The Great Divide: Human Ability to Define and Build Culture

The fine line that used to separate human beings from animals was the phenomenon of speech and imagination. But the great divide between the two was human ability to define and build a culture. What really is a culture? Culture in many forms is defined by language and behavior as key elements. In the words of Stevenson (1994), “Human beings could create and invent and influence their environment as well as respond to it. The collected experience, stored in language, was a culture”. Cultures, just like the evolution of species, keep on evolving. Evolving cultures follow the same pattern as defined by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. The strong and the fittest survive. There is a process of natural selection wherein the good influences get carried across while the bad wither away. But just like in living species, there is protectionism built into every culture. There is always a fear of external cultures eroding the value systems and behavior patterns of an existing culture (Stevenson, 1994)

One can infer from the various chapter readings that in the benefit of mankind, cultures should freely diffuse without any opposition that is artificially induced by political bodies. The cultural domination of the US media content in the world is in fact an “internationalization” as the US itself is a hybrid nation that is made up of a multitude of diverse nationalities. Therefor it is logical to be categorical supporter of the American global culture, and the reverberations that it is producing throughout the world.

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Over the centuries, many cultures have been extinct and many have become mainstream. The populist cultures of China and India have been thriving for eons. But in the 20th century, the world has seen the American culture take the center stage with its influence spreading all around the world. As Stevenson puts it “The two trends of global communication in the 90s are a resurgence of demands for cultural identity and at the same time the emergence of the foundations of global culture. The notion that each culture should be a sovereign political state grew out of the nationalism movement of the nineteenth century. This in turn has led to resurgence in the assertion of cultural independence in the 1990s” (Stevenson, 1994). But the American cultural juggernaut has been so invading that a lot of cultural protectionists in these nationalistic countries have been scared of the fact that their carefully preserved cultures might get diluted. That however is inevitable. It is obvious that “Survival ability is one criterion for measuring cultures” (Stevenson, 1994). The adaptation of the American culture and English as a form of a medium has been really profound. There are countless examples that can be cited in support of this argument. America has been the symbolism of freedom and a perfect democracy in the post WWII world. Mass media had brought together disparate individuals, which included migrants, foreigners and domestic people. In the late 19th century, groups of immigrants formed segregated communities, clinging to the customs and cultures of their homes. The need for a larger community with which everyone could identify was obvious. American mass culture facilitated this. America is unique in the sense that all 50 states of the US have people speaking the same language. And almost all states sport a common culture – which has the same characteristics – Independence and freedom of speech. As in the words of Paul Farhi, (In the article “Exporting America”) “From films, to language, to commercial products, the US power is felt all over the world. Global consumerism and expanding channels create more demand for entertainment. The reason being partly linguistic, partly economic and partly a reflection of the unique historical, racial and ideological developments of the United States. In the same light of consideration, US products enjoy the competitive advantage of being created in English, the first or second language of choice for almost the entire developed world and much of the developing world”. Films produced in English account between 60 and 65 percent of the global box office, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. Producing in English gives a film immediate entrée to some of the biggest movie markets in the world. It is clear from the article “Exporting America” by Paul Farhi that that American movie and TV culture has revolutionized the way people watch broadcast media in Hungary, India, Cuba, Greece, Russia and so many more countries of the world. While intellectuals debate the benefits and the disadvantages of this dominance, the penetration of the US culture in a post Cold War world in which scores of countries have abandoned state controls for policies of free trade and free markets is beyond dispute.

There are two points that can be analyzed when looking at the idea of “Cultural Protectionism” and efforts taken by various nations to protect their culture. First, one should look at the relationship between economic and cultural protectionism, and argue that, many suggestions to the contrary notwithstanding, they are not really different at all: cultural protectionism can be easily reduced to economic protectionism or in other words ‘economic patriotism’. It has the same sources, displays many of the same characteristics, and is driven by the same motives: principally, ethnocentrism and greed. And it fails for the same reasons. In the article “Making money abroad and also a few enemies”, the author Judith Miller explains how governments often cite religious or cultural objections to a film merely as pretexts of their political discomfort. Miller says that “It is ludicrous to believe that Egypt or Arab countries banned Schindler’s List” because of its presumed salacious content and sexual thrill”. Annette Insdorf, director of undergraduate film studies at Columbia University referring to Steven Speilberg’s film about holocaust which won the academy award for the best picture said “They banned it because they feared it would evoke sympathy for Israel”. This comment by Annette Insdorf is an obvious example of the government’s ethnocentric motives.

Secondly one would want to address the most frequent claim that is put forward to recommend cultural protectionism, and to distinguish it from economic tariffs. This is the claim that there is something called “cultural identity” or “national identity”, which cultural protectionism is required to guard, and that the arts are central to the definition and expression of. (In economic terms, the identity argument is, in effect, a positive externality argument: the services that the cultural sector performs for our national identity benefit us all, but that sector cannot be compensated adequately for them through ordinary markets. Hence the need for anti-competitive measures like quotas, or limitations upon the entry of foreign performers, books, and CDs into the nation.) It is rational to suggest that the notion of “national identity” is not only driven with internal contradiction, but also implies a limited and unproductive view of the arts, and of their function in individual and social life. Once even the national identity carpet has been pulled out from under its feet it becomes obvious that cultural protectionism cannot remain standing for long.

If we leave aside, for now, the argument about national identity, many of the arguments for cultural protectionism, have taken the same form as those for its economic first-cousin. A prominent example is the “infant industry” argument: protectionism is required to get the nascent cultural industries up and running. The problem here is that the “infant industry” case only applies when a local producer can claim some comparative advantage, whereas at most times especially in a country like India, these local producers claim a comparative disadvantage relative to overseas competitors. Moreover, the infant industry argument, on its own logic, should lead to a progressive lowering of import restrictions as the industry grows in maturity and strength.

Closely related to the infant industry argument is the argument that says we wouldn’t have a publishing/film/television/music/advertising industry without protectionism. Again one will point out that there are any number of industries a nation does not have that would thrive there instantly if only they banned imports but only at an enormous cost to the rest of the nation’s economy.

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The Great Divide: Human Ability to Define and Build Culture. (2018, Sep 22). Retrieved from