The concept of ‘culture’ has evolved considerably over time. The Roman orator, Cicero, used the term ‘cultura animi‘ – the cultivation of the soul – to describe the development of a philosophical soul, which was understood as the natural highest possible ideal for human development.
Over time the term was expanded to include the development of language and literature, mental development through education, and finally the ideas, customs, and intellectual and artistic conditions of a society or group.
The German philosopher and jurist, Samuel Pufendorf, postulated that culture “refers to all the ways in which human beings overcome their original barbarism, and through artifice, become fully human”.
Edward Burnett Tylor, the 19th century English anthropologist, described culture as follows: “Culture or civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”
Despite the lofty idealism of the Romantic philosophers, culture has been used as a mechanism for control, propaganda and obfuscation since time immemorial.
Cultural chauvinism was at the root of the atrocities committed in the Congo by King Leopold II of Belgium, during which the population of the Congo was reduced by half – as many as 8 million Africans lost their lives.
The German character trait of not questioning authority has been given as one of the reasons why the German populace was so complicit in the aggression and atrocities of WW2.
In South Africa, the concept of Afrikaner culture was used to unite the white minority into supporting the fallacy that was apartheid.
The 21st century has retained its fair share of cultural tyranny, exacerbated by the integrated and fast moving global economy on the one hand, and the vast disparities in access to information and education on the other hand. Culture as a benevolent factor in societal cohesion and stability has in many cases been usurped as a handy tool to further repression and economic rapaciousness:
Female genital mutilation is still widely practised in Africa and parts of the Middle East. According to the World Health Association there are 100 – 140 million women and girls who have been subjected to the procedure. The main cultural reasons for the practice being that it reduces the woman’s libido, and that the removal of a woman’s clitoris prevents the deaths of infants and male partners during childbirth or intercourse respectively. With most female genital circumcisions occurring before the age of 18, and often within a few days after a girl is born, there is a clear lack of informed consent and a blatant violation of human rights.
Although the United Nations General Assembly unanimously passed a resolution in December 2012 banning the practice of female genital mutilation, it is doubtful that there will be an immediate decrease in its occurrence, especially in remote, tribal areas.
The practice of forced marriage is still very much entrenched in the Middle East, parts of South Asia, East Asia and Africa and among immigrants to the West from those regions.
Various factors drive parents of child brides to marry off their daughters, from community pressure to adhere to age-old cultural customs to economic considerations. In poor, developing nations, it is not uncommon for families to settle debts by offering their daughters as payment.
In Yemen, the minimum marriage age of fifteen for women, rarely enforced, was abolished in 1999. The onset of puberty, interpreted by conservatives to be at the age of nine, was set as a requirement for consummation of marriage.
In 2009 a Saudi judge refused to annul the marriage of an 8-year-old girl to a 47-year-old man. The judge rejected a petition from the girl’s mother, whose lawyer said the marriage was arranged by her father to settle a debt with “a close friend.”
According to UNICEF (2012) the percentage of girls who were forced to marry before a certain age:
South Asia before the age of 18: 48%
Bangladesh before the age of 15: 27.3%
Africa before the age of 18: 42%
Niger before age of 15: 26%
Kyrgyzstan before age of 18: 21.2%
Kazakhstan before the age of 18: 14.4%
It is estimated that over the next decade, 100 million more girls—or about 25,000 girls a day—will marry before they turn 18.
As a form of conjugal slavery, child brides often endure violence, abuse and forced sexual relationships. Many suffer from poor sexual and reproductive health, and most are denied a proper education, which contributes to the cycle of poverty and powerlessness.
According to the United Nations there are more than 5000 honour killings internationally per year, with about 2000 reported killings each year in India and Pakistan. Many women’s groups in the Middle East and South-west Asia suspect the victims are at least 20, 000 per year, due to under reporting and entrenched police reticence.
Human Rights watch defines honour killings as: ‘acts of vengeance, usually death, committed by male family members against female family members, who are held to have brought dishonor upon the family. A woman can be targeted by (individuals within) her family for a variety of reasons, including: refusing to enter into an arranged marriage, being the victim of a sexual assault, seeking a divorce—even from an abusive husband—or (allegedly) committing adultery. The mere perception that a woman has behaved in a way that “dishonors” her family is sufficient to trigger an attack on her life’.
There are hundreds of examples of women being killed in the name of ‘honour’ after they were raped or for even just talking to someone of the opposite sex.
The South African media regularly reports on so-called muti murders (medicine murders) – the murder of someone in order to excise body parts for incorporation as ingredients into medicine and concoctions used in witchcraft. Research undertaken by the Human Rights League in Mozambique indicated that one in five people in South Africa’s rural areas has had first-hand experience of a human body part being trafficked after a muti killing. The true prevalence of muti killings are hard to determine because people interviewed are often fearful, as they are part of a traditional value system. The Traditional Healers Organisation of South Africa revealed in 2010 that nearly 1 000 families nationwide reported that the corpses of their dead relatives had been harvested for muti before burial.
Witch-hunts are still common in Africa, especially Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania and South Africa, where locals believe witchcraft is behind misfortunes like infertility, poverty, failure in business, famine and earthquakes. The 2011 Human Rights Report prepared by the Tanzanian Legal and Human Rights Centre states that “Between 2005 and 2011 around 3,000 people were lynched by frightened neighbours who thought they were witches. On average 500 people – particularly old women with red eyes – are killed every year in Tanzania because they are suspected of being witches.”
Male circumcision rituals in South Africa caused 240 deaths over the past 5 years, with 42 deaths over 3 weeks in July, 2012. In Xhosa and other Southern African cultures, the male circumcision ritual is considered a rite of passage into manhood. Those who are not circumcised are ridiculed and ostracised. Some initiates are subjected to assaults and starved during the initiation period, effectively teaching them to associate culture with violence. Many become dehydrated, develop sepsis or gangrene due to unhygienic conditions.
The economic growth of developing countries has also contributed to deleterious cultural phenomena:
Shark fin soup has traditionally been part of Chinese cuisine, usually served at special occasions such as weddings and banquets, or as a luxury item. It is supposed to symbolise wealth, power, prestige and honour. The increase in wealth of the Chinese middle class means that ever greater numbers of Chinese can afford to eat shark fin soup. As a result massive pressure has been put on the ocean’s shark populations. Shark specialists estimate that 100 million sharks are killed for their fins annually. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 143 shark species are at high risk of extinction, either now or in the near future. That’s over 55% of shark species. Currently Hong Kong handles 50% – 80% of the world trade in shark fin. A third of all fins imported to Hong Kong come from Europe, with Spain by far the largest supplier, although Norway, Britain, France, Portugal and Italy are also major suppliers. Facts that illustrate how greed and exploitation has become intertwined with cultural selfishness and environmental disregard.
Asian traditional medicine has also contributed in great part to the endangered, and in some cases near extinct, status of many animals. Many Asian communities believe that tiger bone, in powdered form, can cure a range of ailments and diseases. This despite scientific proof to the contrary. The global tiger population in the wild has decreased from about 100,000 at the beginning of the 20th century to less than 4000 today.
Rhino horn is extensively used in the traditional medicine systems of many Asian countries, from Malaysia and South Korea to India and China, to cure a variety of ailments. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the horn, which is shaved or ground into a powder and dissolved in boiling water, is used to treat fever, rheumatism, gout, and other disorders. Since rhino horns are composed largely of the protein keratin, the chief component of human hair and nails, any traditional claims to healing powers are spurious at best. Of the approximately 500, 000 rhinos at the beginning of the 20th century, 95% have been decimated to feed the traditional medicine industry in Asia. Countries with traditionally stable rhino populations, like South Africa, have been targeted increasingly by organised syndicates over the past few years. An indication that the demand for rhino horn has increased as rhino populations have been wiped out elsewhere.
Most of the above mentioned cases show a direct link between cultural tyranny and human rights abuses or ecological damage. There are however more insidious forms of cultural exploitation. Western consumerist culture and materialism has played a damaging role in a vast array of areas. The destruction of the Amazonian rain forest through logging, mining and farming in order to supply Western markets with beef, soya beans, timber and minerals is a glaring example. Child labour, atrocious working conditions and suppression of democratic rights, in countries where most Western consumer goods are produced, are often ignored in favour of the profit maximising culture of many Western based conglomerates. A status quo that is ongoing despite the plethora of reports and articles produced to highlight the negative effects of unbridled consumerism. Which can only lead to one conclusion – that a culture of entitlement and wilful ignorance is still entrenched in Western society. A cultural chauvinism that is perpetuated by Western institutions like universities, governments and think tanks.
Of great concern is the general dumbing down of culture, enabled by mass media consumption focused on the lowest common denominator. Multiple media channels bombard people daily with superficial information and entertainment, while educational institutions work hand in hand with industry to produce one dimensional professionals. As a result critical thought and cultural evolution have been inhibited to a great extent.
Culture should be the expression of the most lofty ideals of mankind. When it becomes a self serving, dishonest, cruel and cowardly instrument that deprives people of their lives, dignity and freedom it should be done away with, with the contempt it rightly deserves. Unbridled culture subjugates, enslaves and corrupts societies, if it is unfettered by properly enforced human rights legislation.
It is time for all countries and cultures to start adhering to the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
Article 1 – All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Read the rest of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights here: http://www.un.org/rights/50/decla.htm