Friday, April 12, 2013

Wade Davis gives a great lecture.

Wade Davis provides a stirring plea to preserve and protect the cultures of the world with only a few members each. It is worth watching. Still I have doubts.

"Culture" in Davis's sense can be defined as the way people live in the world -- their language, their knowledge, their institutions, etc.

I recall visiting a village of indigenous people in Colombia and being impressed by their traditional costumes. Then I discovered that they had adopted that costume from another tribe living some distance to their south, and  had done so relatively recently. My point is that cultures change, even the so called "traditional" cultures.

I live in the Anglophone portion of Western culture. I am very glad of some of the radical changes that have occurred in my culture, such as the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the Information Revolution. So I can easily imagine changes in the kinds of cultures Wade Davis is concerned with that would be both dramatic and greatly appreciated by the recipients of the changed culture.

I suspect that some of the opposition to the impact of foreign cultures is from people feeling the impact in their pocketbooks. Film makers and magazine publishers don't like to see serious competition in their markets from foreign language products; the ears of music lovers may be insulted by the intrusions of foreign popular music into their radio stations. I also recognize that serious people may have very grave and proper concern with cultural intrusions of inferior foreign products.

One way the languages can be kept alive is for national policies that promote multi-language proficiency. In much of the world it is not at all surprising for many if not most people to speak several languages. My grandfather spoke Irish, my father had some Irish, and Ireland requires students to study Irish in the schools although almost all the Irish are fully fluent in English and most use English as their first language. Still, there are enough people who work at keeping the language alive that it seems likely to survive (even though there was a long effort by the English rulers of Ireland to exterminate the Irish language).

I also suppose that the most common way for cultures to change is by picking up ideas, words, technologies and other elements from other cultures. If the people within a culture choose to do so, that doesn't bother me too much. Indeed, I feel fairly comfortable suggesting that people in other cultures abandon warlike practices, violence, and corruption. I feel comfortable suggesting that people in other cultures adopt practices that are likely to make their children live longer, healthier lives. And frankly if I had to choose between the survival of a minority language and survival of children, the children would win out every time. Fortunately I don't think that choice is ever needed, and fortunately other people are making the choice of what to keep and what to reject in their own cultures.

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