When I was beginning my academic career, I published an article “Culture and Immigration: A Case for Exclusion?” taking on arguments by some liberal philosophers that a legitimate goal of immigration policy could be to protect culture. At the time, philosophical debates about nationalism and multiculturalism were still prominent and identity politics was flourishing. Samuel Huntington had published an ugly and (if it hadn’t been taken to so seriously) rather silly book Who Are We? Challenges to America’s National Identity arguing that the US was in danger of being transformed from an Anglo-Protestant to a Hispanic Catholic culture. I thought – and still think – that culture is poor grounds for excluding people, betraying a commitment to cosmopolitan justice in which people matter equally regardless of their origin or creed.
The language of culture is more often misused than not – for creating fictional, often nostalgic visions of homogenous communities and for demarcating groups for exclusion, scapegoating, and demonization. In the political sphere, cultural language is rarely descriptive – pointing out customs or values that many people within particular groups hold – but rather performative. Cultural language does something – it tells people who they are (and who they are not) and what others are (whether or not the said others agree with how they are characterized).
There has also been a resurgence of cultural arguments in mainstream books such as David Miller’s Strangers in Our Midst. They are implicated in policies such the rise of citizenship tests designed in part with the goal of ensuring that immigrants applying for citizenship share the nation’s values (which by their very existence imply – usually without evidence – that non-citizens are inclined to hold different values). Recently, cultural arguments for exclusion have been increasingly prominent among far right extremists in Europe and the United States. For example, a recent NY Times articlequotes Jared Taylor, the founder of American Renaissance, a white supremacist think tank:
“There is a worldwide awakening of nationalism among European countries — and I include the United States in that,” Mr. Taylor said. “All across Europe, we are seeing the rise of parties expressing the idea that Europe, in order to remain Europe, must remain European. I have a feeling of intense kinship for those that wish to preserve their nation and their culture.”
Mr. Taylor’s assertions are not confined to the far-right, but are shared widely by people who oppose immigration.
In my view, cultural arguments are not only often morally suspect, evincing ugly, exclusionist nationalism that we should abjure. They are also intellectually incoherent, fundamentally misunderstanding what culture is. Rather, we should keep in mind:
1) Culture is extremely hard to characterize. Whenever we talk about “a” culture, we are in fact drawing attention to some aspects of the culture that we or they (or both) consider important. This invariably excludes more than it includes. As Bhiku Parekh pointed out in Rethinking Multiculturalism, “When used sans phrase culture encompasses more or less the whole of human life.”
2) Cultures are the product of centuries – and sometimes millennia – of migration of people, goods, and ideas around the world. There is no such thing as “pure” culture – all cultures borrow extensively from each other. (An aside: it is human to appropriate ideas from other cultures. What is objectionable about “cultural appropriation” is not the borrowing of ideas, but rather the portrayal of some groups in ways that demean, stereotype, and/or misrepresent them.)
3) Cultures are all internally diverse and pluralistic. Each of us partakes in multiple, overlapping, incomplete cultures within our society with which we share some characteristics and fail to share others. Individuals who portray themselves as representatives of “their” culture are usually people in positions of power or people who are using culture to their advantage. It is a dangerous mistake to rigidly attribute certain characteristics to a culture (and hence all of the people identified with it).
4) Cultures are dynamic, continually changing as people negotiate their world and society. A culture is not a thing that can belong to groups of people, it is a process, kept alive by people endorsing and resisting norms and practices. You don’t “preserve” a culture or nation, you continually recreate it – or those aspects that deserve recreation.
The political use of the language of culture has enormous risks. To call for policies that protect or preserve culture is to build barriers, to create groups of “us versus them”. At an extreme, it can lead to ethnic cleansing. But even in its more moderate forms, it impoverishes our worlds, narrowing what we can draw from in building our identities and communities.
Here are four articles I’ve found useful for thinking about culture:
Anthony Appiah’s Reith lecture “There is No Such Thing as Western Civilisation”
Bhiku Parekh’s A Commitment to Cultural Pluralism
Amartya Sen’s Democracy as a Universal Value
Jeremy Waldron’s Minority Cultures and the Cosmopolitan Alternative
Shelley Wilcox’s Culture, National Identity, and Admission to Citizenship