What does Cultural Difference Mean?



The topic for discussion in this year’s symposium is of the utmost importance for the coming century because, as a result of globalization and mutual influences, there are deep fears of cultural homogenization, hegemony, and imperialism. Not unrelated to such fears are efforts to seek and affirm one’s cultural identity, and eloquent calls for the preservation of various cultures. Given that some of these expressions of cultural differences have been provoked by past unpleasant experiences and from concerns about the possible loss of one’s own culture, not all the reactions are based on clear understanding or a rational appraisal of historical forces. As a result, there have been some unhappy, if not absurd, manifestations of cultural chauvinism, and there are also potential dangers for the future well-being of some peoples and civilizations in such misunderstandings.

Dimensions of culture

By definition, culture is what has been cultivated. It is the product of many years of continuous history and civilization of a people. It is essentially what has grown from the minds and creativity of a group of people that share a common heritage. The cultural differences among individuals arise because of the influences they have been subjected to. These influences are of two categories: (a) Those that act in the early stages of ones formation; and (b) those that arise later as a result of education, reading, travel, and the like.

The culture of a people finds expression in a myriad ways. It has three major dimensions.

(a) The aesthetic dimension:   This includes language, literature, art, poetry, music, dance, festivals, cuisine, etc. The aesthetic dimensions gives color, enrichment,  and enjoyment to a people. It may be shared with outsiders.

(b) The moral dimension. This  consists of  the values, laws, and ethical framework that underlie a culture. The moral dimension usually stems from the traditional religious roots  of a people, and over the ages it could become independent of the its religious roots.

(c)  The explanatory dimension. This refers to the culture’s world views on the physical and  the phenomenal world. This is usually reflected in its myths and religious cosmologies. This consists largely of the science of the time and the place.

In this paper I propose to analyze the topic of cultural differences from the following perspective: It is important to make a clear distinction between the aesthetic, the moral, and the explanatory expressions of a culture in any description or categorization of cultures and civilizations.

What is to be preserved

Over the span of human history, the human family has created a magnificent array of cultural expressions in all the dimensions of culture. Even within a country, there are regional variations of cultures. All these make our heritage rich, joyful, and diverse. When we talk about cultural differences, and of the preservation of cultural heritage, it is the aesthetic dimension that needs to be emphasized. Thus, it would be unfortunate if some of the precious languages of the human family, and the associated poetry and music were to disappear, as happened, for example, with ancient Egyptian and some Amerindian languages. At the same time, we must recognize that it would be impossible to arrest the growth and transformation of cultures. New generations infuse cultures with fresh ideas, visions, and creations, and in the process modify some of their elements. Thus, for example, the English or the Tamil language that is current today is very different from what they used to be, say, in the 8th century. The same may be said of the music, cuisine or whatever of practically every culture.

The moral dimension of cultures are also constantly evolving. Unlike the aesthetic dimension, there are elements in the moral dimension of every culture that must be modified or discarded. For example, in a great many cultures, the moral dimension included a certain inferior status for women.

The explanatory dimension of cultures has been, and can be, affected as a result of the emergence of modern science. This is a very important and  sensitive aspect of cultural transformation, and is particularly complicated in non-Western societies which have been drawn into the scientific framework by the intruding and exploiting West.

Thus, like living organisms, cultures have to change. Or else, they will stagnate and die. Efforts by cultural chauvinists to preserve and protect every aspect of their ancient modes, especially at the explanatory and moral levels, can be, and have been,  harmful to the  culture.

Impact of the Scientific Revolution

The emergence of modern science in 16th century Europe dramatically affected our understanding of the physical world. It had a severe impact on the world view that had been held dear and sacred by many generations. In so doing, it  gave a jolt to traditional religious (Western Judeo-Christian) notions on cosmology and anthropogenesis. As a result, an important schism developed in the Western context between two different and competing explanatory dimensions of culture: one scientific, and the other, religious. The resulting conflicts and compromises continue to this day.

It is important to note that the frequently mentioned warfare between religion and science did not develop in the Eastern Orthodox Church traditions, in Israel, or in Islam; nor in the Hindu or the Buddhist framework. This was not because these other traditions are more scientifically awakened, but because there was no modern science to contend with in these cultural settings up until the 20th century. The point to note is that a major impact of modern science is to drastically affect the explanatory dimension of a culture.

Self worth and ethnic pride

The twentieth century, like previous ones, has had its accomplishments and failures, its successes and frustrations. Aside from major scientific breakthroughs, impressive advances in medicine, stupendous technological inventions and negative impacts on the environment, two important realizations have arisen in the course of that century.

(a)  Awareness of self-worth: For long periods of human history, the vast majority of people within most societies lived with very little understanding or experience of self-worth. This has been so because the principal role of most individuals in traditional societies was/is to produce food and to serve in different ways the other (often higher) strata of society whose members wielded economic wealth and intellectual sophistication. Most of the common  people, overwhelmed by the power and resources of the upper classes which seemed way beyond their reach, took it for granted that the high and the mighty were in some ways intrinsically superior for having come upon that higher status, and that they themselves had very little intrinsic worth. For long generations in human history, most of the people in societies all over the world, whether of lower castes or of less aggressive tribal groups, servants or slaves, women, peasants or factory workers, accepted without complaining the inferior social status assigned to them. Once a pattern was set, it was not necessary for the power-wielding elite to inculcate subservience through overt means. Indeed, one reason for the long continuance of such practices was that it did not even occur, either to the oppressors or to the victims, that there was something morally wrong in such a state of affairs. Even explicit laws permitted this in many societies. This ubiquitous inter-social unjust condition had its counterpart in the international context when nations subjugated, colonized, and exploited other peoples. In this condition, the colonizing peoples managed to instill in the colonized ones, both consciously and unwittingly, a feeling of intrinsic low self-worth vis-à-vis their culture. This was very helpful, indeed a sine qua non, for the successful operation of the colonies.

(b)    Recognition and expressions of pride in ethnic identities. Demands for the recognition and calls for the affirmation of ethnic rights and  pride have arisen in the second half of the twentieth century with an intensity never before recorded in human history. Two factors have contributed to this:

First, with the gradual withering away of European political domination over the rest of the world, the newly freed nations have been wanting to assert their equality with, if not superiority to, their former aggressors and oppressors. This calls for a declaration of the strengths and virtues of their own culture, of its  (past) glories which (so it is asserted with much justice) the colonizers had been trying to distort, disfigure, and demolish. It is therefore felt to be of paramount importance by the emancipated peoples not only to resurrect and preserve their cultures which had been interfered with by unwelcome (Western) intruders, but also to show to the West that those erstwhile oppressed cultures are in no way of any less value or significance. Then again, along with the African-American civil rights movement in the United States, there has also been an increasing number of non-European ethnic minorities within Western nations in recent decades. This fact has also resulted in a new awareness of ethnic pride. The non-Caucasian citizens of predominantly Caucasian nations feel a sense of cultural insecurity. This is not much different from what has always been there in many countries as, for example, among  minorities in nations like Switzerland, Belgium, Spain, or Canada who speak a different language from the mainstream.

Impact the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment, with all its touted faults, has had a major impact on the moral dimension of cultures. It is true that some of the positive values emerging from traditional religions continue to play important roles in all cultures, sometimes in modified and re-interpreted modes. However, it was only after the 18th century Enlightenment that individuals within societies, and nations in the international arena, began to promulgate laws and initiate movements to remove oppression, slavery, and such other social injustices. The full awareness of self-worth by long-subjugated groups within a society and by nations in the world at large,  the explicit articulation of human rights,  the moral untenability of oppression, and the denouncing of the subjugation of peoples and subgroups, are all  twentieth century harvests of seeds sown by the (the oft-berated) Enlightenment, though elements of such values may be detected in some ancient religious/cultural frameworks. People who are attuned to the enlightened moral cultural dimensions of our century readily subscribe to the ideals of gender equality, racial dignity,  religious tolerance, freedom of thought and speech, etc. which were not universal characteristics in many traditional societies. During much of human history, these notions were barely  recognized and seldom put into effect for the benefit of the vast majority within any society. Slavery, apartheid, convictions of racial superiority, caste-untouchablity, denial of suffrage to women, all these and similar injustices were part of the moral dimension of many cultures over the ages.

One of the achievements of our century is to generate a universal abhorrence towards such practices. Even those people who are not cured of such mind-sets are generally embarrassed to admit in public any secret leanings they might have towards intolerance and discriminatory prejudices. But their numbers and secret machinations have not been totally erased.  Governments which continue to sanction  medieval practices such as child labor, stifling of free-speech, and second-class citizenship to women and to people of different faiths  try to cover up or explain away, only rarely justify or defend, such behavior. Thus, within the various nations of the world, at least of those which have not fallen victim to the dark-age fanaticism of charismatic dictators or the mindless bigotry of creed-inspired clerics, there are genuine efforts to declare gender oppression, the persecution of minorities, and the suppression of dissenting voices to be unethical and illegal. Indeed, most modern nations find these to be unacceptable, though some political leaders still argue that ideas like human rights and women’s liberation are Western values which the West has no right to impose on other peoples.


Context of ethnic affirmation

In former times, expressions of pride in one’s cultural heritage were  provoked by a genuine understanding and appreciation of the many facets of that culture. Poets in every language have extolled the beauty and richness of their own tongue, but this was not done from fear of another group. In our own times, however, proclamations of ethnic pride and cultural identity are often provoked by negative feelings vis-à-vis other cultures, or by a sense of insecurity in an alien environment, local or global. In other words, the feeling of being persecuted, rather than a healthy and wholesome understanding of one’s own culture and tradition, is often the motivating force for calls for the recognition and preservation of ethnic differences. Thus, it is not uncommon to read some intellectuals in third world counties assert that their own culture had been far more advanced, and made many major discoveries, long before the West. 

This tendency, resulting from years of subjugation by the West, has had a rather serious and unhealthy impact on the attitudes of some non-Western thinkers towards science and enlightenment. These thinkers reason, consciously or otherwise, as follows:

The West oppressed us. This suggests that our culture and civilization are weak. Therefore, we must prove to the West that our culture and civilization are strong, even superior to the West.

Science and Enlightenment arose in the West. If we accept them, we will be showing our own weakness even more. Therefore, we have two options:

Either (a) reject science and enlightenment altogether. This should be done for at least three reasons: (i) Science and Enlightenment go counter to our traditional beliefs and practices; (ii) they have resulted in much spiritual anguish and environmental pollution in the West; (iii) even some thinkers in the West (the post-modernists) are condemning science and enlightenment.

Or, (b) show that our own culture had all the positive ingredients of science and enlightenment implicit in them even in ancient times, and that it is from here that the West stole or took inspiration to develop the sciences. If this thesis began to be happily explored from the Hindu perspective in the early part of the twentieth century, a resurging Islamic scholarship, trained in Western languages and remembering its own medieval glory, is reasserting its claim to be recognized by the West. In both instances, there are convictions, both explicit and implicit, that their deeper visions of knowledge, religion and science, were (are) superior to those of the pathetic West.

Both these reactions arise from a deep sense of insecurity, and from a lack of historical understanding of the growth and development of culture and science. Every civilizations rises and basks in glory for some centuries, then fades away, yielding place to some other in its primacy. This has been so for the past five millennia or more, and the pattern will most likely be repeated. 

What non-Western cultures (and even many ine West) fail to realize is that the explanatory and moral dimensions of the so-called Western culture of today do not correspond to anything the West possessed in these matters a few centuries ago, prior to the emergence of modern science and Enlightenment. In earlier centuries, they were very similar to what obtains in many non-Western societies now.


Moderns, traditionals, reactionaries, and the cultured

It is true that modern science and the Enlightenment arose in the European cultural matrix, just as writing first began in Sumeria, gunpowder in China, the notion of the zero arose in the Hindu world, etc. But science and enlightenment are ultimately no more European or Western than zero is intrinsically Hindu. Indeed, the identification of modern science and Enlightenment with Western culture is one of the major conceptual blunders of our times. Those who embrace the explanatory modes provoked by modern science may be called the moderns. Those who cling on to the pre-modern scientific explanatory modes may be called the traditionals. Those who have been awakened to the broader values of equality, justice, humanity, etc. are the enlightened ones. Those who reject the moral elements emerging from the enlightenment [human rights, gender equality, religious tolerance, rejection of racism, caste-superiority, etc.] are the reactionaries. Finally, those who value, enjoy, and appreciate the aesthetic dimensions of their own culture [music, art, literature, dance, festivals, food, etc.] and of some others too are the truly cultured people.

In every society there are moderns and traditionals, enlightened and cultures people as well as reactionaries and uncultured ones. From this perspective, one may expect that, with sufficient education and awakening, all the peoples of the world will eventually incorporate the explanatory framework of science and the moral framework of the Enlightenment in their cultures.

If and when this happens, true cultural differences will exist primarily at the aesthetic level. And these differences must be preserved because they represent some of the best creative expressions of the human family. The explanatory dimensions of pre-modern scientific cultures need not be preserved, as some post-moderns tend to do. Indeed, even within Western culture demands to cling on to pre-scientific models of the world persist in many quarters. Such longings for the past need to be replaced for a saner and better-informed humankind. Many moral elements in ancient cultures are worthy of preservation, not only because they carry the weight of traditions, but also because they embody the wisdom of the ages. However, those practices and beliefs which are at odds with the best elements of the Enlightenment deserve to be relegated to the pages of ancient history.


Concluding remarks

Culture is a very complex and meaningful dimension of the human condition. It binds people together through its common appeal. It separates groups through the impressive variety and diversity of its manifestations.

The aesthetic dimension of culture infuses civilization with  excitement and color, beauty, splendor and delight. Every generation takes pride in its cultural heritage for this is what distinguishes it as a unique flower in the bouquet of flowers that is humanity’s collective cultural heritage.  Each new generation  contributes to it, for the aesthetic dimension is like a stupendous structure to which newer rooms and stories (Stockwerke) are being continually added.  It is this dimension of cultures that must be  preserved, cultivated, and shared by all of us.

The moral dimension of culture usually springs from the various religious traditions. It checks our aggressive tendencies and tames our animal instincts. It brings out the best in us by encouraging caring, compassion and respect for fellow human beings. It maintains order and sustains societies. However, sometimes it also includes values which, like dusty and worn-out furniture, are no longer useful or appropriate. These need to be cleaned up or discarded.

Finally, there is the explanatory dimension which once served a purpose, but which needs to be drastically modified as a result of humanity’s ever-increasing wealth of knowledge and information. This dimension transcends national, racial, and religious boundaries. The ancient myths and visionary accounts of cosmogenesis and biogenesis of all cultures must be preserved and protected, re-told and enjoyed, not for their literal truth-content, but for their poetry and symbolism, and also because they remind us of how our distant ancestors pictured the world. But they are anachronistic if taken as part of the belief system in the modern world.