A Brief Argument Against Cultural Supremacism

Caveat: what follows are only some rough, preliminary notes, made at the beginning of serious inquiry into the debates on this subject. 


Let’s imagine culture X in which a certain worldview, X1, predominates. Let’s imagine also that a member or members of culture X assert that X1 is superior to all other worldviews, including the worldviews of other cultures.

Here are some arguments against that assertion.

These argument apply to assertions of the superiority of any culture. The logical implication is not that all cultures are equal, but that hierarchical ranking of cultures (even to rank them all as equals) is meaningless.

The Intrinsic Argument

One can argue that worldview X1 rests on categories of perception and thought which are universal to the human mind, which therefore makes X1 universally valid.

Such arguments would be valid if the categories of human thought were determined solely by our shared physiology.

This is not the case, however. Basic categories of thought and perception, including time and space, involve a mix of physiologically determined and culturally constructed elements.

Therefore no worldview X1 can be universally valid on intrinsic grounds.

The Extrinsic Arguments

The supremacy of a a cultural worldview is sometimes argued on grounds of the perceived extrinsic consequences of that worldview. The assumption is that if practice Y is linked to worldview X1, then X1 has caused Y and the value of Y translates “back” to the the value of X1. This is a problematic assumption. But but even if we grant it for the sake of argument, we can rebut its various applications.

The Argument from Linear Evolution

Evolution is sometimes portrayed as a linear process of overall improvement. This is a mistake. Evolution is a nonlinear process in which permutations of a system (whether physical, biological, or social) spread outwards from one niche to occupy available adjacent niches.

A human culture is a complex multidimensional system, full of internal conflicts and contradictions as well as harmonies and complementarities.

Cultures, like other complex systems, develop through a process of adaptation to their environments. This process is nonlinear: what is adaptive for one environment is maladaptive for another. It is also nonlinear in that the culture itself modifies its environment, creating recursion and blurring the culture/environment boundary.

We cannot use time to place cultures on a linear track. All living human cultures have been evolving for the same amount of time and in this narrow sense are ‘equally evolved’.

The Argument from Pragmatic Progress

One can argue that culture X has, on the basis of worldview X1, produced pragmatically superior technology and/or social organization.

For instance, Westerners can point to the superior efficacy of modern medicine, the superior productivity of industrial technology, etc.

This argument is intuitively appealing, but commits one of two fallacies:

A) a fallacy of composition, generalizing from one aspect of a culture to the culture as a totality.

Specific cultural practices can have the property of linear development, but a culture as a whole cannot have this property. This is because cultures are complex multidimensional systems, adaptively specialized for different environments. Fitness for one environment does not equal fitness for other environments; often, fitness for one environment entails lack of fitness for certain other environments. Cultural change cannot be validly reduced to progress or lack thereof along a single dimension.

B) a fallacy of cherry picking, choosing only those aspects of a culture which can be construed as superior and ignoring those which cannot.

For instance, the same modern Western culture that has produced industrial technology has also produced anthropogenic global climate change, which threatens the survival of the entire human species. There is no valid way to balance these two against each other quantitatively to determine that one outweighs the other.

Cherry picking could be justified if one could objectively value certain aspects of a culture over others. However, any such value-judgment is itself culture-dependent.

The Argument from Moral Progress

One can argue that culture X has, on the basis of worldview X1, produced morally superior outcomes: piety, human rights, etc.

The same fallacies of composition or cherry picking apply here, especially the latter. Moral goods can emerge as one pole of a contradiction within a culture. For instance,  modern human rights ideology has emerged in the contexts of struggles against slavery, genocide, and state authoritarianism. The same culture that produced the UDHR also produced the Holocaust, and again there is no valid way to balance these two against each other quantitatively to determine that one outweighs the other.

In addition, the value of a moral good, its very status as a moral good, is culture-dependent. Asserting the superiority of a culture on the grounds of its superior moral values is, ultimately, a circular argument.

Pernicious Effects

If we allow the extrinsic applications of a worldview to count towards its value, then to be consistent we must also allow the extrinsic applications of the argument for cultural superiority itself to affect the value of making that argument.

Arguments for cultural superiority have many negative consequences. Such arguments have been used, historically, to support military aggression, conquest, slavery, colonialism, and genocide.

It is currently still used to justify cultural genocide of indigenous peoples, and to feed into the fallacious belief in a “clash of civilizations”.

Conversely, arguing the superiority of one’s own or another culture has only one very limited positive consequence. If the argument is made on behalf of a culture that has been subordinated and pressured towards extinction, the argument might help push back against that genocidal impetus, at the cost of being vulnerable to the refutations above.

Otherwise, the argument has no positive consequences that I can see.

 

8 thoughts on “A Brief Argument Against Cultural Supremacism

  1. Two initial thoughts:
    1. What is the political ideology of the apparently disembodied being, ‘A Brief Argument’?
    2. What if ‘culture x’ is given more socio-historical content, and is then labelled ‘proletariat’, and is faced with, say, ‘culture z’ labelled ‘bourgeoisie’? Thus, we can see that there might be an inescapable political relationship between ‘culture x’ and other ‘cultures’, within which relationship a battle for ‘superiority’ is also inescapable. I think that ‘A Brief Argument’ already holds to some undisclosed political and ideological beliefs, including that ‘superiority’ is ‘immoral’. But any ‘morality’ is a socio-historical product (there is no ‘Planet Morality’, out there, which gives us our moral beliefs). Perhaps we could argue that only democracy can produce our ‘morality’ – but if so, that’s a revolutionary belief that would allow us to vote so-called ‘private property’ into ‘common ownership’, very peacefully. I suspect that it’s ‘culture z’ who would have a problem within their claims for them having a ‘peaceful morality’, and that they would then ditch their ‘morality’, whilst using violence to defend their ‘morality’. What does ‘culture x’ do, if they have no choice but to battle for ‘superiority’ over other ‘cultures’?

    If it is argued that “Arguments for cultural superiority have many negative consequences…”, we need to examine just which ‘culture’ is making those arguments, against ‘cultural superiority’. Who would benefit from producing a ‘culture’ that accepts that it cannot change our world? And who determines ‘our world’, and how?

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    • Yeah, that’s a good point about the disembodied quality of this argument. I’m really unsatisfied with what I’ve written in this post and that could be the reason. Perhaps it’s not possible to take the position I’m trying to take using this kind of decontextualized, disembodied approach.

      Re. your other point, in my imagination as I wrote this the notion of ‘culture’ doesn’t refer to categories like the proletariat and bourgeoisie; these are two contradictory social forces operating within the culture of capitalist society. So my argument here doesn’t really apply to that struggle.

      By cultures I’m thinking of the modes of thought and practice engendered by different social systems, including those produced by the different world-systems and mini-systems that pre-existed the capitalist world-system. Those cultures are still around, subordinated to capitalist society of course and no longer autonomous, but still a source of identity and of distinct ways of being. In particular, thinking of the Indigenous cultures which still survive and which struggle against ongoing cultural genocide. But also thinking of other non-Western cultures including those cultures of the Islamic world which inspire so much anxiety in Western liberal democracies.

      Basically I’m arguing against Eurocentrism (see Samir Amin), but framing my argument in terms that are not specifically Marxist.

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  2. “Yeah, that’s a good point about the disembodied quality of this argument. I’m really unsatisfied with what I’ve written in this post and that could be the reason. Perhaps it’s not possible to take the position I’m trying to take using this kind of decontextualized, disembodied approach.”

    Well, if I were to be provocative, I’d just say that you’ve been ‘trained’ by ‘ruling class ideas’ to be ‘objective’, as a ‘neutral academic’! ‘Who educates the educators?’, as Marx put it.

    “Re. your other point, in my imagination as I wrote this the notion of ‘culture’ doesn’t refer to categories like the proletariat and bourgeoisie; these are two contradictory social forces operating within the culture of capitalist society. So my argument here doesn’t really apply to that struggle.”

    So, let’s get this right – you’ve already decided that your category of ‘culture’ exists outside of our real world. Who prompted you with stories of these ‘imaginative cultures’, within which class exploitation is not a factor? Plus, you’ve defined ‘capitalist society’ AS A ‘culture’ – isn’t this itself an unexamined definition? Why not define ‘capitalist society’ AS TWO OPPOSED ‘cultures’? The categories we use, usually end up also defining what we ‘find’.

    Further, you’ve also adopted the term ‘Western’ (which surely is just a synonym for ‘Eurocentrism’?), rather than ‘Capitalist’, and so this allows you, from your categories, to define the exploited class within capitalism as a part of the problem.

    If you, as an alternative, look to the exploitative class divisions within ‘Islamic’ and ‘Indigenous’ cultures, and compare them with class divisions within ‘Western’ culture, there might be a different product, rather than the opposition of ‘Western’ to ‘Non-Western’.

    My comradely advice is to have a think about just what ‘framework’ you are using for your ‘argument’. If that ‘framework’ doesn’t include ‘democracy’, you should be open about it, especially to yourself.

    Finally, my apologies if this all sounds like an attack, it’s just that I’m trying to get to the meat of the issue, on the internet – not the best of mediums for friendly discussion.

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    • Thanks for the qualification. Yes, to get to the meat of the issue, I do think that cultures are part of the real world because I think there are more dimensions to human society than the mode of production and class relations.

      A commonplace anthropological definition of culture is “system of shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviours, and artifacts that the members of society use to cope with their world and with one another, and that are transmitted from generation to generation through learning”. The mode of production and class relations are, obviously, a crucial part of this system, but not, I would say, the only part.

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      • Well, the ‘heart’ of a human is ‘crucial’, whereas the ‘toe’ is another part. So, the ‘heart’ isn’t ‘the only part’.

        But, if our purpose is to save the life of a heart attack victim, would it make sense to worry about, say, their ingrowing toenail?

        Which political ideology would have the interest to shift the focus from the ‘crucial’ to another ‘part’ of the ‘system’.

        For Marx, ‘class’ is the ‘crucial heart’ of the ‘system’ that the vast majority of humans on this planet live within (in effect, it’s all humans). So, this ‘commonplace anthropology’ and its ‘definitions’ require some examination. What was it Marx said about ‘the ruling ideas of any society are the ideas of the ruling class’. Whose ‘ideas’ are those of anything ‘commonplace’? Isn’t it also a radical ‘commonplace’, that ‘common sense’ is ‘conservative’?

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  3. So, who’s to define ‘crucial’? And how?

    Will it be ‘workers’ and ‘democratically’? Or will it be the ‘material heart, material lungs, etc.’, who will pronounce their own ‘cruciality’? I suspect that an elite determines what’s ‘crucial-for-them’.

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