrinsic quality that makes them obsess about appearance.

I was just watching an interesting lecture with Lila abu-Lughod, who criticizes this idea that “cultures of violence” only exist in lands far away from America. She points out that everyday in the US, women are raped, beaten, abused, and stigmatized – but American culture is never blamed. But when the focus is on Egyptian “culture” or Nigerian “culture” or Colombian “culture”, suddenly the violence becomes cultural. The problem with this is not only that it essentializes culture into one homogenous thing, but it is the fact that these discourses apply to “Others” and not to those who are in power. When a white male steals money from millions of Americans, this does not reflect on all white males, nor on American culture, nor on Judeo-Christianity. It reflects only on him. In other words, it is individualized. If he were anything but white, it would have been collectivized – i.e. all people sharing those characteristics would have been made to carry the burden/stigma.

A while ago I wrote a post on the global LGBTQ movement, and Steffo left this amazing comment in reply to another reader who asked what Muslims should do to fight homophobia, even if it was a result of colonial policies:

Homophobia/ queerphobia/ transphobia are always horrible, yes. But we have to look at the fact that if a colonized person is homophobic, that is made to represent their culture as a whole— this does not happen for the colonizers. So when homophobic or transphobic hatecrimes are carried out by white people, this is not seen as representing all white people. We do not find people saying that “white people are homophobic.” But when brown people do bad things, they are seen to represent all brown people. This is racist.

This is exactly what we need to fight against. Why are 2 billion Muslims suffering now because one man crashed into a building in New York? Why are all African-Americans seen as lazy and sexually promiscuous? Why are Eastern Europeans seen as opportunistic and violent? These discourses are extremely prevalent in not only the mainstream media but in academic and intellectual circles as well. This shows how effective the Empire has been at locating certain issues in “culture.”

Cultural arguments are distributed unevenly around the world as explanations for what we are seeing, and if I had to think of one culture to blame for the violence affecting women in the Arab world, it would be that of armed conflict and militarism exemplified by invasions and occupations, like the US of Afghanistan and Iraq; and of Israel to Palestine. We don’t normally relate militarism to American culture or to Judaism or Protestantism, though in these cases, one could say that. But we don’t. We call it politics. And we see that it is connected to economics and so on (Lila abu-Lughod).

Lila gives an example from Palestine, where she shows how Palestinian feminists have traced forms of family violence to the larger political situation of harassment, humiliated men living in poverty, of besieged families living in fear in inhumane conditions. Palestinian women point at the larger structural issues affecting their lives, without brushing under the carpet local family issues. You cannot isolate gender relations from the context of occupation and simply blame it on “Palestinian/Islamic culture.” Not only is this simplistic, but I also don’t believe it is a coincidence or mistake. It happens, repeatedly, in order to produce people of colour/women/LGBTQs as essentially backwards/violent/problematic. 

This reminds me of an article I read last year about how the experiences of going through Apartheid in South Africa can be directly linked to the widespread violence among black men today in the country. The author gave a detailed historical overview of thee effects of Apartheid on black men; economically, politically, socially, psychologically, personally; and then went on to show how these are still manifesting themselves in modern-day South African society. But instead of analyses such as this one, we constantly hear how (black) South African men are naturally violent/can’t control themselves/dangerous and therefore that they need to be disciplined. Again, the reasons are “cultural” and in this case specifically “racial.”

As long as we focus on gendered violence of the personal sphere as though it were detached from the larger, global political sphere, and as long as we selectively blame other cultures or religions for women’s suffering instead of focusing on bigger structures that dictate how women live their lives, structures we in the west are hugely responsible for creating, we won’t be able to solve anything (Lila abu-Lughod).


5 thoughts on “The issue of “culture”

  1. This tendency has its roots in monotheistc ideologies, where wrongs by chosen ones- the believers, are excused & non-believrs demonized. Islam, Christianity, Judaism, all do it to the others. Remember how jews were caricatured in Europe pre-WWII. How Romas r being so caricatured even now. How Africans, Aborigines, Indians, NativAmericans,Chinese, Japanese, other Asians have all been caricatured and their cultures denigrated before conquest. and even after that as well.

    It is characteristic of the monotheistic motivations that color western worldview.

    Insecurity is inherent to monotheistic worldview, which survives on decimating counter views. because the counter views are threat to monotheistic idea by their very existence itself and so the monotheist is constantly driven to engage in denigrating the others.

    In contrast, many native cultures allowed diversity in thought and practices. and coexisted.

    The numerous tribes that existed in Americas prior to western conquest of it, and that still exist in parts of Africa to a some extent, and the numerous jatis of Bharat are testimony to the mature worldview of native cultures which also find reflection in Nature itself with its diversity of beings.

  2. btw, monotheistic tendency is applicabl in the sphere of econmics, politics, medicine, education and arts also. western worldview of selfish aggrandizement gives rise to creation of monothesitic worldview and fuels their aggrandizing drives

    1. I agree with many of the things you said but I don’t think it all comes down to monotheistic views on the world. While it is true that the 3 major religions encourage “Othering” to some extent, I don’t think this is the only reason why we have so many issues understanding different people today.

  3. The monotheistic tendency is the belief that one God made the universe and sustains it, rather than all sorts of little gods. That has nothing to do with demonizing other people. That proceeds from the notion that you have God’s approval by “believing” certain things, regardless of your conduct. The scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all make it pretty clear that what we believe is known by what we do, not by what we profess, but this obvious point escapes most adherents of all three. But monotheism is plainly not the cause, since these hypocrits all show themselves to be polytheists by their conduct.

  4. Pingback: Culture | Lifelong Learning Processes

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