Culture is the language you speak, the gods you worship, the food you eat, the behaviours that make you cringe, the sounds your ears recognise as pleasant and discordant. It’s where you shit, and what you do with your shit afterwards. It’s how you fuck, and who you fuck.

No culture is static unless the material conditions in which it’s embedded are static. And those conditions are never static. Your culture changes as your climate changes, as you adjust to natural and human-authored fluctuations in your food supply. Or someone in your tribe discovers or invents what turns out to be a preferable way of doing something.

No cultural change, however trivial, remains isolated. One change begets a hundred others, which in turn beget a thousand more. Is this cultural genocide? Presumably not. Each generation complains about the generation before and after it. For mine music awoke from its dogmatic slumbers in 1963 and died with the fall of Saigon. So though I regard rap as cultural violence, I don’t regard it as cultural genocide.

When these people crossed the river and met up with those people, they exchanged elements of their respective cultures. Someone invented metallurgy and shared it with those who were still chipping away at stones. Some survivor noted that his side lost the battle because the other side fought in phalanxes. In short, we didn’t so much teach each other as we learned from each other. Were this not so we’d still be living in caves. Does the fact that we’re no longer living in caves indicate that there’s been cultural genocide? If so, bring it on, my brothers and sisters! Bring it on!

As just noted, sometimes – especially when the others’ daughters are fetching – we cooperate with each other, and this co-operating in our operations can create considerable change in both cultures. In time the cultures become one. But as just noted, other times two tribes are in competition for some resource, be it for survival or, as Hobbes puts it, “sometimes their delectation only.” 

When there is victor and vanquished we’re apt to say the former imposes his culture on the latter. We might even say the vanquished suffer cultural genocide. But what exactly does this charge amount to? We can’t truck with each other unless we speak the same language. But it doesn’t follow that we end up speaking the victor’s language. Within a century of the Battle of Hastings the Normans were speaking as much English as French. So who were the victims of cultural genocide? The Saxons or the Normans?

Diseases too beget culture. When the Europeans came to the Americas they exchanged smallpox for syphilis. They also, as one lamp lights another nor grows less, took away corn, potatoes, without which no Russian vodka, tomatoes, without which no Italian cooking, tobacco, without which no Jean Paul Sartre. Think of all that would not have been were it not for just these cultural appropriations. Was this the cultural genocide of the West? 

Ah, but we can’t allow that one man’s cultural genocide is just another’s cultural appropriation. So perhaps we’d want to say that what the wind blew east was voluntary, whereas what the wind blew west was not. But do we really want to hang the definition of cultural genocide on this spurious, and at that dubious, distinction? I suspect not. I suspect that what we mean by cultural genocide is not involuntary cultural appropriation, whatever that could mean. What we mean by cultural genocide is cultural appropriation of which we disapprove

Not of which the appropriator disapproves, since if he disapproved of it he wouldn’t have appropriated it in the first place. It’s cultural genocide if we’d rather he hadn’t approved of it. Why? Because it robs us of his quaintness. 

So cultural genocide really is what I said rap is not. The Negro spiritual was charming to my white ears in just the way that rap is not. The fact that African Americans prefer the latter over the former, or that indigenous Canadians prefer a split level over a teepee, is something I need to protest on their behalf, because, given their false consciousness, they won’t. Count it, if you will, among our white man’s burdens.

Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask, Social and Political Philosophy

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4 replies

  1. Cultural genocide is the linguistic invention of a commission of inquiry that spent some $50 millions over 3 years and found nothing else to report that would explain why so many indigenous women and girls were murdered or missing in recent years. The RCMP said before the commission was created that most murders were by men they knew, usually also indigenous. It might have been difficult for this expensive commission to conclude that the RCMP statistics were correct and thus to show that the entire commission exercise had been an unnecessary waste.

    Then on another more recent indigenous story we read about the atrocities of numerous deaths at residential schools. But why do we call them “residential “ instead of the more common name, boarding schools?

    I attended a boarding school in England at age 7. And survived. Does that make me a residential school survivor or just a kid who went to boarding school? Why not just say that many of the indigenous children who were sent to boarding schools specifically run for them by religious institutions were subjected to various fatal contagious diseases and abuse, both sexual and psychological. Residential implies a different type of school than one at which the children were sent to board. I would prefer to say that many of the religious run boarding schools indigenous children were sent to were bad schools and then explain why.

    Why attach the vague label “cultural”? Because that enables the attachment of “genocide” to cultural. An attention getting sound bite and justification for 3 years of trying to find a spectacular semantic for a penetrating glimpse into the obvious.

    That motivation has also been described in two ways: taking the Indian out of the Indian or as helping the nomadic indigenous people to better adapt to the surrounding settler society. Which was it?

    Whatever the motivation its execution was abysmal, but calling it cultural genocide is neither descriptive nor explanatory.



    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s weirder than that, Andrew. The MMIWG Inquiry levelled the charge of “genocide” (without the “cultural” weasel-word qualifier ahead of it) at Canada. And Prime Minister Trudeau glibly, and I thought almost cheerfully — “Oh goody! I get to make another apology for the actions of my predecessors while being clearly blameless myself” — accepted guilt as charged. We’ve finally hit the big time, in the same league as Turkey, Stalin, Pol Pot, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and of course The Holocaust itself. The wishy-washier accusation of cultural genocide had already been made by the earlier TRIC report but cult gen is only Junior A.

      Here’s what’s weird: Most Canadians are sincerely troubled by at least some aspects of the residential schools even while knowing cultural genocide has no accepted meaning and serves only as a sound bite, as you correctly allude to at the end of your post, or as verbal “colours” to identify which camp you belong to. By contrast, the response by most of those same Canadians to MMIWG’s “protracted glimpse into the obvious” was a collective eye-roll. Yet that’s the one our PM pleads guilty to genocide over. We are well into Big Lie territory here.


      • Partisan politics also had a role. Former PM Harper had refused to create an inquiry because he said that the answer was obvious. When Trudeau was asked to create an inquiry he determined to prove he was more sensitive and caring. Having created it he was reluctant to admit that Harper had been right and that the inquiry report about genocide was nonsense. After some hesitation he finally caved.


  2. Time for you to write something about the journey of reconciliation? Are we there yet? Will we ever be? How will we know? Does everyone in every First Nation have to be reconciled? And reconciled with whom? All the millions of Canadians who were born abroad? Or whose parents were?




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