In many of my posts I contend that talking about “Christians”, “Buddhists”, “Muslims” and others as a group is often highly distortive. I contend the same is also true of large-scale secular cultures — these generalizations are an abstract fabrication. Below are two personal experiences where I confronted the fabrication of an abstract “culture”. Hopefully these examples show how this is not merely a philosophical question but has real implications.
Part of my medical training was a mandatory course in “Cultural Sensitivity Training” where we learned about the various cultural traits of Hispanics so that we would not be surprised by Hispanic patients and not misread “cultural signals”. Most of my classmates did not speak another language nor had they lived overseas. I watched as they soaked up this “Cultures Exist” myth. Whereas I was full of skepticism at both the accuracy of these stereotypes and if one could really teach sensitivity.
Years later a study came out showing that those who went through training did more poorly in clinical settings with mixed populations than those who didn’t. It seems that those who had the training went in with rigid prejudices (albeit ‘sensitive’ ones) which the Hispanics patients could sense and that ironically blocked communication. See this 2005 study as an example.
Five years after my medical training, I got a job serving as a Peace Corps Medical Officer (PCMO) in China. Before deployment to China, all the new PCMOs (each going to a different country) had to report to headquarters in Washington, D.C. for three weeks of training. One of the training modules was to teach us about the difference between American and other cultures. Now remember, all the officers were more than 35 years-old. During the training we were lectured on classic American traits and had them contrasted to traits of other people and how that separated us.
I raised my hand during one lecture and objected that the list only represented some imagined homogenized blend of a select group of Americans and that there are huge groups in America that don’t look anything like the traits being showcased. I said, therefore, that the same variety and lack of homogeneous stereotypical cultures exists in each country we would be visiting. The instructor was very upset and many students looked at me puzzled. I argued a little more but then gave up.
An Interesting Theory
David Chapman, a Buddhist blogging friend, feels that most people born after the 70s tend to have my view. He calls this fragmented, incoherent view of culture a “postmodern” attitude — one that sees no overriding culture but lots of tiny subcultures. Whereas he theorizes that those born before the 70’s tend to have a “modernist” view of culture which sees an overreaching general culture. Being born before the 70s, I don’t fit David’s theory, maybe because of all the various subcultures I played in over the years. But I worry that classifying generations into modernists, post-modernists, Gen Xers or whatever is itself problematic for the reasons given above. Though I can see its usefulness of David’s view, just as long as no one takes it too seriously and starts sensitivity seminars on how to relate to Post-Modernists!
Questions for Reader:
- How useful do you find using the word “culture” to describe an entire country, ethnic group, sex or race?
- What do you think of David’s theory? Does your view of culture, match your age?