Quito | Credit: Patricio Mena Vásconez, Wikimedia Commons

Quito | Credit: Patricio Mena Vásconez, Wikimedia Commons - Photo: 2020

Chronicles of Culturological Quackery

Viewpoint by Martin Paleček*

This article was originally published on openDemocracy. Any views or opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of IDN-InDepth News

Hradec Králové, Czech Republic (IDN) – The concept of culture as a ‘driver of societies’ that has become the lucky charm of nationalists has its origins in the oeuvres of some prominent academics.

Resistance against Islam’s influence on public life in Europe has been on display for decades. When Frits Bolkesteijn, a Dutch liberal-conservative, raised his eyebrows at the impact of Islam in 1991, he triggered a major debate. Bolkesteijn was advocating liberal principles that may contrast with some Islamic traditions to this day: the separation of church and state, gender equality, the preservation of a neutral and “rational” public space.

After the terrorist attacks on New York on September 11, 2011, however, the European debate converged onto viewpoints regarding identity and culture. The then Chairwoman of the Danish People’s Party, who later became a Speaker of the Parliament, called the 9/11 terrorist attacks a crime against “our civilisation”. In the meantime, an academically criticised but influential prophecy of a “clash of civilisations” penned by a Harvard political scientist, Samuel Huntington, permeated into political communication.

By the time Geert Wilders gained six per cent for his nativist Party for Freedom in the 2006 Dutch parliamentary elections, opponents of Islam rarely differentiated between political Islam and Islam as such anymore. In his party manifesto, Wilders called Islam “a totalitarian ideology” which “prescribes to its supporters a perpetual war until the moment that the whole world is Islamic”.

Mainstream politicians, meanwhile, began to use rhetoric about “cultural” wholes which mirrored in their own way the grandiose confrontational spirit of “crusader” stories long narrated by the extremists in the Middle East. The Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, for instance, called a 2016 Christmas market terrorist attack in Berlin “an attack against the cultural identity of Europe”.

Cultural counter-revolution

In the same year, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Chair of the Polish ruling party, announced a “cultural counter-revolution” based on the defence of Christianity, the nation and the family. The Czech ‘left-wing’ President Miloš Zeman stated that “Islamic” migration “means” misogynistic “culture”, belatedly adopting the language of Petr Fiala, Chair of the traditional mainstream ‘right-wing’ party, who called the Muslim headscarf “a sign of culture that threatens us”. And Viktor Orbán, always the most lucid of speakers, declared the Hungarian government’s wish “to avoid changing the cultural or ethnic composition” of his “homeland”.

In political communication across Europe, Islam has thus become what Susi Meret, a professor at the University of Aalborg, called “a floating signifier”. As for the Danish example, Meret pointed out how Islam was now represented as a major threat to the nation’s values, principles and cultural identity.

Original understandings of ‘culture’

The term “culture” itself began to be used to describe convictions, behaviours and norms of whole societies only in the nineteenth century. Until then, it denoted the level of self-development that a person can attain if she improves her soul. When anthropologists described religious rituals and various other anomalies that they noticed in faraway countries, they borrowed the term.

Bronis Malinowski was one of the most ambitious. He refused to theorise in the armchairs on the porches of colonial estates. Instead, he chose participant observation among the natives. He rejected the view that “no common measure of cultural phenomena can be found” or that “the laws of cultural processes are vague, insipid, and useless.”

Instead of distinct tools (cutlery versus chopsticks), Malinowski focused on habits and norms. He started to think about culture as a “vast apparatus” by which people can “cope with” the problems that they “face”. In the minds of his many readers in then colonial Britain, he effectively civilised cultures then referred to as “primitive” while primitivising cultures labelled “civilised”.

Seeing culture as a function, broadly speaking, captivated Malinowski to the point that he began to believe that manifestations of culture drive the life of a community. Hence his classification as a so-called functionalist. In the 1990s, the concept of culture as an engine of societies was elevated by another influential academic. Huntington predicted that cultural and religious identity will be the prevailing source of future conflicts. Islam and Orthodox Christianity was, he believed, bound to clash with Western Christianity. This is the academic milieu on which most politicians and commentators draw, wittingly or not when they sermonise about “cultural spheres”.

Flaws of megalomania

There are several reasons why giving pompous roles to culture is usually just a romantic fantasy. Firstly, individuals think something about the world. Personal views based on which they act, are undoubtedly affected by the legal and social norms in the country in which they live. Such norms, however, evolve in time. If the individuals move, their attitudes change also in space. Muslims are no exception.

Secondly, cultural boundaries are not clear-cut. If pundits want to capture the political development of the Czech Republic, they can speak of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia as of one “culture”. If, however, they speak of piety, they must acknowledge Moravians as a whole as more religious and more prudish than Bohemians. If the subject is folk music, they can assign Bohemia to Bavaria but Moravia to Hungary.

Thirdly, “cultures” are internally diverse. Christians much like Muslims, for instance, celebrate holiday serving as the culmination of fasting. According to scripture, the holiday is meant for repentance. The local variations of Easter, celebrated in traditionally Christian countries, and of Eid al-Fitr, celebrated in traditionally Muslim countries, however, differ. In most regions of Central Europe, instead of repentance, women are whipped with willow sticks on Easter Monday. Muslims, as well as Christians from neighbouring countries, wonder at it. Elsewhere, the aforementioned tradition is taken up by women. The Irish do none of that: on Easter Monday, they commemorate the suppression of a national uprising of 1916.

In other words, cultures are neither firmly demarcated, nor internally homogenous, nor unchanging, nor determining like the functionalists maintained. In addition, “cultural spheres” or “civilisations” are not actors bent on clashing with others. “Civilisations” do not have agency and cannot act. Stephen Walt, a political scientist at Harvard, puts it succintly:

“For good or ill, [representatives of] states still drive most of the world’s politics. Clashes within Huntington’s various “civilisations” are still more frequent and intense than clashes between them. Moreover, seeing the future as a vast contest between abstract cultural groupings is a self-fulfilling prophecy: If we assume the adherents of different religions or cultural groups are our sworn enemies, we are likely to act in ways that will make that a reality.”

Shapes of identity

That is not to say that the determinants of differences in the development of nations are difficult to find. Rather, it is to say there are explanations of development related to “culture” which are far more telling than quasi-racist innuendos. In the 1990s, Francis Fukuyama, a political scientist at Stanford, pointed to interpersonal trust. In the long term, the increase of ethnic diversity promises long life to successful immigrant societies but in the short term, “it can pose a challenge for the prevalence of trust.”

To accept immigrants as one of them, most natives in many countries consider it essential for immigrants to learn the most common language. According to a Pew survey of ten European countries conducted in 2016, however, a common language is not enough for everyone. Over 65 per cent of Hungarians and Greeks told the pollsters that it is “very important“ for the others to share not just language but also “customs and traditions”.

To consider cultural similarity a fundamental social bond, as the prominent Czech-British anthropologist Ernest Gellner noted, is the essence of nationalism. Such a view of culture thus inadvertently becomes a political argument.

For many politicians, infusing communication with romantic cultural abstractions is a way to distract people from their accountability for governance. Journalists must not make the same mistake that Malinowski did when he believed that it was possible to extricate culture from politics. Instead, the journalists can take inspiration from some of Malinowski‘s writings. Although the anthropologist thought of culture as a driver, he presented most of his work in the form of detailed accounts of its particular aspects. To push politicians to concreteness would be a first step in leaving the chimaera of “culture” behind us and returning to the real world.

* Martin Paleček is an Associate Professor at the University of Hradec Králové and a member of the Editorial Board of the Philosophy of the Social Sciences journal. He was a visiting scholar the Wolfgang Goethe-Universität, the New School for Social Research, University of Oslo, University of Cambridge and Emory University. [IDN-InDepthNews – 15 August 2020]

Photo: Bronislaw Malinowski with Trobriand islanders, 1917 – 1918. | Wikicommons/LSE Library Collection. Some rights reserved.

IDN is Flagship Agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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