Tuesday 1 January 2013

Culture vs Interculture (re 'In Our Time' BBC Radio 4)

Some brief thoughts on culture after listening to first two of Melvyn Bragg's 'In Our Time' 5 programmes investigating 'what is culture?'

1. Human beings have similarities and variations. On occasions the things that we think are 'the same' vary in how we do them, things that we think are 'fundamentally different' are in fact quite similar.  We all spend a lot of time thinking about these similarities and differences. We comment on them all the time. Some people have made this into an academic study.

2. It's easy to overlook in this study (amateur and professional) of similarity and difference that the very delineation of what is similar or different is itself a matter of opinion or ideology. So, let's say, 'the playing of drums' is something that is 'similar' in that people pick up sticks and whack hollow objects all over the world. However, the way that people do this varies enormously across nations, musics, individuals. That said, what I might call a difference eg whacking hollow objects with sticks as opposed to playing them with open palms, someone else might not notice. So while I might say that the difference is 'significant'. What may be 'significant' is that it's me who's noticed it.

3. One word for these similarities and differences is 'culture'. From working with children and seeing what they bring to a room if you ask them to talk about things that their parents or grandparents have told them, I've been fairly happy with the notion of children as collectors of 'cultures'. What have I understood by the word? Probably nothing more complicated than 'the ways we do things'.

4. A key word in that phrase is 'we'. In truth, the 'we' is ever-changing. In the setting of a classroom, lots of different groupings emerge and dissolve. As was pointed out in the programme, it is 'dangerous' to confine 'culture' to this or that social grouping as if it's fixed, or 'essential' ie that this or that way of behaving was the necessary or inevitable or essential way that this or that group behaves.

5. So, whatever notion we have of 'culture' or 'cultures' it needs to have built into it a sense that it's something we share, borrow and mix.

6. Ultimately, it is only politicians who pursue the notion that there are fixed cultures. Our lot keep trying to define eg 'Britishness'. This is at best embarrassing - because it is so incompetent and without evidence or reason. At worst it is fascistic: an attempt to ringfence a set of ideas about what people are or should be in order to make it easier for politicians to wield power in what is an increasingly unjust system.

7. One word that includes our ways of sharing how we do things is 'interculturalism'. As a single word, it can't do everything but it's not bad. It suggests that if I say that one thing that defines me is food, and one thing I eat is eg 'fish and chips', then I will be very cautious about claiming that 'fish and chips' is something essentially or uniquely English or essentially or uniquely anything! In fact, a historian of 'fish and chips' discovers a) that it evolved historically from different sources of peoples some of whom migrated 'outwards' from England and some who migrated inwards. b) the way people eat fish and chips is itself diverse and varies according to where, when and by whom it is eaten.

8. Much of this doesn't 'matter' very much until it becomes a matter of social conflict, social policy and/or government policy. So, for example: people had to fight very hard in this country for a) religious toleration and b) toleration of atheism. Until those positions were won, people were prevented from doing many things that were restricted to eg members of the Anglican church. Persecution and loss of liberty were suffered too.

9. In the present context, the notion that we share cultures comes under attack. One source of this attack are organisations like the BNP and the EDL who link their idea of an essential, unchanging 'British' or 'white' culture to biology ('race'), nation and ultimately to some kind of takeover of authoritarian power.  An inevitable part of their view and actions is expulsion. People identified as 'the other' have to go. This notion of expulsion has a long history of persecution, mass murder and genocide. Another source is government, who have announced at various times that eg 'multiculturalism' has failed.

10. This statement sometimes has an outward rationality about funding for migrant groups (as if this is a major cause of debt; or that it was the funding that has caused the 'separation' of migrant groups  or has caused their 'exclusion' from the 'mainstream'). Because neither of those suppositions are true (re debt and exclusion), I suspect that the attack on multiculturalism has another purpose. It is a crude shorthand for a form of racism: ie that this country used to be non-multicultural, now it is and that's why this country is 'worse'.

11. I utterly reject the notion that any form of multiculturalism or interculturalism is the cause of anything being worse. If we're going to point the finger as to why or how things have got worse for people, it is really quite simple. The last 30 years have involved a systematic transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. This is on top of the usual process of capitalism (which is to take away the fruits of the labour of the workers). The extra transfer is a result of policies against trade unions, and actions taken to keep down wages, create unemployment (eg through sackings in the public sector), the 'financialisation' of the British economy and the hiving of billions into tax-free havens.

12. However, some on the left attack multiculturalism claiming that it has hindered social progress because it has focussed on 'difference'. My view of this is that no matter what is policy, or what people say we should or should not do about 'the ways we do things', we are all 'cultural' beings. We all express ourselves through 'the ways we do things'. So, if we say, 'OK let's leave multiculturalism' at the door and get on with, say, enjoying a meal or going to the movies or listening to music' - this is a contradiction in terms. That meal, that movie and that music will itself be culturally specific. As I've said before, what matters is the degree to which it matters! It's not that there is actually difference and/ or perceived difference.  And it's not only the 'degree to which it matters' it is also how that 'degree of mattering' engages with 'power'.

13. So, there is a fundamental difference between the way we share cultures and defend our right to share cultures and when or if this comes under attack from those in power, or indeed if those in power try to impose a view of this on us.

14. So, unlike one or two speakers on the programme on Radio 4, I would suggest that we don't dispense with the word 'culture' or 'cultures' but claim another: 'interculturalism'.