Life in Britain is becoming more multi-cultural. We hear this view from the media, the government and experts all the time. But what does this ‘culture’ for which we are diversifying actually mean?
Collins English dictionary outlines culture as “the total of the inherited ideas, beliefs, values, and knowledge, which constitute the shared bases of social action”. Yet when we here about culture, a specific way of life or belief system, why do we nearly always focus on the ‘other’ or the ‘different’. It seems that to be a person of ‘culture’ (beyond the liberal arts definition) you have to belong to a group that has a strongly defined ‘alternative’ lifestyle.
Does this twisting of culture, to mean someone from a strongly valued minority, suggest that the ‘cultured’ among us will be far more understanding towards cultures beyond their own than the rest of us?
Lets take the example of someone having a clearly defined religion. This person of ‘Culture’ attends religious ceremonies, prays in a regular manner, has strong beliefs on morality and family, and is in the minority in our Western increasingly secular society. Will this person be more likely to travel to far-flung regions and investigate cultures such as the Massai tribesman or Tibetan Buddhist monks, than someone with no clearly defined religious, social or political beliefs?
If you are a person with very rigid beliefs and practices surrounding religion or politics or society or ethics then you are deemed ‘of culture’. Therefore is Western Society right in assuming you would be more understanding towards ‘remote cultures’ than say the average ‘Londoner’. You understand what it is like to believe in something very strongly, to have a defined lifestyle that stems from your values of the world. Strong values to strong values, yes?
Another example, this time of the ‘Londoner’. A man, thirty-five, works as an assistant manager in the city, agnostic, drinks in moderation, votes for his favourite candidate regardless of party, has an on-off partner. Our environment tells us that this person is the ‘neutral’, a person without strong religious, social or political beliefs; he cannot be ‘of culture’. Therefore does that mean that he sees our first person as an enigma, a strange mix of inherited ideas, beliefs and values, totally impregnable to him? Surely if he went to the Massai he would boggle at them, he would be confused and disconcerted?
No. It is a myth that our second man has no culture when the truth is he is as much a man of ‘culture’ as our first religious follower. The ‘Neutral’ is not neutral at all. We have just heard a series of inherited views throughout his description, a barrage of cultural information. We know he drinks moderately (believing in a healthy body), he votes politically by candidate (he invests trust in an individual rather than a more holistically-themed party), he has an on-off partner and he is thirty-five (he believes in relationships but doesn’t believe marriage/civil partnership should be rushed). In just three vaguely descriptive statements we have learnt about the intellectual, social and moral views of the Londoner. Just as the ‘cultured’ believes in the family, looks after his soul through prayer and believes in the justice of a God/Gods, the Londoner has a whole stream of cultural beliefs.
What happens then when we introduce our two men to ‘remote cultures’?
The ‘Cultured’ might admire the dedication of the Tibetan monks; or he might protest at their rejection of a God. The ‘Londoner’ might see similarities between the structural order of the Massai tribe and his own CEO-lead company (from Laibon to children); or he might be baffled by their pastoral way of life when he is so used to technological dependency.
We all have our own culture; we all have our own beliefs that develop over our lives. Culture is not exclusive and neither should be understanding.