Monday, September 22, 2008


Who Should Chose Your Cultural Identity?

While people claim that they abhor prejudice they seem to find nothing wrong with imposing cultural behaviors and norms on their children. Implicit in this is the belief that there is something special about their culture which is to be preferred in the education of their children. Then they complain when others stereotype them.

Why should a child have to adopt the rituals and conventions of their parents? Instead of being required to practice these rites why shouldn't they be free to chose their own? Why should I learn the music of my country if I prefer that of another time and place?

I understand that one has to teach children something. I also understand the motivation which makes the older generation pass on its norms. If your children don't keep the flame burning that your life was for naught and the fact of your existence vanishes to future generations. No one wants to be forgotten.

Nevertheless there are many reasons to oppose such teaching. It breeds separatism, dislike of other and narrow-mindedness. It also preserves old feuds between groups that have no bearing on those now living. What is the point of commemorating some distant victory if not to stick it to the other group that lost? Many cultures contain myths and falsehoods which have been passed down from less well informed generations. These obsolete beliefs stifle progress by making questioning a social taboo. In some cultures such questioning can be severely punished, even by death.

Being forced to adopt the cultural norms of the group you were born into also encourages discrimination. If your parents brought you up to be an Irish-American than that is what others will tend to identify you as. But suppose you prefer Spanish or French culture? Why should an accident of birth brand you involuntarily?

Some societies try to teach "multi-culturalism" believing that this will lessen prejudice. But the students sill look at it from within the framework of their own background. It's like observing the strange natives on some anthropological expedition - curious, but not for me.

There have been some shifts in the US. For example few people nowadays have the same attitudes towards Asian-Americans as existed 100 years ago. Many Asian-Americans carry little of the cultural baggage of their ancestor's home countries. They have become "white" Americans. I think a similar thing may be happening in the EU. Young people who travel from one home country to another tend to become more cosmopolitan and less provincial. There ability to speak several languages also helps.

I realize that putting changes into practice is a near-impossible task, but I think it is more a case of changing attitudes than of actual steps. Children are always going to learn the culture and language that their parents speak (although second generation immigrants tend to do this less, and by the third generation many can't speak their grandparent's original language). Still cultural practices are passed down as part of the "heritage".

In the schools mutli-culturalism needs to be decoupled from being based upon ethnic distinctions and replaced with the teaching of more universal characteristics.

Many people grow up and explicitly reject their parent's background, but the prejudice of society still tries to force them into these categories. I claim that you are what your enemies call you. The harm can be most easily seen from the extreme example: the most acculturated and secular "Jewish" Germans still ended up in the ovens.

It is a sorry commentary on human nature if the only way people can define themselves is by pushing their prejudices onto their children.
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