The Ever-Changing Face of Culture: Shaping Identity through the Contemporary Cultural Prism
Culture is a malleable concept subject to change depending on a preponderance of factors. To define what culture means for us, it is imperative we look at it critically and no critical thought can begin without challenging our preconceived notions and asking ourselves that tricky question “What if I’m wrong?” Our societies and broader cultural milieus inform our understanding of culture. Reinventing the way we think about it is crucial to developing a broader understanding of the world. By reducing everything to a tabula rasa and then building upon our know-nothingness in a critical way, we can lay the foundations for a more informed and compassionate view of culture.
We need not limit ourselves to man-made borders or societies’ concepts of which cultural facets are “ours” or “foreign”. My having been born in Serbia should not preclude me from adopting aspects of other cultures, just as it should not limit me to culture endemically “Serbian”. It is not about cultural appropriation, but exchange and appreciation, as well as challenging ethnocentrism.
Communication in the Real World discusses intercultural communication and teaches us how to navigate a world that has always been more diverse than we acknowledge. Context is the key word to take into consideration. If we consider a country as ethnically diverse as the US, most would condemn racism in such a society. However, should we consider a more homogeneous society, such as Japan, would universally-condemned issues be tolerated there more? Similarly, are there to be different sets of expectations for a twenty-something and her grandfather? At which point do reasonable exceptions due to underexposure turn into hypocrisy and unjustifiable excuse-making?
One major issue concerning intercultural communication is that of code-switching. There is an insidious underbelly to it that predominantly affects underprivileged groups. Women often resort to it, lest their confidence be mistaken for sexual assertiveness in situations where they would be vulnerable. African-Americans frequently “tone down their blackness” when interacting with white interlocutors so as to make themselves more palatable to a society in which white privilege very much still exists. By recognising the self-policing done by underprivileged communities and encouraging them to speak up about their hardships, we can force dominant groups to adjust to their unique experiences and create a more welcoming space for everyone.
Such attempts seem unpalatable to many, since they require us to grow. The text suggests abandoning the safe confines of our comfort zone may be uncomfortable, but what I find myself pondering is – Should it be? In the majority of situations, I believe the answer to be a resounding YES. John Dewey stressed the importance of “personal experience in the democratic way of living”. While I only partially agree with his definition, I believe our experiences should dictate what form democracy takes, not vice versa.
We should consider the power dynamics that are so entrenched in our collective understanding of the world. This imbalance of power manifests itself in a variety of different ways, across the rich-poor, white-minority, heterosexual-homosexual, able-bodied-differently-abled spectrums and results in democratic, digital and other divides that further perpetuate an already unjust system.
Culture is creative coordination incarnate. Michael Pupin posited the apex of humanity comes from steering ourselves from chaos into society. This ideal, while sound on paper, isn’t as easily achievable in practice.
In The costs of ’free speech’, Sophie McBain explains how students contribute to an Orwellian atmosphere, as “heated debates over the boundaries of acceptable speech” take place on campuses. These debates saw several presenters de-platformed. McBain’s sources posit there is a culture of safetyism in academia, with students shutting down the discussion of unsettling ideas or banning speakers they deem unsavoury.
Just how “free” free speech should be varies significantly and leads us to somewhat Clockwork-Orange discussions. Should free speech come free of charge to everyone? Should Neo-Nazis, extremists or white supremacists be afforded this right too?
It is a thorny path to navigate, leading ourselves out of anarchy into society, whilst also guaranteeing freedom to everyone. I believe these students’ concerns valid, their passion admirable, yet we must remember there is no such thing as an ideologically pure society or institution.
There are no easy answers when it comes to the iridescence of culture. We should be wary of descriptors such as “mainstream culture”. The margins are starting to fold into the centre. What we long considered culture was culture as written by the wealthiest, whitest among us. The emergence of marginalised voices and growing demands for greater representation are rewriting what culture means and are, rightly or wrongly, making many uncomfortable. How ever we may choose to define culture, the one thing we should never do is paint a coat of reductionism over it.
I hereby confirm that this work is solely the result of my own independent scholarly work and that if any ideas, text passages or diagrams from books, papers, the Web or other sources have been copied, paraphrased, or in any other way used, all references – including those found in electronic media – have been clearly acknowledged and fully cited.
Author anonymous. (2016). 8.3 Intercultural Communication. In editor unknown (Ed.). Communication in the Real World: An Introduction to Communication Studies (1st. ed., pp. 403-414). University of Minnesota, MN: University of Minnesota Libraries
Author anonymous. (2016). 8.4 Intercultural Communication Competence. In editor unknown (Ed.). Communication in the Real World: An Introduction to Communication Studies (1st. ed., pp. 415-421). University of Minnesota, MN: University of Minnesota Libraries
Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and Education. Retrieved from: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/852/852-h/852-h.htm#link2HCH0002
McBain, S. (2018). The costs of “free speech”. New Statesman
Pupin, M. (1923). From Immigrant to Inventor. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons