Culture: A Fresh Look and Its Social Implications

February 28, 2017

To the question, “which is the longest word in English”, the answer could be “elastic”, because one can pull it as long as one wants! To another question, “which is the most “slippery” word in English, the answer could very well be, “culture”! Because the word “culture” can be used with any concept. One may speak of a philosophy of culture, a theology of culture, economics and culture and so on. We speak of Khasi culture, Naga culture, Assamese culture, Bengali culture, and Garo culture. We also speak of cricket culture, football culture, study culture, research culture, a reading culture, and also a lazy culture. We refer to a business culture, a culture of indiscipline in different walks of life. There is also a culture of corruption retarding.

The fact that the word culture can be used with any concept shows its unlimited horizon. It also tells us that the first key to understanding culture is to realize its non-simplicity. Culture is a rich word. It is so rich that it includes everything a person or a group of persons does. It stands for the entire way of life of a particular people: their history, their language, art forms, food habits, architecture, laws and customs, a people’s ethos or the characteristic spirit manifested in their attitudes and aspirations including religious and moral values. There are as many cultures as there are distinct human groups, each with its language, history, lifestyle, food habits, value systems expressed in proverbs, stories, folklore, mythology, celebrations, etc. In the North East of India alone there are over 300 different cultural groups of tribes, sub-tribes and sub-sub tribes.

Every human culture is the patrimony of a group, and as such it is the heritage of every individual of that group. Cultures, sub-cultures and sub-sub cultures with their rich heritage of language, art forms, customs and traditions form the wealth of the nations and of the world. In other words, culture is a social heritage. Every nation is proud of its myriad cultures. By saying “social heritage or social wealth” we mean that each culture has a history steeped in the past. It has its own roots and is communicated from one generation to the next. Culture provides a structure for living together. It is so personal that it stands for one’s identity. A person’s culture is where one feels at home, or where one makes himself or herself at home. Hence, culture by “definition” (if there can be a definition at all) is that overall environment, that all-pervading conditioning where one feels at home.

Every culture functions as an adaptive system containing both normative and formative elements. It helps the members of the group to cope with life in ways that have been tested over centuries. Being something alive, a culture can change, it can grow, it can also die! With the death of the last person in a particular culture, that culture may disappear. And so the death of a culture is an irreparable loss to society. With its death, its language, stories, proverbs, folktales, mythology, dance and music and all kinds of art forms as well as those human, religious and moral values specific to that culture too will be lost. That’s why each one of us is so proud of his/her cultural heritage.

An aspect of culture that is very important is its non-neutrality. The non-neutrality of culture implies that any culture absorbs what it is exposed to over a period of time. If one is exposed to a violent culture, there is every likelihood that that person may become violent. In the same way if one is exposed to positive values which are noble and praise worthy, then it is possible that that person grows up with positive values of life. Here we may mention the importance of exposing members of a culture to what is life-giving rather than death-bringing. Good and relevant education, therefore, is the first duty of culture. And the centre of any type of education should be the formation of conscience. Without the formation of conscience no society can achieve a holistic progress, namely, material and spiritual well-being. An education that is lop-sided –and worse still, an education that is reduced to mere certificates and degrees may easily lead to corruption, selfishness and hence, the poisoning of a culture.

For us human beings everything that happens takes place in one culture or another. We are never without a culture. We live and move and enrich ourselves in culture or cultures. Culture is like the air we breathe. It is like water for fish. Culture is something like a second nature to us in our social relationships. It is the matrix in which human existence is lived, allowed to grow and evolve.

A simple way to understand culture is to see it in terms of human needs and the way they are answered. As human beings we have several needs: physical need for food, care of the body, clothing and shelter and rest. There are also social needs such as love, friendship, gratitude, forgiveness, relationship, communication and the need of personal and community privacy. Then there are also spiritual needs, such as finding meaning, understanding where we come from and to where we go, a world-view through which and in which we understand ourselves, see the other and experience the transcendent. Here let me conclude these various aspects of culture by saying that human needs - whether physical, social, or spiritual – are universal. All over the world people have these needs. However, the way we answer them is cultural or inter-cultural.

All cultures are human constructs. As such cultures are touched by sin. In every culture there are positive and negative aspects. Positive aspects need to be enhanced, and negative aspects call for purification and transformation. Transformation of cultures is possible because at the heart of culture are values that can enrich us, strengthen us and provide us with hope. The duty and purpose of education is precisely to develop these values. It is a pity that the general reductive understanding of culture reduced to what is seen and heard only has brought about a poverty of culture. We forget that what is seen and heard (say, colourful shawls, beautiful dances, and lovely music) are the results of certain values deep down at the heart or centre of a culture. What is seen can be compared to leaves and fruits and the values at the centre of a culture can be compared to its roots. Here it is important to note that speaking of culture (a) roots and leaves can change at the same time, (b) roots can change, but leaves may remain as they are; and finally (c) leaves may change, but roots remain as they are.

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