Happy New Year! Caught some of this Melvyn Bragg series yesterday (link above for those in the UK) and today while dragging myself up from hibernatory winter sleep, exploring the history of debates over the last century and a half about ‘culture‘ – what the word means and what value culture has. Five part series. I’ve only heard snatches of today’s (1st January, 2013) but it includes a discussion of the anthropological perspective on culture.
2nd January one is on “the two cultures” – the science vs arts/humanities divide – with discussion of C.P. Snow, F.R. Leavis and so on. Interesting factoid: in 1959 when Snow talked of science as the poor relation of the two, there were twice as many science undergraduates as arts and humanities ones in the UK; and the government was investing massively in military and civil science projects. Though I suspect his basic point was right and remains true today – these two intellectual traditions to do not communicate easily and there is mutual suspicion. Sir Paul Nurse provides the modern scientist’s perspective: he was intimidated as a working class boy by the prevailing dominance within education system of an arts culture that seemed to belong to a distant elite.
Back to the 1st Jan episode, one anthropologist criticises the popular habit of seeking to understand individuals through the prism of the ‘culture’ they come from. He feels we underestimate individuals’ abilities to think freely and escape the values they have grown up with. As he sees it, ‘culture’ has become another way, after the discrediting of racial categorisation in the 20th Century, for us to lump groups of people together into blocks in a simplistic way. It encourages a convenient but dehumanising habit of pigeonholing.
I see his point but from a Northern Irish perspective, I’ve come to understand what happens when you don’t bear in mind the different cultural backgrounds of the people you’re listening to. You can only really understand political arguments by delving a little into the cultural norms underpinning those arguments – which in N. Ireland differ markedly between the two communities (broadly, the Protestant/British community and the Catholic/Irish one). Politics academic Arthur Aughey has written of an Irish nationalist Kulturkampf (cultural struggle) against what some of them would see as the thinner cultural heritage of Ulster Protestants; and it cuts both ways. It may be unfortunate, but in Northern Ireland, knowing who is making an argument greatly informs understanding of what they are really getting at. Each side is wise to the other’s agenda and indeed the cultural values that lead the other side to a different conclusion than its own.
Whether consciously or not, arguments about relative rights, justice and fairness coming from the two communities cannot be understood without thinking about their different cultural norms around authority, violence, sacrifice and individual responsibility, as well as the differences in ethnic and national identities between the two peoples. There is no getting around this – for example, if a hardliner on one side comes up with a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign to win over people on the other side, it is reasonable to wonder whether he/she has really changed or is just putting the same old demands in more flowery language.
Sadly, the cynics have usually been right. The danger in this though is that it then becomes hard for those like Alliance who want to leave ‘identity politics’ behind and get on with real politics. They have to satisfy people first as to where they stand on the Kulturkampf before they can get a hearing on anything else.