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).

Ted X Rotterdam

So last week I attended Ted X Rotterdam, an event meant for the “top students in the Netherlands.” There were over 1,200 top students there, and I am mentioning this because it will make this story even more shocking.

I’ve always loved TED because it is more critical and less mainstream than other media. The lectures are often inspiring, thought-provoking and original. So I had high hopes for the locally organized TED event in Rotterdam.

Basically, after 10+ hours of lectures and performances, I was left disgusted, angry, and repulsed by the narratives I was hearing. Other than the musical performances, it was an absolute disgrace. Almost every lecture had an undertone of white European superiority. The non-European/Western world was only brought up as “the third world” – rarely a specific country – and only as a helpless, victim that the superior west had to help, out of its infinite kindness.

So what has changed since colonialism? This is EXACTLY what the colonial mindset was. Superior-inferior; first world-third world.

And what was discussed when the third world came up? Famine. War. Disease. AIDS.

Bad bad bad.

Not a single positive thing. Even after revolutions, social movements, and major shifts across the so-called “third world” this year. Even though the third world comprises the majority of the world’s population. Even though the “third world” is beautiful, complex, diverse, lovable, traumatized, and millions of other things.

So why do we only see it as a victim? As a picture of a starving child? We don’t even need to know where the child is from – we just know it is African because that is all the media shows us.

We don’t need to understand HOW the “third world” became “under-developed.” How the west did most of this, and continues to do most of this. No. We just need to know this is how it is and that we should donate a few euros and forget about it.

Dutch people probably left the event feeling superior, safe; all their stereotypes confirmed. Nothing about what they can do POLITICALLY to help. Nothing about how the Netherlands is responsible for many of the problems in these countries. Nothing dangerous; nothing critical.

Its disgusting. It made me want to be back in the “third world” because there is no denial; no sense of cultural superiority that I have seen in too many Dutch people. Read a history book, and then tell me you are proud of what your country has done and CONTINUES to do.

I looked around the hall at people applauding yet another lecture about death in the third world and how Dutch people need to donate more money, and I thought: wow. I don’t care how hard life is in countries less well-off economically. I would rather live there and not be brainwashed, than live here and think that this is how the world is.