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Judging Culture

Roubina Arslanian By Roubina Arslanian Published on April 19, 2018

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*This article was originally posted on Gate 37 and was written by Mirna Wakf.*

There is little that irks me more than preachy ‘someone’s or ‘no one’s that have somehow narrated a version of success in a certain moment – especially in book or blog form – and then decided that it is in everybody’s best interest to be just like them.

I don’t care if they’re only telling me how I should spend my Monday mornings. There’s a Monday every week.

As a clumsy female that vocalizes self‐doubt, doesn’t quite exude confidence or grace, and forgetfully has a face that, without makeup, could easily and seamlessly be photo-­shopped onto a toddler’s body, I seem to invite a lot of unwelcome consultative rants from friends and strangers.

Did my frown, about that less-­than conversation, dictate a grand easy-­to-­read construing of what lies beneath my poor posture and twice-­in-­one-­week appearance at that same cafe?

They don’t seem to mind that we have nothing substantial enough in common; they most likely don’t share the same landlady or bore of the same books, shun the same people, let alone share the same family history, an allergy to sulfa, have memories of the same football game in the rain, or deal with the same physical addictions, intellectual passion-­flirtations or break-­up stories.

When you can put ‘and’s in between all of the things I listed above, and everything I could’ve written about in my diary, then maybe we can start comparing and contrasting lives.

“Don’t tell me how I should feel. Stop generalizing,” I tell my periodic partners and friends.

“You’re weird,” they answer, rolling their eyes at what they consider to be lofty, inconsequential, futile questions and arguments.

Then, when they feel as though they’ve put up with enough, after long, heavy silences – as if centuries of smarter people putting up with other people’s bullshit had to end right then and there, with me – they sternly give me a piece of advice that they think I should have been born with.

“You’re talking about things you cannot change. You’re wasting your time.”

That discomfort I feel when people tell me who I am or who I should strive to be – that’s how I feel when people praise one culture over another, as if any ‘culture’ is static, or as if it existed as an object that could be described, narrated, and be made coherent in a way to allow it to be stated, and then thrown against another for comparison. When someone says that ‘so and so culture’ is better than another, what snapshots, of what parts, of the cultures are they representing?

We think we know what culture is, commonsensically, just like someone might think they intuitively know what’s wrong or right about me, or the million people that should buy their book.

Let’s try something. Picture a culture, not your own. What are the first things that come to mind?

Maybe language comes up first, or second. Then, maybe some cultural sites, a few books, their food – the parts of a ‘culture’ that are sold, commoditized, distributed within/out?

Some go so far as to say things like, “the people there are nice” or “they’re stingy.” Those descriptions should be laughable, but instead they’re just qualified. We speak concretely on behalf of entire populations and actually say things like, they – all or most of them – are nice, or generous, or mean. I can’t even read my next-­door neighbor and tell you whether or not she’s generous beyond offering me coffee in exchange for rent. Maybe she’s just lonely and wants conversation. I haven’t really bothered to get to know her, to be honest. I don’t know what she’s like in the morning or when she’s hungry.

Which parts of which people’s day are being amalgamated and then used as a basis for the identification of entire populations? What part of the city or the town is being spoken about? What single stories were heard or read that somehow made it possible to verbalize the way entire parts of populations are or are not?

Someone that took a class or two in the social sciences might habitually offer the following definition: Culture is a set of shared practices and understandings. Then they might go on to use religion as an example, as something that can help to define the culture of a population.

Religion is another concept like culture that is objectified and reified; no two people understand or incorporate religious practices into their lives in the same way.

Think of all of your family members at the dinner table on Easter or Eid; does your seven-­year old cousin think about that gathering or meal in the same way your mom does? Do you have to be a certain age to be fully part of a culture? Does your mom get excited for the same reasons that your dad does? Was your dad thinking about work at the dinner table and not feeling God’s holy words? Does each age grouping, gender grouping, assemblage with the same religiosity-gradation think about that one generally agreed upon ‘ritual’ in the same way?

I hear my not-­so-­close friends’ voices now, telling me that breaking these concepts apart is not doing us any good – as if all of the questions I just asked were obvious and they had already thought of them. Yet, they still decided to talk about culture/s reductively because it was easier – necessary they might say. They needed to reduce ‘culture’ to generalizations in order to be able to speak about cultures, to have a foundation to speak out of. This need to make it a starting point is precisely why it is important that we ask these questions and break the concept of culture apart.

We are giving this delusional representation, based on assumptions, power over who we are and who we want to be. The way we perceive and represent our own cultures – and cultures that are not our own – directly affect our way of thinking about ourselves and others. It acts on our actions, feelings and ambitions and, thus, prevents other actions and wants.

This article was originally posted in April 2014.


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