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.