I grew up with the word ‘culture’ resounding in my head. My mum, a Law graduate and former art gallerist, always took me to every museum and religious temple wherever we travelled. She made me appreciate the magnificence and detail in everything I ever stared at. From my dad, an architect who I have seen devour every book that has ever come to his hands, I learnt about music, predominantly Jazz. You must develop sensibility before beauty, they used to say. I soon realised that there was beauty in every manifestation of culture. However, when I started travelling for academic and professional reasons, I understood that, apart from the art I admire, the music I listen to or the books I read, everything else is culture, too. From my convictions and morals, to the way I behave or what I happen to catalogue as appropriate or unappropriated, right or wrong, good or bad. We are all, in my opinion, made, fuelled, and [re]shaped by culture[s].
Our “cultural libraries” are limitless; the more we open our minds the bigger and more interesting they become
Therefore, not surprisingly, when I heard about the new MSc in Global Europe: Culture and Conflict at the London School of Economics and Political Science, I decided to apply. I had little information about the program, just a descriptive paragraph about it and a list of courses that ranged from ‘Nationalism’ to ‘Muslims in Europe’. However, I was excited about finally finding the ‘perfect program for me’. When I got accepted and tried to explain to my friends what I was going to study, I became overwhelmed by doubt. To start with, some could not really understand the tittle of the MSc. First, I blamed it on the colons, which fancies up the name and that my friends, and myself if I am honest, had never actually seen before in a MSc program name. I even considered changing my mind and studying something more conservative such as ‘Law’, ‘Economics’, or ‘Political Science’, which content and career opportunities seemed easier for people to identify. I later realised that, it was not the colons nor the MSc’s name, but the word ‘culture’, that made people perplexed. Suddenly, all doubt disappeared, and I took the understanding of culture as a duty for myself and the world. ‘Culture’, even if a word commonly used, has proven to be very difficult to define. Additionally, culture’s importance is frequently ignored.
A famous definition of ‘culture’ is that of Edward Burnett Tylor, who, in 1871 in his book Primitive Culture, spoke of culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, arts, morals, law, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society”. For Tylor, a person could not lack culture. We all are shaped and influenced by culture. However, understanding the meaning of a concept which definition begins with “complex whole” predisposes a difficult task. Kwame Anthony Appiah explained in one of his Reith Lectures 2016: Mistaken Identities: Culture, at BBC Radio 4, that “complex whole” is something we could also call ‘organicism’. The idea that culture is the assemblage of everything already mentioned by Tyler that, like the organs in the body, form an organic unity that functions as a whole. For Appiah, things such as the Eurovision Song Contest, the cut-outs of Matisse, or the dialogues of Plato, among others, are part of a larger whole. It does not matter if we watch Eurovision or if we genuinely enjoy Matisse’s artwork, Appiah says, because even if we never personally check it out, it will all still be holding in our “cultural libraries”.
These “cultural libraries” are commonly given a ‘first name’ such as, for instance, Western, Asian or African. However, there is not a big whole called culture, neither Western or any other culture’s ‘first name’, that unites all the parts creating one and only organic unity. I agree with Appiah when he says that we must abandon ‘organicism’ if we want to get a more cosmopolitan picture in which every element of culture mentioned by Tyler, is separable from the others. I have seen how people in Libya, Egypt or Yemen protest for democracy – allegedly a Western culture’s principle – during the Arabic Springs, and I have danced – uncountable times – to rap and hip-hop with my European Muslim friends living in Brussels, who, as a matter of fact, think of this portrayed incompatibility and conflictual relationship between the cultures they are supposedly adherents to, both as Europeans and Muslims, as nonessential or obsolete.
Understanding culture is becoming increasingly important. And the European Union is aware of it, too. On 8 June 2016, High Representative and Vice-president Federica Mogherini and Commissioner Navracsics already acknowledged this by proposing the first ever EU Strategy for International Cultural Relations which objective was to counter stereotypes, foster dialogue and prevent conflict. Navracsics referred to Culture as “the hidden gem” of EU foreign policy. It is undeniable that most of Europe’s conflicts nowadays have arisen from cultural intolerance (and ignorance). Culture structures conflict just as, at the same time, culture can also be used as a strategic enhancer to resolve it.
However, I believe that, apart from strategies and initiatives involving culture, as the EU’s one mentioned above or any other launched by UNESCO or other cultural organizations, the best way to tackle cultural intolerance and ignorance lies within ourselves. We should aim to make of our “cultural libraries” exciting and vibrant places. Forget about ‘organicism’ and ‘first names’, do not limit it in any way. Our “cultural libraries” are limitless; the more we open our minds the bigger and more interesting they become. Churchill once said, “courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen”; practice empathy, try to understand and be willing to listen. Be aware of culture’s power, you are YOU because of the culture you were raised in and because of those other cultures you have experienced. Finally, and most importantly, [re]think about why there are walls in your “cultural library” and who put them there.
Cover photo: Photo: Christophe Robert Hervoet (Flickr); License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0