Sunday, July 29, 2007

Still More Musing About Culture and Cultural Diversity

This I think will be the last posting occasioned by my reading of Michael Brown's book, Who Owns Native Culture? Orin Starn wrote in the American Ethnologist (Volume 32 Number 1 November 2004):
Brown'’s Who Owns Native Culture? is the best introduction yet to the global politics of heritage, authenticity, and indigenous rights. At the same time, his book is a gentle manifesto for flexible pragmatism and mutual respect. A well-respected anthropologist and author of earlier books about Peru and New Age spirituality, Brown sympathizes with the struggles of native peoples for dignity and justice. But he argues against the extremes of so-called Total Heritage Protection that would place native cultures completely off-limits to outsiders. Brown wants indigenous rights fully respected in ways that nonetheless avoid the embrace of legislated separatism and ethnic absolutism of any stripe.
Brown writes (page 247):
There is doubtlessly a place for legislation that confers limited rights in cultural information and community symbols especially to groups that can show how misuse of such resources by others would cause genuine harm.
The book focuses on the beliefs of some indigenous cultures that their rituals would be polluted by outsiders learning about them, or that images or symbols that they use would lose efficacy if viewed by outsiders or misused.

In some cases, as Brown points out, laws protect such information, procedures, images or symbols. Often people of good will, once they understand the importance of the material to members of native cultures, refrain voluntarily from impinging on their privacy. Editors, curators and others often use good judgment and good manners to limit the exposure of such cultural information and community symbols. Indeed, so do sometimes do visitors and tourists, and even social scientists have become better mannered in recent decades.

However, Brown does not really deal with the Internet. Now that more than a billion people have editorial rights to post things on the Internet, and given that once something is out in cyberspace it is very hard to withdraw it or limit its distribution, what might be termed "cultural privacy rights" are going to be much harder to maintain.

I would agree that it makes sense to give cultural groups such "cultural privacy rights" where there is no public policy reason not to. (E.g. I would not give the right to a suicide cult to plan and conduct its suicidal rituals in private.) Incidentally, the Europeans feel that intellectual property rights law recognizes natural rights, while the Americans tend to feel that the law establishes such rights for utilitarian reasons. I think the issue with cultural privacy rights would be more a matter of social agreement to recognize such rights, then followed by the institutionalization in the law as necessary.

But I wonder where to make the cut off. Brown seems to feel that such rights should be given to indigenous populations, and that these might be some four to eight percent of the world's population. I wonder how "indigenous" is defined. If that were to include African tribal peoples and villagers from India and China, I would guess that the total would reach much higher. It would seem that Brown would give such rights only to groups that are long established. It is not clear to me why relatively recently created groups such as Mormons and Scientologists, who I understand also have areas of information that they deny to outsiders, would be less worthy of "cultural privacy".

Cultural Diversity, Nationalism and Globalization

I wonder about the larger issues of integration of ethnic groups in nation states while integrating those states into regional unions and the global system of nations. The people of the United States think of this as the great melting pot, but it has had grave difficulty in integrating native Americans, blacks and Hispanics, and is facing new challenges in the 21st century with Latino immigrants. European nations too are experiencing difficulties in integrating increasing flows of immigrants. Globalization seems likely to increase such flows.

In a different scenario, the European Union seems to be seeing devolution of power to local authorities. Take for example the cases of Spain and the United Kingdom. Perhaps, as markets become multinational in a region, the economic incentives for local ethnic groups to accede to the demands of national majorities in order to participate in the national market (and for national majorities to insist on authority over local ethnic groups to incorporate them in the national market). Of course, regional markets with reduced trade barriers are developing all over the world as part of the more general trend towards globalization.

UNESCO's various cultural efforts attest to the global concern to maintain cultural diversity, rather than to let the riches of various cultures be lost in a vanilla global melting pot. Ethnic groups all over the world want to control their own cultural evolution in order to better maintain those cultural values and elements which they hold most dear.

Countervailing forces include the improving Global Information Infrastructure which makes contacts among culture ever more common, and economic globalization which shifts production to areas of comparative advantage and consumption to imports of other goods and services, with all of the attendant cultural impacts. Moreover, one can not achieve the universally desired benefits of improved health and nutrition and other comforts without adopting some cultural elements from other cultures. There are also incentives to be willing to avoid conflict and violence by negotiating cultural accommodations among ethnic groups coming into contact in the national and international contexts.

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