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Globalization and culture
Wednesday, 08 October 2008 00:00

A good friend of mine recently said: "As we get older, we all become anthropologists.  We realize that those foreigners have had a different culture from us for thousands of years, and nothing we do or say will change them".

True, cultural diversity is deep.  It is the product of the first great divergence in the history of humankind.  From our beginnings in East Africa, perhaps 50,000 years ago, we migrated across the globe and settled in communities in a vast array of climes and landscapes.  Some of us, like the Japanese, were quite isolated and came to believe that they were somehow unique and special.  Others experienced almost constant contact with other cultures.  Witness Europe.  Some have suffered domination by other cultures.  Many weak and vulnerable cultures have been damaged and destroyed.

Ultimately, all cultures are mixtures of different influences, hybrids.  Cultural purity or authenticity is a myth.  Never mind what the Academie Francaise says, the French language is a mixture of Ancient Greek, Latin, Gaullois (Asterix), German (Clovis), English and American.  And all cultures have evolved over time.  A contemporary French man and English man would have more in common with each other, than either would have with an ancestor of one century ago. 

Globalization is accelerating the contact between different cultures.  Traded goods are often the reflection of culture.  Obvious examples are Hollywood movies, Japanese anime or French wine.  International investment brings multinational enterprises into contact with foreign lands and communities.  Migration results in people of different cultures living together.  Global communications and the Internet expose us to the lives, ideas and values of others.

We are all affected by globalization's mixing of cultures.  It is not Americanization.  Everywhere you see McDonald's, Italian fashion, Japanese sushi, Hollywood movies, and so on.  These are all aspects of a new global culture which can be found everywhere, especially in global cities like New York, London, Shanghai and Sydney.

Many countries now have their own indigenous versions of rap or jazz music, which are variants on the "original".  Some call this "glocalization".  New cultural phenomena are developing through fusion or hybridisation of national cultures.

But there is more to culture than consumer products and artistic expression.  It can also refer to our society's beliefs, values and even civilization.  Culture in that sense changes much more slowly.  Notwithstanding their apparent modernity, the Japanese are still very Japanese, some one and a half centuries after the Meiji Restoration.

Indeed, economic development and prosperity can provide cultures with self confidence.  Cultural inferiority complexes vis-a-vis the West can be replaced by cultural assertiveness and a desire to hang onto cultural identity and traditions.

Through globalization we have greater awareness of cultural differences across the globe.  We also have greater contact with different cultures, with which we often live side-by-side.

Cultural mixing can be immensely enriching for the human spirit.  It can also be a powerful source of innovation.  At the same time, it can give rise to misunderstanding and even conflict.  Public policy should promote cross-cultural understanding and tolerance.  Policy should most certainly not use cultural differences to provoke conflits.

As our societies become more prosperous, culture becomes a business.  China's rapid economic growth and new-found prosperity have given rise to a dynamic contemporary culture -- Chinese modern ink painting is now tops at the auctions.

There is a strongly growing international trade and investment in cultural goods and services.  We are interested in enjoying cultural experiences, be it through tourism, cultural events, food or the like.  While Hollywood films may dominate the world, Indian, Korean and Chinese films are now achieving greater success.

Today, France receives more tourists than any other country in the world, and most of these tourists come to experience and enjoy some aspect of French culture.  Many countries like France, Hong Kong and Japan have invested in Disneylands.

Can cultural factors help countries benefit more from globalization and achieve greater prosperity?  There have been many theories like Max Weber's Protestant work ethic, and more recently theories about Asian values and Confucian capitalism.

These ideas are of course too simplistic.  Some Catholic countries like France and Northern Italy are great economic success stories.  And Asia probably has much greater diversity in its values than any other continent, with Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism and Islam.

But, cultural values do count.  Cultures that value education, trust and co-operation (notably in East Asia) can exploit the benefits of globalization better than others.  Many argue that America's respect for risk-taking is an important key to its dynamism, together with its reluctance to punish failure.

In many countries, there is concern about the loss of national cultures and the need to protect cultural diversity.  In October 2005, Unesco's the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions enshrined cultural exception as a method of protecting local cultures. Sponsored by France and Canada, the convention was passed 185-2, with four nations abstaining from voting. The notable naysayers were the United States and Israel.

The "cultural exception" is a concept introduced by France in the GATT trade negotiations in 1993.  It states that cultural exports should be treated differently than other goods in trade negotiations because national cultures should be protected. It allowed France to use tariffs and quotas to protect its cultural market from other cultural products, most notably American films and television.  France was granted cultural exception and in 2005, its film market is comprised of 65% American products, compared to 90% American products in other European film markets.

As lauditory as the concepts of cultural diversity and cultural exception might seem, too often they are spurious arguments used for secure "murky protectionism" of local film industries and the like.

One of the great paradoxes in the area of globalization and culture is that governments spend too much time in defensive protectionist activities, and not enough in positive pro-active activities.  Moreover, efforts to promote cross cultural understanding and exploit the potential benefits of cross cultural mixing are paltry.  Too often, we see governments suppressing cultural minorities.

Culture plays a very important role in our society, and is an important public good.  Governments should protect traditional cultures, subsidise cultural study and research, and promote contemporary culture -- but without blocking external cultural influences.  If I want to see an American film, I should have the freedom to do so!

And when it comes to solving global problems, communicating across cultures is key.  It is also where the Americans and Chinese are best -- clear, sharp and direct.  Europeans are often too complicated, and you will never know what a Japanese really thinks.  That's no way to work things out.

What does all this mean?  Quite simply, it means that culture matters to globalization, even though many economists would still not agree.  Indeed, culture matters a lot!

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