Does Culture Matter?


Does Culture Matter?

I've been thinking about William L. Shirer’s Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich, which I read some years ago. Shirer was an American journalist reporting from Germany during the rise of the Nazi party and the book is a compelling account of those events told by one who witnessed it. What really stuck with me, though, was his analysis of the causes of Hitler’s rise.

Throughout the book his contention is that rather than being chiefly a combination of structural forces and historical coincidence, the rise of Hitler was down to something inherent in German national character, a desire to follow strong leaders. This was the focus of much criticism at the time of publication in the 60s, especially from Germans themselves. What was interesting to me, though, was the use of 'national character' in this way. I've never really heard it used in my lifetime as much more than joke fodder for panel shows or an empty banality for political speeches, and here's someone who was actually around for the rise of the Nazis using it to explain the whole damn thing.

There are two thoughts which seem to be held, unconsciously, in tension by the British liberal (by which I guess I just mean 'non-conservative') mind: that we should respect and not derogate cultures other than ours and how they differ, but also that these cultures are not really that different; that they’re just reskins of our own, with fish and chips replaced with bratwurst or cheese or whatever. (If we're talking about Europe and North America, at least. Outside of that... maybe less so.)

My feeling is that are some significant cultural differences and those tend to be pastiched, and there are subtler ones that tend to be overlooked. In both cases, I think the extent to which they explain bigger things is that to which they inform and affect structures and institutions—playing into material factors. But I don't know, y'know? I'm not really well-travelled or of enough previous residential diversity to have an experiential feeling for it, nor am I well-read enough to have an intellectual conception. Cultural universals—which presumably therefore have some biological basis?—seem to indicate we're not looking at scope for infinite variability, but there's enough scope for big variation within those building blocks. You can make a lot of shapes with all that cultural Lego!

I think, perhaps boringly, it is generally good to respect other cultures and those who belong to them, acknowledge that all have their positive and ugly sides, and try to borrow the good where we can and discard and condemn the bad—if possible! Some people—usually conservatives—think that it’s not possible to have certain sorts of good without certain sort of bad (though they might not see them as bad). I think it’s certainly foolish to think there’s such a thing as a perfect society; people are flawed and difficult and even were we to subtract material concerns, which would relieve an immense amount of suffering, there would, realistically, still be people who were dickheads—but generally there are plenty of positive-sum improvements to be had, and those who think otherwise seem to me overly enamoured of a "hard time create strong men" mindset.

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