Cultural Anarchy

Why is it that so many people claim, usually with considerable passion, “I’m an American!” or “I’m Canadian” or what have you?

To identify yourself by country is to accept the territorial divisions made by people with economic power eager to retain that power.  So why the passion?  Furthermore, why grant such importance to an accident of birth?  You had nothing to do with where you were born.

To identify yourself by the country in which you happened to be born is bad enough, but to identify yourself by the country in which your parents or grandparents or greatgrandparents were born, as many do (“I’m African-American!” and “I’m Japanese-American!”), according to the birthplace of people you may not even have known, people who are long dead, is worse.  Why is where your grandparents were born so much more important than what you think, what you value, and what you do?  Why wouldn’t you identify yourself that way?  “I’m an atheist” or “I’m an environmentalist” or “I’m a painter.”  Identification by country of ancestral origin smacks of tribalism.[1]

For some people, such identity claims are a matter of culture, not country.  But what is culture?  What exactly is cultural identity?  Race, religion, and nation are often used almost interchangeably to define culture: consider ‘I’m Black’, ‘I’m Christian’, ‘I’m Chinese-Canadian’; consider ‘I’m Jewish’ which is, apparently, a bit of all three.

First, insofar as cultural identity is racial identity, it must, again, depend on an accident of birth, on chance, on something you did not consent to: we do not choose our race – we do not choose the colour of our skin, the shape of our eyes, the bridge of our nose, the fullness of our lips, etc.

Second, insofar as cultural identity is religious identity, and insofar as religion is a system of beliefs, it is, at least, not an accident of birth: one cannot be born a Catholic, for example, because one cannot be born believing anything, one simply doesn’t have the cognitive capacity at birth to form beliefs.  But that kind of cultural identity is, then, something you can have only as an adult, when you have developed the intellectual faculty capable of understanding, assessing, and choosing beliefs.

Third, insofar as cultural identity is national identity, we are, barring emigration, back to an accident of birth and an endorsement of political ‘agreements’.

Perhaps, rather than defining culture as a matter of race, religion, or nationality, it is better defined as a collection of costumes and customs, mere habits, practices, a way of living.  But it seems strange to elevate your habits to the status of an identity, and then, perhaps, to demand certain rights on the basis of those habits.

What about defining culture as a set of values?  This would certainly make race and nation irrelevant: values are seldom clearly correlated with racial or national boundaries – to say ‘I’m Black’ or ‘I’m Serbian’ doesn’t necessarily say anything about your values, let alone anything exclusive or exhaustive.  While your religious identity more probably does say something about your values, it would also be irrelevant because, again, it says nothing exclusive or exhaustive – a Muslim and a non-Muslim may both value X, and a Muslim may have values additional to those of the Islamic religion.  And in any case, I question the individual who accepts so totally the set of values held by, presumably, a race, nation, or religion.  Culture is not indelibly imprinted.  To be a feminist is proof of that.

Another interpretation of culture refers to group history, the group involved being a group in which membership depends on some kind of heritage.  But why should history, heritage, constitute identity?  Why should our past define your present?  More important, why should someone else’s past define your present?  Why should a group’s past define an individual’s present?  One possible reason might be in order to avenge and/or to ensure compensation. But to make someone pay for the ‘sins’ of his or her ancestors is ridiculous.  What my greatgrandfather did or didn’t do has nothing to do with me, I didn’t even know the man.[2]

A second reason for making group history the basis of one’s cultural identity might be in order to preserve what’s of value.  Surely this is important, but why restrict yourself to the lessons of your own group?  And while there may be value in being custodians of the past, why should the job be open only to those with a direct genetic line of descent?  Why can’t I carry the torch for a tradition I value whether or not anyone in my bloodline also carried it?[3]

Country of birth, race, ancestral religion, group history – I find it difficult to understand why people choose to identify themselves by such accidents of birth.  That I am 5’4” is accidental – I had no choice in the matter and I have no control over it.   So why would I choose to trumpet my height as my identity?  It seems to me that there is something fundamentally irrational about claiming as your identity aspects of your self that are mere accidents of birth: if you don’t choose X, if you have no control over X, then surely you can’t justifiably take any credit or blame for X – nor, then, can you take any of the attendant benefits and burdens.  It’s also a very passive thing, basing your identity on what chance has done to you rather than on what you’ve done yourself.  Perhaps most importantly, it’s also unfair, if rights and responsibilities are assigned on such an identity.

Whether we admit it or not, we do choose our practices, our beliefs, and our values.  And to identify ourselves according to such rational bases is to be responsible for ourselves.  And cultural anarchy, assimilation and appropriation at will, enables, indeed reflects, this choice.


[1] I can see that identity claims according to ancestral lineage (“I’m Native because my greatgrandfather was Native”) are important in many territorial conflicts, but they’re typically based on arguments of primacy – which are flawed on at least three counts.  One, what does it matter who was here first?  Does mere presence entitle one to ownership?  Doesn’t the quality of one’s presence matter at all?

Two, what time shall we establish as the starting point, and on what basis shall we establish it as the starting point?  For example, certainly the various indigenous tribes were here before the Europeans (and so “I have a right to X, a greater right to X than you, that is, because my ancestors were here before your ancestors”), but the various indigenous tribes also came from somewhere else 10-50,000 years ago – so they’re not really indigenous.  They’re not native, they’re just prior.  To be fair, we’d have to determine the time and location of each evolution into homo sapiens (should this be a measurable moment) and then establish complete lineages, in order to determine whose ancestors were where first.  (Unless we just accept the Judeao-Christian view – in which case everyone not currently living in whatever country the Garden of Eden was in is an immigrant, a non-native.)

Three, even if we accept a right of primacy, on what grounds do we include that right in one’s genetic heritage?  What my greatgrandfather did or didn’t do has nothing to do with me – I should not pay for his errors, nor should I have the right to go back to his childhood home (should I be able to determine where it is) and demand to be paid for what was stolen from him.  It was stolen from him, not from me.  What is his is his, not mine.  Unless, I suppose, he left a will stating that whatever it was that was stolen was to have been given to me.  But even then, one could reasonably argue that what is merely potentially yours isn’t yours enough to warrant a charge of theft should such theft cause that potential not to be actualized.  And he could have as easily willed that it be given to the greatgrandson of a friend.  (Perhaps likely, given the sexism of many inheritance traditions.)  Why are genetics so very important?  What if, after all, I’m adopted?  (And therefore don’t even have the same skin colour as my greatgrandfather?)

[2] An exception would be if descendents suffer the consequences of the wrongs done to, or the privileges awarded to, their ancestors.  But not only does this assume an inheritance that may or may not have occurred (see note 1), it is incredibly complex and ultimately uncertain: how can we really know for sure which aspects of one’s present are due to which aspects of another’s past?

[3] This raises the issue of assimilation and appropriation: why do they have such bad reps?  After all, isn’t conditioning, isn’t education, merely assimilation?  Weren’t we assimilated (i.e., encouraged to conform to the customs and values) into our first cultural group, the one we belong to by birth?  Why the foofarah when we are re-assimilated, into a second cultural group, the one we choose?  And isn’t appropriation merely adopting – the customs, practices, beliefs, values, and so on of some group?  And what’s wrong with that?  (Frankly, it’s unlikely one would adopt the whole set, since it’s likely to be internally inconsistent, but that’s another point…)



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    • smdh on September 25, 2012 at 6:58 pm
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    Such original, critical thought! I agree with you: WHITE PRIDE!

    • shmiggen on November 6, 2012 at 1:15 am
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    I don’t know of anyone who identifies themselves chiefly as to what country they are from. Most people’s identity is wrapped up in their career, so I don’t know what you are on about.

    • ptittle on November 6, 2012 at 2:30 am
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    Really? Interesting. May I ask, Shmiggen, what country you live in? Here (in the U.S. and Canada), you can’t walk a hundred meters without seeing the flag on someone’s lawn, without someone shouting out “I’m American!” or “I’m Canadian!”

    • shmiggen on November 6, 2012 at 4:37 am
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    Born and raised in Vancouver but now residing in Seattle. People do refer to themselves as to their nationality, but for reasons of expediency, that’s all.

  1. Granted it’s more expedient to put up a flag than to physically stand on your front lawn shouting to everyone who passes by, but why do either?

    Why not put up an accountants association flag or a teacher’s union flag?

    • shmiggen on November 8, 2012 at 7:36 am
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    I could also ask you why do that?

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