The concept of culture is slippery and difficult to grasp. Sometimes you find it holding you back
I want to talk about culture, but my first thought is: I don’t know what culture is. I don’t believe anyone else does either. In college I took something called Sociology 101 or Bonehead Sociology or Sociology for Dummies. The professor professed culture was what was transmitted from one generation to the next. I asked for any evidence he knew that showed the definition he gave had ever helped understand culture in any way. He scowled.
When I was first taught the word, around the age of 6 or 7, the term was used in analogy with the cultivation of land. Culture wasn’t limited to what the acorn got from mother oak. Culture included the soil the acorn grew in. Sure, mother oak contributed to the soil, her roots broke it up and her leaves added mulch, but the soil had other contributors.
I have a love/hate relationship with culture. I’m a xenomaniac, because I’m crazy-happy when I’m around people saying and doing things I don’t understand. I spend hours at night browsing international YouTube videos whose languages I don’t remotely understand. Most are music videos that can be appreciated just for the sounds, but I also love watching news reports, talk shows and comedy performances, including sitcoms and farces.
At the same time, I don’t feel that culture has always been good to me. Sometimes I lose patience with culture, and I want to kick culture in the shins.
I’ve frequently found myself dealing with people for whom culture has a third meaning, that of breeding, which mixes it up with class and ethnicity and makes it an excuse to build walls and barriers.
But also, especially when I was growing up, culture has commonly meant the ways people were expected to behave together, i.e., it referred to culturally approved norms and strictures of behavior and taste. So culture was a monster that was going to force me to go to parties I didn’t want to go to, make me learn to dance certain ways, tell me what to wear and how to fix my hair, when and how to say please and thank you, what to do when someone sneezes and, worst of all, tell me when to smile and when not to.
“You need to smile more.” “Wipe that smile off your face.” “If you don’t smile, your face will freeze that way.” “You need to learn to show respect and take what we say seriously.” “You’ll be more popular if you smile more.”
In eighth grade I wasn’t doing any of my homework in various classes, so I had to see the school counselor, Mrs. Brown, to determine if I had a disorder. Mrs. Brown was very concerned that I didn’t smile enough and said that smiling would help me because I would use fewer muscles smiling.
The implication was that maybe if I frowned less, I’d have more strength left over to do my English homework.
I assured her that frowning wasn’t the cause of my not doing homework. So she asked me what the cause was, then, if it wasn’t my emotions. I told her I didn’t do the homework because I didn’t want to do it.
She said I was socially maladjusted, and I could improve by working on my attitude, starting with smiling more. I thanked her and smiled. I left as quickly as possible, because I was sure I didn’t want to be around her when I laughed out loud.
There’s culture as social control. There’s culture as a guise for classism and ethnic discrimination. There’s culture as differences to be learned about, sometimes celebrated, sometimes rejected.
My fear is that people will never do their homework when it comes to culture, that its meanings will never be properly unraveled. They’ll accept some pat definition from some authority who has nothing to say about how cultural differences really matter in our lives and never do the hard work of sorting out the power relationships from the norms.
Culture has to be talked about.
CommentsI hope you don't mind if I link to your article on the RC website and ask my students to participate in an online discussion about the examples and definitions you cite.
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