Does Culture Serve a Real Purpose?

I have, within the past five or so years, largely eliminated racism from my thoughts which were, in no small part, “bred” into me.

I am glad to be rid of that monkey.

However, it seems that “culture” may be the new safeguard for racism. Now, perhaps my views are always a little on the extreme side, but nonetheless I would state here (as things stand):

This is spawned by a coworker of mine who insists that I am “American” and she is “Chinese.” I asked her what she meant by that, innocently enough, and got a pretty convoluted answer. My roommate is also guilty of such proclamations. I have noticed some people here who also think in such a way.

It is not a matter of debate to me that culture exists as an abstraction, but does it serve a legitimate purpose that I am unaware of?

Why, yes, culture does serve a legitimate purpose.

“Culture” is the name that we give to that collection of attitudes that we believe that we hold in common (“Cheese? Oh, yuck! That’s just spoiled milk.”) All cultural attitudes in their origin were adaptations to the prevailing environment (note that their origin may have thousands of miles and/or years away). They may have een heuristic adaptations, like “due process”. They may have been purely arbitrary, like saying “Hello” when calling an English speaker on the phone. Even these last have their value; if we actualy had to sit down and think about how open a onversation, we’d rarely have one (this may be beneficial in some cases).

Well, arl, from your (and in fact probably my) viewpoint, “culture” is used all too often to excuse acts that would register as morally unacceptable on my personal moral-o-scope [sub](patent pending)[/sub].

However in the absence of religion, a subjective morality is very hard to argue for. Certainly an enforced moral code is difficult to justify. From that point of view if a particular set of people (i.e. a “culture”) as decreed that action X is not morally unacceptable then it is not for you or I to categorically declare that they are wrong.

Hence “culture” does have a purpose - that of recognising what are accpetable moral standards those withing that culture.


Please note that within my culture it is perfectly acceptable for concluding sentences to have typographical errors.

Or not.


I think we are going to have the same trouble defining culture that we have with races. We could break it down to countries, but I see many different cultures within a specific country. You have regional differences, and then you have individual exceptions.

What exactly are we talking about here?
I see most racism as having it’s roots in economic differences. Whichever “group” is the poorest in a particular area, will be thought of --well—poorly:)
I know a Costa Rican who is a painter. He is here illegally. This guy is the hardest worker, the most honest man and one of the best fathers I know. He is also a friend of mine. I know how he gets looked at by the people who own the houses he works in. They are (not all-but many)distrustful, suspicous and short-tempered with him.

Now back in Costa Rica, this guy was middle class. He owned a refrigeration company and his family owns a coffee farm. The thing that gets me, is in Costa Rica, they have Nicaugran immigrants working there. When he was there, he had exactly the same attitude towards their immigrant workers as we have here.

…and he doesn’t see a problem with it.

Same shit, different country.

I think culture serves a purpose from the INSIDE as well. I understand that this is a mostly American phenomenon. But many of us use our culture as a way of identifying ourselves and feeling connected.

Is this “better” or “worse” than using race as a means of identifying oneself? Does it cause the same “us vs. them” mentality that creates race division?

I’m not sure. In my personal opinion, cultural lines seem a little more fluid and less hard and fast than the ways we think about race divisions. I think this means that there’s more room for combining cultures and considering them as equal.


Perhaps its the company I keep.

I had, in my usual extreme manner, forgot to include such things as how we answer the phone in a society as culture which it most certainly is.

Perhaps what I am touching on is the bias I feel from others about their culture; ie- cultural superiority.

At any rate, how we answer the phone seems largely inconsequential, no? My problem here is that I can’t explain much of my behavior apart from, “Well, I was raised that way. Well, that’s how I’ve always done it.” And so on. Not a real reason; not based on any guiding principle (not that everything has to, of course, but if its based on anything it shoudl, IMO, be based on a principle).

Ah, Sexysubcultures indeed. I think this is exactly what I am talking about. “We do [this] because we are [subculture].” I don’t like that. I would rather have the answer be, “Because that’s what I like,” or something similar.

An adherence to culture, IMO, leaves us wide open for further segregation, and so seems contrary to stated goals of peaceful coexistence.

Hmm…this is a tough call. I see what you’re saying about continuing things that further segregation. I always refer to this as an “us vs. them” mentality, which I find completely destructive.

But I have some questions. For one thing, if I say to you, “I cook this pasta sauce because I’m Italian,” how is taht different from saying, “I cook this pasta sauce because my grandmother taught me how and I enjoy eating it.”

Isn’t it true that we develop “cultural tastes” because it’s what we were taught to be “tasteful” by our families and others around us? This still presents difficulties with avoiding segregation. But in my mind, it’s not the same as saying, “I’m black and you’re white.” I’m still trying to figure out how to express exactly what I think that difference is to me. Or perhaps there isn’t one and I’m only fooling myself.

Additionally, lots of people do things specifically in identifying with a particular sub-population, you’re right. But if I go out and buy an Italian cook book in an attempt to feel some connection with my “culture” I don’t understand how that’s any different than what I learned from my grandmother. It’s only when it becomes, “People who buy Polish cookbooks are horrible” that it’s a problem. Is this a necessary evolution of cultural identities? I’m not sure.


Where I think culture is good

I think culture is good when it is something to celebrate. Mardi Gras, Saint Patrick’s Day, a sand painting exhibition, a museum’s “art of the xxxx” presentation.

I think culture is good when it is something to respect and honor. Learning and preserving the history of your clan/tribe/village. Recording the deeds and accomplishments of your ancestors.

I think culture is good when it gives complete strangers a commonality to form an intial bond. “Hey, you’re irish too, Cool! Have a seat and we’ll talk about our favorite irish folk tune.”

Where I think culture is bad

I think culture is bad when it’s used as an excuse. “Well, that’s just the way my people are.”

I think culture is bad when it is used as a lever to raise one person above another without regard to personal merits.

I think culture is bad when it is used as a method of perpetuating falsehoods. I have no problem with honoring and respecting your ancestors beleifs or your cultures beliefs, but that does not mean that those same beliefs still have a place in todays world. (This is not including religious beliefs, but rather prejudices which have become part of culture)

So, to answer the OP, yes, I believe there is a legitimate purpose to culture, but also some negative points to it.

I also think most people pick and choose what they will respect/honor/celebrate of their culture. For example I don’t celebrate St. Patrick’s day because I really don’t feel right celebrating the murder/torture/abuse of pagans.


aynrandlover writes:

Yes, but can we see the principle?

Answering the phone is a trivial example. OTOH, if every time it rang, you said to yourself, “Now, how shall I answer it this time?”, you’d probably miss all of your calls. When no path is obviously better, any path can be followed. (I suppose that we could say that this is based on the principle: “it’s far more important that I answer the phone than how I answer it”.)

To take a step up, consider eating. The principle here ought to be, meseems, “eat healthy food (less than 30% of calories from fat, lay off the white arsenic, etc) consistent with its availability”. But, there is a range of foods that are consistent with eating this way. So, why this food rather that one? Within that range, then, we fall back on the reason: “Well, I was brought up to believe that cheese is spoiled milk[sup]1[/sup]”.

And superiority of culture? Assuming for the sake of argument that it’s an examined culture (not necessarily a correct assumption), then the parts based on correct principles should be superior for their time and place (perhaps restricted to that; note the difference in utility of the sickle gene in western Africa and western New York).

[sup]1[/sup][sub]Actually, cheese is spoiled yogurt. Yogurt is spoiled milk. Roquefort is spoiled cheese, and can’t get any more spoiled :)[/sub]

I think that most people are really quite unaware of how powerful a role culture plays in shaping how they deal with every day life (or reality in general). Culture is something that is learned. Akatsukami gave a good example of somthing simple as how one answers the telephone. It’s quite possible that other cultures answer the phone diffrently. Saying “hello?” isn’t intrinsically any more natural than saying “who is it?” or “yes?” or some other response.
I think culture is good when it fosters a sense of community or belonging for its members (an identity), but it causes problems when people forget that culture is a human construct.

That is not something to respect and honor about a culture, though. That is something to respect and honor about people. They didn’t succeed because they were Italian, or Swedish, or Danish; they succeeded because they were skillful individuals.

Now, the cultural arena (society) in which an individual lives may foster and reward such individuals… in that case perhaps we can respect and honor that idea, but again…it isn’t because they were Italian that they did that.

Being Italian, to me, doesn’t mean anything. I don’t want it to, either.

I guess my problem is that culture is either irrelevant or bigoted, and to me that’s not a trait I want to be associated with.

When I was a lad, my grandpappy taught me how to drive. The most important lesson he taught me was “when on the road, do what the people around you expect you to do.” Culture is what others expect you to do. It is the ultimate social lubricant - it increases predictability and, therefore, reduces tension. This is the benefit of culture.
Not to say culture and cultural mores are always a good thing. The behavior expected and impressed by culture can be bad, and no where is this more often seen than when two cultures come together.
The problem isn’t necessarily culture per se, but the value attached to the cultural rules. Cultural rules are really just conveniences. When they are considered “good”, or worse, “better than [x culture’s] rules”, then problems arise.


Culture and personal history are inseparable and understanding your past is always a good idea. However using your past for a justification for isolating yourself or isolating others who do not share a commonality of history is where problems begin.
When one enjoys pasta it is good. When one gains an added benefit from doing it in a traditional manner that has special meaning to oneself due to ones history this is good. When one fails to try Dominos Pizza because it is not traditional one is limiting oneself, and when one tries to have it mandated that all non-traditional pasta be outlawed, as it does not respect your cultural heritage… well most people wouldn’t but I can give you cites for cultural groups that have done similar things.
I draw the line where one culture insists that all parts of a common community must understand, respect and comply with their cultural needs.
We need to develop a new agreed culture, which allows our modern society to conform to a common set of basic understandings that make sense in today world. Unfortunately a number of historical and non-historical cultural groupings feel more or less disenfranchised from the current process that develops this common interface, and thus have not truly agreed to participate in it.
The process due to its nature is part of the current culture and is almost impossible to mandate or dictate, once a group feels disenfranchised it can take a long time or a rather radical change to the ‘common perception’ to integrate it.

Saying “I cook this pasta sauce because my grandmother taught me how and I enjoy eating it”, extends the context for your history to include a large number of people, that is more people will relate to this with an understanding based on personal experience than the phrase “I cook this pasta sauce because I’m Italian”.

Yes however this should be always updated as we meet new people with different experiences and backgrounds not remain static, which is what tends to happen for a lot of people.

In my mind saying “I’m black and you’re white.” is not wrong, bad or counterproductive it is ackknowledging a difference, providing you go on to say “and we both live here so how should we get along”. It is saying “You are different, and I am right” that I find rather more problimatic.

As I stated before IMHO identifying with your past is a good thing and has no real difference to identifying with your family. Stating that your beliefs are based on your cultural heritage rather than your family background can lead to people feeling that you are isolating yourself. We all have families of some sort; we are not all from the same cultural heritage.
Wide generalisations are always bad, wide generalisations based on someone’s historical background are plain stupid, and should not be part of any healthy cultural integration or development.


I agree that they succeeded because they were skillful individuals. But if you see a bunch of individuals from a certain group succeeding at certain things then one can’t help but see a pattern.


If you want to look at the world as being made up as individuals that’s fine. But when you have a whole bunch of individuals with similiar values and traditions then we need to talk about society.


I gotta admit that it doesn’t mean anyhting to me either. Although I have to admit I’m a history buff and I was curious enough to find out a little. But in the grand scheme of things I can’t say I’m proud or ashamed of where my ancestors came from.

I don’t understand why you’d think it was irrelevant. When you can take groups of people and see similiar patterns throughout the world I’d say that we’ve got something there. You might want to check out a book called Race & Culture by Thomas Sowell. It isn’t a bad read.


Culture is not a tool. It is a fact. Contrafactual arguement.

Culture is a living thing and includes many different aspects. Including and not limited to, language, cuisine, music, fashion, etc. When I say itfs living, I mean to say it is always changing. For example, an American today is culturally different from an American 100 years, 50 years, even 25 years ago. This is the same for everyone in every country. Within the US, you have cultural diversity. In language you have accents, in cuisine you go from Tex-Mex to Cajun just by crossing one state line. Music is all over the place thanks to Radio, TV, and CD players. Fashion; letfs just say thank goodness the 70fs are over. For a country as culturally diverse in terms of cultural origin, it is a matter of fact that Americans get introduced to new things. Some things become popular and become part of what is considered American culture.
Take the bagel as an example. Jewish in origin, now very much American, the same can be said for spaghetti, tacos, French fries, and on and on.
I travel a lot. It is my passion. I love to experience different cultures. Immerse my self in it and learn from it. I have lived in seven different countries on three different continents and I have visited close to 40 different countries and territories. One thing I know from experience is that on a human level, every one is the same. Human need drives the poorest to beg and the richest to pursue personal interests the same way in every place on earth regardless of culture. Culture is the environment that a human being is brought up in. It can be dictated and manipulated by religious or political means, and family and peers can influence it. The way the world is shrinking in terms of communications and travel, culture can now be seen to cross national boundaries with ease. Personally, I am not happy to see a McDonaldfs when I visit Shanghai, Stockholm, Mumbai, or Kuala Lumpur, thank you America, but the locals love it and have made it part of their own culture. Just like if John Doe in Los Angeles might step out for some sushi.
So if John Doe is Irish American, likes sushi, and listens to rap. What culture is he? If you happen to hate sushi, are you going to hate John Doe? That would be rather narrow-minded. Like a fingerprint, each individual has his/her unique culture based mostly on the extent of their experience and exposure to their own and other cultures. I say mostly, because, much of what an individual absorbs is then compared to what they have previously known. If itfs too different from what they are accustomed to, it can be interpreted incorrectly and bias may occur against the culture in question and by default the people living in that cultural environment. Peers and relatives can then inflame this cultural bias further. But this is where it becomes confused with racism and general bigotry, things that are driven purely by ignorance.

This got longer than I had intended, but there you have it, my two cents.


Forgot to add, this should not be confused with nationalism or ethnic pride. Which is what I think the OP is more accurately referring too.

Yes, we can statistically abstract upwards from individuals to the society they live in and call that culture.

So what did we just accomplish? Would you get mad at me if I pronounced words like a Brit, or a southerner? Do some yankees automatically equate “dumb” with “south”? I know a few who do.

And how do they pick them out? Why, by their cultural markings (speech, mannerisms, etc).

Are they right?! Ae southerners dumb? Are bad teeth a part of British culture? A propensity to drink beer part of Irish culture?

I think culture is irrelevant because it is not the basis of an acceptable answer; that is, if used as an answer, it is empty. Might as well just say “because” rather than “because I’m porteguese.” They both carry the same weight factually, but on a different level, we’re classifying people and forcing them into roles we know darn well they don’t have.

Perhaps because I live in America I don’t see whole culture so much as I would if I lived in Europe or Africa. But really… how we answer the phone? We attribute value to that?

None, of course, just like you or I.

How is it possible that you don’t have a culture? Just because you live a cultural lifestyle that agrees with mainstream American life does not mean that you are “culture-less.”

Are you using the word culture to stand for ethnic or non-WASP behavior? Because I can’t understand the first thing about your questions otherwise.