Your Cultural Heritage—Question it!

It is the common view that the culture of a society or group is special, valuable, and worth preserving. The term culture is vast, encompassing all aspects of daily life, as well as history and beliefs touching the larger issues of law, morality, and an afterlife. Given the breadth of what constitutes culture, in considering our culture as valuable we pave the way to affirm a host of behaviors and beliefs in one fell swoop without giving them any thought.

That common view might well be erroneous, so that, to the contrary, the culture of any given society (or large chunks of it) might not be in the least necessarily or inherently special, valuable, or worth preserving. Why should the practices from a long time ago, in more ignorant times, hold sway over a thinking individual years later in a different time and even a different  place?  The even more insidious role of culture it to circumvent the use of reason –when one can’t muster a good and non-self-serving reason for some act or idea, he or she resorts to the safety blanket of culture. I should give examples here, but then I would seem biased against one set of cultural values over the other, so I will say generally, any cultural practices that perpetuate oppression or cruelty, subjugation of one group over the other, or defy any rational explanation need to be questioned and not accepted.

Two examples of culture have come up lately in the news that exemplify my contention that we should step back and stop waving the banner of our culture like it was a grand accomplishment and consider it for what it is: a load of ideas from other people, who might have gotten things very wrong. First, the story in the New York Times about the Chinese eating dogs illustrates the way we use culture without thought to obfuscate an unfathomable amount of suffering and a practice that could easily be considered repulsive.  The Chinese find it culturally acceptable to eat dogs; Americans find that abhorrent because in our culture we have an affinity for dogs.  In that difference of views, one might contest that the Chinese are not wrong in eating them, why? Here it comes: “ it’s their culture.”  I would say, “so what;” of course it is, but that does not make it right. However, are we right, and is our cultural practice of not eating dogs better?    It is better that we don’t eat dogs, not because we culturally find them non-edible, but because not eating them shows a side of compassion and empathy that any society would want to encourage, since those are two good and non-self-serving qualities that make the world a better place.

However, another story in the New York Times flips the scenario between American and foreign culture, putting the empathy and compassion on the other side.  The article lends a critical tone to the cultural practice of Hindus not being able to kill cows. American culture is all for killing cows. I must acknowledge that the reason Hindus do not kill cows might not comport with my ideas of reasonableness, being (I suspect) a religious practice adopted without question. However, if Hindus were to question the received practice, the conclusion to not kill them could be the same. By the same token, our predilection for cow-killing needs to be questioned. Eating dogs strikes us as horrible, but cows are sentient creatures, not as dumb as we like to think, that have interests and affections and that most importantly fear death and can suffer (and of course do suffer at the hands of dog-loving Americans by the millions).

Maybe eating dogs makes as much sense as eating cows or not eating cows.  The point is all three cultural groups need to question the practice and not trot out the old excuse—it’s our culture. Cultural examination should, like charity, begin at home; let’s consider our practices of not eating dogs, but eating cows and pigs and birds.  Food is one of the most central aspects of culture, to the extent that people say they have enjoyed a visit to a foreign land (or not) because of the food.  People commonly choose a travel destination for the food.  I find all of that a bit silly.  Elevating food to a passion does not comport in the least with my Stoic side, but I realize that I am the odd man out on the topic of feeding oneself. Hence given the importance of food and its centrality to culture, let’s take a look at what we are doing under the blanket of culture. One way of questioning the acceptability of animal consumption is to imagine a school field trip to a factory farm or slaughter house. “Children, we visited the bakery and the fire station last year.  This semester, as part of our nutrition unit, we will visit the factory farm and its associated slaughter house to see where our meat comes from. We will need chaperones and are having a hard time finding parents who want to make this trip, so please encourage one of your parents to come along with us.”

How can we defend a part of our culture that we have to keep hidden away? Culture dumbs us down and suffocates our own faulty of reason. Reason (of the sort that embraces the value of compassion over self-serving interest) might dictate a few conclusions along the following lines: if something is so horrible that I could not stomach seeing it, then it is not something that should be tolerated; if what I am doing in eating meat necessitates the suffering of millions of sentient creatures then that is not compassionate, but supremely selfish and I should stop it; if there are so many good things to eat that do not inflict suffering, that reduce greenhouse gasses, and that support good health then I should eat those things and not animals; if I can be compassionate rather than cruel and self-serving, I should do that because a world based on compassion creates a better place to live.

Someone’s beloved culture at one time whole-heartedly supported human sacrifice, gladiatorial games, the subjugation of women, slavery, racism, anti-homosexuality, bull-fighting, bear baiting.  Reason taught the wrongness of those practices. Consider giving reason a chance against culture to subvert the most pervasive of non-compassionate and bloody of practices at work in America today.

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