Saturday, April 22, 2006

Culture and its contradictions

Tom Palmer's post on the roudy British has prompted me to write about something usually ignored among economists and economics graduate students: culture.

The starting point for thinking about any culture is the realization that culture deals with interactions between human beings and humans are, to put it bluntly, hypocrites. All of us. Hence Britain is known internationally as both the land of refined politeness and drunken yobbishness. Americans, depending on who you ask, are either stuck-up prudes or decadent libertines. We are also either outwardly friendly people or isolated individualists. India is a country both of sexual and social conservatism as well as a country where, at least in cities, sexual harassment is truly out of hand (and, as the common retort goes, the country of the Kama Sutra).

Part of this can be explained by the fact that all societies are incredibly diverse in a way that simple generalizations can never capture. Yobs in Britain, even while sober, will never strike you as polite while others may be able to act like perfect gentlemen after a night at the pub.

Nevertheless, I feel that every country has a set of established social norms and customs that some will actively rebel against while others will quietly disobey when it suits their interests. William F. Buckley once observed that just because a majority of the population in a society commit adultery at some point does not mean there is not a recognized rule against adultery in that society.

I know too little about sociology or rigorous study of culture to propose some way of how to actually define what culture is. But I will end this post with a simple observation: the argument that we shouldn't judge other cultures simply because they have their own set of values is highly dubious: often times even the people who make up another culture do not act on their values in a consistent manner.

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