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Culture Clash

Today's New York Times Magazine offers the following out/in list for 2006, courtesy of Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah:

Appiah's article goes on to challenge the thinking of cultural "purists" like those at Unesco who, he believes, wish to stop globalism and trap local peoples in their old cultural ways, all in the name of preserving human diversity.  According to Appiah, "Talk of authenticity now just amounts to telling other people what they ought to value in their own traditions."  Similar arguments have been made by proponents of international trade and economic development for some time.  Stop fighting Coca-colonization -- people everywhere want to drink Coke.

Original or not, Appiah has a valid point.  Or rather, half of a valid point.  Certainly, choices regarding the hybridization of culture should be the provenance of the people living it; moreover, some behaviors defended in the name of "culture" are indefensible from a liberal humanitarian perspective. 

Appiah ignores the other side of the issue, however:  many individuals do identify themselves as part of a group and do wish to protect the authenticity of the group traditions, especially against outside appropriation.  Some things, the argument goes, should not be copied, should not be copied badly, or, if they are copied, should acknowledge their source (financially as well as verbally).  Appiah's own native Ghana, for example, has had difficulties protecting its traditional textile patterns against cheap foreign copyists.  Corporations can protection their "traditions" in the form of trade secrets or trademarks; why shouldn't communities be able to engage in analogous branding exercises, with international encouragement and assistance?

Culture is, of course, fluid.  As I have written elsewhere, there are many social benefits that stem from this fluidity.  Under a global scheme that respects only individuals and "contamination," however, the processes of collective cultural creativity are devalued and creators' ability to balance the authenticity of cultural products against harmful forms of outside appropriation is lost.