Arlene Goldbard has a scathing, and I believe justified, attack on Kwame Anthony Appiah’s recent New York Times Magazine article, “The Case for Contamination.” She writes:
Much of his work has opposed the idea that we are limited by arbitrary facts of identity –race, sexual orientation, and so on — which tend to become dictates; instead, he asserts the individual’s freedom from all imposed categories. From the perspective of individual liberty, I agree.
… But in his Times essay, Appiah elaborates an entire cultural policy based on nothing more than the individual’s right to make his own path by walking through the cultures of the world.
The Appiah article is an extended attack on UNESCO’s “Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.”
Appiah sets up a straw man to stand in for those who endorse the Convention. He calls them purists and compares their relationship to cultures under pressure from globalization to the anxious “assistant on the film set who’s supposed to check that the extras in a sword-and-sandals movie aren’t wearing wristwatches.” He says (without a shred of evidence) that those concerned to preserve cultures want to force people to “maintain their ‘authentic’ ways,” a goal I have never heard anyone espouse (and I am moderately well-informed on this subject). And he dismisses those who feel their own cultures are threatened by globalization as merely expressing discomfort with change: “[T]he world, their world, is changing, and some of them don’t like it.”
What Goldbard finds so disturbing about this approach is Appiah’s trivializing of the important ways in which economic inequality limits the choices people can make, and I think she is right to focus on these issues. Unfortunately, however, her criticism falls flat. While she exposes a fundamental flaw in Appiah’s cosmopolitan individualism, she never really makes it clear how cultural rights can serve to help those who have been dealt cards from the bottom of the pile. What is missing here is a sense of history.
Globalization is not a new phenomenon. In fact, there are good arguments that today’s globalization is far more limited than what the world witnessed at the peak of the colonial era. What Appiah is noticing is not so much the product of the integration of the world’s economies as it is the rise of a cosmopolitan global elite. The second part of this historical comparison is to remember for a second what cultural imperialism actually looks like. While today’s cultural imperialism may seem mild, we mustn’t forget what real cultural imperialism entailed: people being forcibly removed from their homes to be raised in Western families, people punished in school for speaking their own language, people forcibly converted to Western religions, etc. The damage done from real cultural imperialism has a direct impact on how people are affected by cultural imperialism “lite.”
Appiah’s article suggests a world in which people can choose freely to mix and match between various cultural forms, but this ignores how colonialism has already depleted the cultural store from which people can pick and choose. If your mother tongue was banned for two generations, it isn’t exactly easy to pick and choose your language. Cultural rights are intended to level an already uneven playing field and to right past wrongs.
Which is not to say that there aren’t problems with the UNESCO convention. I believe its quasi-ecological language misconstrues what “culture” is, but this is not the argument Appiah is making. He essentially accepts this reified notion of culture, even as he celebrates cultural hybridity. For Appiah, cultural death is ultimately a natural process, akin to Darwinian natural selection. Who are we to interfere? Only buy understanding the political, economic, and historical dimensions of culture can we begin to see what is wrong with both UNESCO’s conservation efforts and Appiah’s critique of them.
NOTE: I made a similar argument in an Anthropology News piece [PDF] three years ago. Also in relation to a New York Times article. I had better start getting ready for 2009…
9 thoughts on “The Impact of Real Colonialism on Colonialism “Lite””
What, precisely, is the argument in favor of cultural rights?
I read all 3 linked articles, and I’m still not getting it. Everyone seems to think that its common knowledge. Appiah references it, then Goldbard calls his references straw men, without actually explaining the allegedly real argument which she believes Appiah is reducing to a straw person. You just make some vague comments about the history of colonialism, which don’t actually get me anywhere- at first you seem to accept the idea that the availability or inavailability of individual cultural choice is the real issue, and that history has prescribed the options available for an individual to choose, but of course Appiah is correct when he says that history has also made new options available for the same individuals. Appiah is also correct in noting that traditionalism tends to produce conformity and prescribe choices. How then is this any more than a dispute over which list of prescribed choices we ought to support?
You quote Appiah with regard to the argument “that history has made new options available for the same individuals.” Both Goldbard and I are saying that those benefiting from these new options are not, in fact, the same individuals. I think that is pretty clear from both our articles. In fact, I don’t see how you could have read all three articles and still ask this question.
Contrary to the other two authors I discuss, I’m not sure that it is possible to articulate a generic argument for cultural rights. Rather, I take a more historicist approach in which such arguments must be grounded in local histories and contemporary practicies. I thought this was clear from my second to last paragraph.
I almost feel as if you want a real straw man you can attack and you are upset that the authors fail to provide one for you …
“Contrary to the other two authors I discuss, I’m not sure that it is possible to articulate a generic argument for cultural rights. Rather, I take a more historicist approach in which such arguments must be grounded in local histories and contemporary practicies. I thought this was clear from my second to last paragraph.”
It was clear that you said it, but its not clear what it *means.*
In my experience most demands for cultural rights are not made by outsiders as Appiah would have us believe, but are demands that come directly from the affected communities themselves. In fact, these demands are often part of the very attempt to define what is meant by “community.” The reason that it is difficult to define cultural rights too broadly is that each and every community comes to define itself quite differently. But it is absurd to assume that cultural rights somehow limit individual choice. Culture is the framework within which individual choices are made – or even what it means to be an individual.
“In my experience most demands for cultural rights are not made by outsiders as Appiah would have us believe, but are demands that come directly from the affected communities themselves.”
But its important not to think that just because the demand arose from within the community, it adequately represents the collective will of the community. In that regard, this sentence is somewhat telling:
“In fact, these demands are often part of the very attempt to define what is meant by “community.”
Right. I’m none too thrilled by those sorts of attempts. They generally function by drawing lines through the community, and casting out everyone on the “wrong” side.
“But it is absurd to assume that cultural rights somehow limit individual choice.”
But if cultural rights often arise out of an effort at preserving the old power structures within a culture, and those power structures limited individual choice, the assumption isn’t so absurd.
Then Patrick said:
I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing, though it isn’t necessarily pretty or nice. Among many Indian tribes, such as the Meskwaki that I’m most familiar with, factionalism — however hurtful it may or may not have been in the short run — has functioned as a way of holding communities together over the long haul. Although the “tradtionalist v. progressive” split portrayed in a lot of mid-century anthropology doesn’t adequately capture the nuances of American Indian factionalism, it’s close enough for what I want to say here. The thing is, factionalism acted in many instances as a buffer of sorts, mediating the introduction and adoption of new technologies and practices, and facilitiating the “nativization” of those new adoptions (I made that word up; my apologies if it already means something else). So, for instance, the adoption of a tribal Constitution under the Indian Reorganization Act was hotly disputed for years, with sides breaking along familiar factional lines. Over the next couple decades, the existence of a rival faction severely limited the ability of the new, American-style council to adopt any sweeping reforms in the community — whether the Oldbear faction (roughly the “traditionalists”) or the Youngbear faction (roughly the “progressives”; these labels hardly do justice to the situation, but I don’t have space for an in-depth history here) was in power at the time. Any strong action taken by the council was loudly declaimed as either “too white” or “too old-fashioned” by the opposition — generally leading to a reversal in the folowing election. Meanwhile, behind this “firewall”, changes slowly took hold at the pace of individual Meskwakis. Today, like many Indian peoples, the Meskwaki have a very strong identity as Meskwaki, though of course their culture is radically different from that of a century ago.
This doesn’t mean that there’s no splits within the community — the debate over community and identity is a fierce one, but it bears noting that however bitter such factional struggles become, Indian tribes rarely manage to reach the point where threats of exclusion become actual exclusion (the Seminole are an exception in this regard). Among the Meskwaki, it sometimes seems as if there’s a “social thermostat” regulating things — when things lean too far one way or the other, when one faction or the other becomes too powerful, some number of people always seem to shift their allegiances. For instance, in the highly contested election several years ago, Youngbears won with a large majority; a couple years later, some 90% of the community had signed petitions for recall. In the BIA-mandated election after the recall, Oldbears won with 95+% of the vote.
Would the Meskwaki be happier if such factions hadn’t emerged, if this often vicious debate about community hadn’t happened? I don’t know — but it seems very that had the whole community embraced the Youngbear position, the Meskwaki would have more or less dispersed into the surrounding anglo community. And if the whole community had embraced the Oldbear position, it seems likely that the community would have been wiped out, unable to maintain any sort of living while the world around them changed. Happy or not, the Meskwaki still exist, and largely on their own terms.
While I too may not always be happy with the outcomes of such indigenous community building, the question is whether I have the right to therefore impose upon the community my own vision of liberal individualism? While there might be situations where such intervention might be justified (i.e. to protect human rights) I think the answer is usually a resounding “no.” But as interesting as such debates are, I think we are moving into the territory of the “feminism vs. multiculturalism” debate Rex linked to earlier, and quite far from the kinds of arguments Appiah is trying to make. Appiah’s argument rests on some fundamental misconceptions about the nature and purpose of cultural rights movements. If we are going to debate these issues we must at least first recognize the situations under which such cultural rights claims might be considered legitimate, even if we don’t necessarily like the outcomes.
Sorry, I was referring to a post on Rex’s own blog, not on SM. here is the link. I think Patrick will enjoy reading through that discussion.
“While I too may not always be happy with the outcomes of such indigenous community building, the question is whether I have the right to therefore impose upon the community my own vision of liberal individualism?”
I am going to read the link you posted, but give me time, I’m busy with the end of the semester.
For now I will only say that if the issue involves multiple groups within a community, siding with either faction amounts to imposing your own vision on the community.
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