Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Can we unlearn culture?

- transcript from a workshop delivered at  sorryyoufeeluncomfortable's first showcase at InIVA, entitled Baldwin's Nigger Reloaded

Hello everyone, thank you for having me today! For this workshop I have been asked to unpick and de-conventionalise the concept of learned culture. I am going to do this by providing an overview of relevant cultural theories, the pros and cons of each, supplemented by examples of popular culture, and then end with a series of questions which I hope will inspire some lively conversation.
So allow me to re-introduce myself by way of my cultural identity; my name is Arooj, I am a woman-I belong to a biological group known as females, I have no control over that aspect of my life; Neither do I have any control over the fact that I am Pakistani - my parents moved over to England before I was born; and in the same vein of thought, I am British - again something that I have little control over; my educational background, which I have chosen myself has turned me into a social researcher and a data modeller; and given my career choice I am a frontline homelessness practitioner. I could go on forever about my identity but for the sake of a linear notion of time, I’ll stop there.

In an attempt to unpick the title of the workshop, providing that we assume that culture is indeed a learnt trait rather than an innate one, the first thing we need to ask ourselves is; ‘what is culture?’ What is this word so freely brandished by the media and our peers alike?

Luckily enough for me, an abundance of research has already been undertaken on this topic, particularly from a sociological and anthropological perspective. 20th Century and 21st Century paradigms of thought has taken culture and cultural identities to be a distinctly symbolic process (the famous anthropologist Adamson Hoebel in his book‘Anthropology: Study of Man’ defines culture as “an integrated system of learned behaviour patterns which are characteristic of the members of a society and which are not a result of biological inheritance”). Thus stating that we are not born with a culture, we learn a culture.

It could be fair to say that culture is a realm of objective facts created and maintained by our subjective belief; the real world as we see it is dependent on our creative imagination, providing that it is regulated by our peers who also belong to the same social community. An example of which is a recent news article entitled female Muslim boxer bringing shame on to her Muslim community – it's a Daily Mail article, so please take with a handful of salt! At a glance it appears that the idea of femininity is more complex and varied in Muslim communities than it is in Britain (why can’t women box?! What is to become of her? Is she top be condemned to a life of household chores and baby-bearing?), it instantly throws up images of cultural conflicts between this particular individual's British identity and Muslim identity.  However, if we were to analyse what it means to be a woman from a British perspective, things do not become any simpler. How many English words can we think of to denote female and women? (ask audience).
I have found at least 100 different regional English variations of the word including colleen, lass, maiden, matron, each referring to female but connoting differing meanings. Matron referring to a motherly female, whilst maiden connotes a young virginal woman.

The idea of culture is made further complex by the fact that members of particular social groups, in most situations, have the opportunity to pick and choose what aspects of a culture they take and ignore. E.g. I am British when I pay my taxes and expect to have full use of public services, but I denounce my Britishness when topics of world politics or the arms trade are raised. In the same breath, I am Pakistani when speaking about cricket or the late great singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, but when the Taliban stronghold in the north is mentioned I become apologetic and reassure my companion that I, in fact was born in Britain and have a British Passport and thus share very little with that particular mentality… 

So now we understand how cultures are woven complexly into the everyday. How do we learn to unlearn them? 

The general consensus is that we learn from our observations and experiences, and to cement our learnings we then teach others about our newly acquired knowledge, suggesting that human involvement is pivotal to the sustainment of culture itself. So if humans are both the cause and effect of culture, to unlearn culture one would have to remove themselves from any sort of human interaction.
One way in which to do this would be to place a human into social isolation in order to effectively cancel out the impact of culture on them, however the noted consequences of human isolation suggests that the initial exposure to a culture still affects individuals after long periods in isolation e.g. sensory illusions - Tom Hanks in Castaway whilst stranded on the desert island, engages in dialogues with the personified volleyball Wilson, these very interactions with an inanimate object serve to reinforce a culture that would otherwise have been lost five years prior.
Another way in which to unlearn culture would be to not learn it at all. Providing that there were no such things as ethical constraints, a longitudinal study could be conducted by placing a newborn in the wilderness and seeing how they would cope. The child may become completely self-sufficient and reliant on itself, developing a one person culture, unregulated by a social group but rather self-regulated by themselves. Alternatively the child could become feral and develop an animal culture e.g. Tarzan and Mowgli.

So back to the original question, if we take the view that culture is a symbolic process attained and maintained by humans themselves, a long-term, scientifically consistent social research experiment of  degree of social isolation, be it from birth or mid-life, may be the only way in which we can determine whether or not culture can be unlearned. In short, given the fact that culture is easily attained and rarely [fully] lost, I do not know yet whether or not culture can be unlearned…Which is where you come in.

I would like to take the original question posed to me by Eva and present it back to the group, being individuals with your own cultural identities, is there any way in which one can unlearn culture?

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