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by Phil Bartle, PhD

dedicated to Audra Taillefer, Activist and Scholar

So you want to preserve your culture.

Nice ideal. You might be surprised to discover, however, that you are a danger to your culture if you want to preserve it.

Does that sound like a paradox? Not if you look carefully at what culture is, and how you can strengthen it. The empowerment methodology of this web site has a focus on strengthening, not on protecting.

Do you want to empower your culture or do you want to preserve it? The choice is yours. Choose one only. You can not have both.

Characteristics of Culture:

Before we begin discussing the idea of preserving culture, let us first ensure we agree on the meaning of culture. The most elementary definition of culture is that it is composed of everything we learn.

Several training documents on this site discuss culture. See two of them: Culture and What is community? Both emphasise that culture is the sociocultural system or society, that it is all our beliefs and actions that are not transmitted by genes. They are stored and transmitted by symbols. They include six dimensions: the technological, economic, political and institutional (interactional) dimensions, and the cultural dimension of aesthetics and values, and our worldview, or perspective on the nature of the universe.

The common, every-day, or street definition of culture is what we in the social sciences see as one of the six dimensions, the aesthetic. Drumming and dancing in Africa, drumming and singing in aboriginal North America, ballet and opera in Europe, all of these are part of culture but not the whole of culture.

Since those traditional songs, dances and music are important elements in the identity of those who perform and enjoy them, we strongly support the idea of preserving them and adding to them, as well as increasing their presence and profile in all societies, and in increasing and expanding their content. A strong sense of identity is a valuable element in the strengthening of communities and their culture. See Elements of Empowerment.

It is in the other dimensions, and other aspects of the values dimension, where preserving culture can cause damage to the strength of that culture

Characteristics of Preservation:

Think of things we know that are preserved: pickles in a jar, butterflies in a glass case, leather on a purse, blackberry jam in a jar, lumber for building, insects in amber, frogs in formaldehyde. They all have one thing in common, They were all once alive (or were parts of something alive) and are all now dead.

The process of preservation is one which modifies something so that it will last, so that it will not change, so that it will not live. To be alive requires something to move, to change. So if you want to keep something from changing for a long time, kill it. It will change eventually anyway (just ask any Buddhist) no matter how it is preserved.

Let Culture Grow and Become Stronger

If you go back to the documents on culture; you will see that culture is a living thing. It is formed of the symbols, meanings and behaviour of people, but can live beyond the lives of those individual humans who carry it. It is like a living organism, although it is not biological. It transcends the biological.

I can not give you freedom. If freedom could be given, it could be taken away (according to the teachings of Lao Tsu) and then it would not be true freedom.

The empowerment training on this web site is aimed at fighting poverty and oppression, not the poor and the oppressed. The method aims to strengthen the communities of poor and oppressed people. For those communities to become stronger, they must change, therefore their culture must change. They must do it themselves; we can only guide and stimulate, but not do it for them or give it to them. Since culture is everything humans learn, the changes needed to become stronger require culture change. Growth is change (and so is decay). Let them grow.

A flower will grow if it gets enough water, sunlight, soil and minerals. It will not get taller if you pull it from the top. We can provide the water and minerals, perhaps, but it is the flowers (like the poor communities) that must do their own growing. Pulling it up by the top is like social engineering. Stimulating it by giving it water and minerals to grow and become stronger is empowerment methodology for flowers.

Many people believe in a mythological past where traditional culture was utopian. The evidence is different. The "good old days" never existed. No pre colonial community was unchanging. There was violence, there were wars, there were unfair things, there were change and adaptation. We should not believe in an untrue past and try to preserve something that never existed. Then and now, strength, growth and survival required and requires change and assertiveness.

Pick and Choose

We said above that we encourage the preservation of songs, dances and music, because they enhance the sense of identity, an important factor of capacity development. But we think that some practices and values need to change if a community is to get stronger.

Think of culture as clothing for a moment. In fact, clothing is technology, part of our culture. We put on different clothing according to conditions in the environment. We do not wear a bikini bathing suit to hunt seal on the ice, and we do not wear an arctic parka to go swimming in the tropical sea. To grow and adapt to changing conditions, we must be able to wear different aspects of our culture in different conditions.

Another metaphor: think of culture as our means of transport. (Our means of transport is another technological aspect of our culture). We do not drive a four wheel drive jeep into the ocean to fish for salmon. We do not ride in a fishing boat to hunt giraffes in the Kalahari Desert. We pick and choose what is appropriate and effective. If some aspect of our culture is hindering us from surviving, growing and winning in the environment in which we now find ourselves, then we must don new cultural traits. See the document on FGM.

Some of those cultural traits are very honourable and praiseworthy, but if they cause us to weaken and die out, they need to be changed like a new suit of clothing or a new means of transport. If we say, "Oh we do not litigate and fight," and we are proud of that aspect of our culture, then when it comes time to fight and litigate for what is rightly ours, and we do not, we lose what is rightly ours.

If we say, "Oh we always respect and obey those who are in power," and if those in power are corrupt and evil, then we must either temporarily put aside that cultural trait and don a more useful set of traits. If we do not, then we will be exploited, robbed and oppressed by our conquerors or leaders.

We therefore should not say that we must choose the best of our traditional culture and preserve that. We should say that we must maintain our identity, but we must be able to adapt our values, our habits, our ways of thinking and acting, to use those which will make us stronger (not those which make us honourable but weak). Much as the parka is an honourable set of clothing, it will not serve us well if we are swimming in a tropical ocean.

Modern post colonial Africa and Latin America, aboriginal communities now in Western or European societies, the poor countries of the world, all of those are living in environments which require changes in some cultural traits. We need to consciously chose those that are appropriate for making us stronger, for our own empowerment.

Conclusion; So You want to Preserve Culture?

In the empowerment training on this site, we emphasise that encouraging community participation and community decision making does not mean automatically and passively accepting everything that community members say they want. It means challenging and encouraging community members to clarify and examine carefully what they want and what they want to do. Ultimately they must take responsibility.

Part of your challenge as an activist is to be clear in your own mind what some of these things mean, what they imply and what they might bring. (That is why we reject poverty alleviation and aim for poverty eradication).

The idea of "Cultural Preservation" when unexamined, has a nice warm fuzzy feeling about it. At first we think we can support it. Closer examination reveals, however, that it is just the opposite of what we really want.


© Copyright 1967, 1987, 2007 Phil Bartle
Web Design by Lourdes Sada
Last update: 2012.08.13

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