Borrowing and Betraying Culture

NPR did a piece yesterday evening on a speech school for Brooklyners (Brooklynites? Brookies?) who want to get rid of their accent. These are people who feel that speaking with a Brooklyn accent makes people perceive them poorly, and that it’s holding them back socially or professionally. Predictably, this leads to a kickback from the non-Brooklyners who feel that regional dialects are part of the richness and charm of our nation, as well as from other Brooklyners who feel that these ones are “betraying their culture”.

Is culture something that can be betrayed? And do we have a responsibility to retain the distinctive identities of our birth?

My personal feeling is that it’s wrong for us to try and trap others within their cultures. When I hear my first-world compatriots lament the loss of obscure native cultures and languages, I can’t help but feel like these cultures are being treated as if they are sitting in a museum or zoo. Native cultures don’t exist for our amusement. When people forsake a native language for a popular language, they are doing it because they believe it will better their circumstances and opportunities in life. It’s wrong for me to expect Ainu speakers not to learn Japanese, or Kerek speakers not to learn Russian. There isn’t a lot of economic demand for Ainu.

When I was attending BYU ten years ago, an alumnus from an earlier generation wrote into the Daily Universe expressing his concern that BYU students today aren’t getting the authentic “1950s BYU experience” that meant so much to him as a student. A girl responded that she isn’t attending BYU today in order to get the 1950s experience. She wants the experience that relevant to her needs now.

I saw a poster at UC Davis a while back. It showed Gwen Stefani in traditional Indian dress and asked the question, “Is this cultural robbery?” We in America love to appropriate little bits of people’s cultures without taking the time to understand what our actions signify in that root culture.

Is culture something that can be borrowed? And do we have a responsibility not to take on the distinctive traits of cultures that we don’t belong to?

47 comments for “Borrowing and Betraying Culture

  1. I hope culture is something that can be betrayed. I have covenanted to prepare myself for the celestial culture and have to leave out the contradictory parts of US culture (into which I was born) in order to do that. I’d love to leave capitalism and luxury behind.

    Not everything that is worldly ‘cultural’ though conflicts with celestial culture. Not everything needs to be left behind.

    For the same reason it is acceptable to leave behind ones culture, as stated in the OP, there is no reason that adopting another culture isn’t acceptable as well.

  2. Dane, I think there is one aspect of language and culture that you haven’t included in the op. Culture has a huge impact on the lives of individuals, and as a result the loss of culture often leads to a loss of identity, and a resulting loss of morality.

    It is not a coincidence that crime is committed so often by the children of immigrants — they are trying to move cultures and have lost their identity in the process. The transition that Native Americans have made over decades has clearly been made more difficult by the slow destruction of their culture over centuries.

    Language is clearly part of this issue, because language is the seat of culture — the means through which your culture is transmitted from person to person. If Ainu or Kerek disappear, then their cultures also disappear, and the world as a whole is poorer as a result.

    On the other hand, I do understand and believe that cultures should stand on their own, and that individuals must have the freedom to switch cultures and choose to speak the language or languages that they wish and think are best for their situation.

    It seems inevitable that over the next few centuries the world will loose thousands of its languages and their associated cultures. There are nearly 7000 languages spoken in the world today, but its hard to see more than 1500 of them lasting another century (the rest have less than 100,000 speakers today – more than half of all languages spoken today have less than 10,000 speakers).

    I don’t know where this leaves the world. I mourn the loss of each culture and language, while I see their deaths as inevitable. But I also recognize that intervention to artificially save them is probably futile and likely to bring its own problems.

    The only thing I can rationally suggest to help the situation is found in the button I saw at a convention once:

    Monolingualism can be cured!

  3. Jax,

    If you are seeking for Celestial Kingdom culture then I would suggest a visit to Ireland. Brother Joseph said the richness and depth of the Irish culture most resembles that of heaven.

  4. Real culture is to society what character is to an individual. One’s accent or clothes are trivial incidents of culture not culture. Individuals should be striving to develop character which is a measure of ideals in action. We all enrich a culture the most when we lead others to Christ by our example. The language we speak should be the language that leads.

  5. Amen, and amen. Anyone wanting that 50s or 80s or 00s cultural experience in Scouting or the Church or at BYU, can go back to that. I try to teach my children that culture rises and falls and succeeds on its own merits, and that they shouldn’t pay attention to the cultural experiences my wife and I experienced, if they don’t want to. (That said, my teenager loves 80s music.)

    (This is also one of my favorite arguments against BYU football. It was perhaps relevant and needed in the 70s and 80s, but not today.)

  6. I think Brother Joseph said that the saints in northern California would become the holiest, wisest, hottest, and most faithful of all, but I might be misremembering that quote ;)

  7. Kent, it hurts me too in a way that I can’t explain when I read about languages and cultures dying. A part of humanity becomes no longer accessible. My curiosity and sense of wonder despair, knowing that questions will go unanswered, that yesterday a people I never knew about ceased to exist, and that the same thing will happen tomorrow. I think of the claim that over 99% of the species that ever lived are now extinct ( ). I suppose the same can be said of humanity, over 99% of human cultures have ended. But I take hope in that the culture today is vibrant and vital. We manage to create incredible diversity inside of our own hegemony.

  8. Dane,

    Brother Joseph may have said that but Brother Brigham was a sworn enemy of California expansionism and issued decrees banning Californians from the Celestial Kingdom.

  9. Brother Brigham had his prophet license revoked by Orson Pratt and Joseph Fielding Smith.

  10. The NPR story was about people from South Boston wanting to rid themselves of their “poor Bostonian” accents so they could ACT in movies and TV in a broader range of roles. It was an outgrowth of the language coaching done for the movie “Good Will Hunting”.

    The fact is that our human perspective fails to understand that many of the cultures we perceive as of ancient date is actually a result of ongoing development over centuries, with developments and innovations both internal and due to encounters with other cultures. The Japanese culture today uses a writing system created in China and brought to Japan by traders and Korean Buddhist missionaries, then adapted to create a syllabic alphabet that is combined with the Chinese characters in the writing system. The grammar of each region of Japan as recently as a century ago used to be distinctive. There are different greetings used in the Kansai (Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto) region, and Nagoya has different words used for emphasis, the oral equivalent of an exclamation mark, than Tokyo Standard. As recently as 1970 when I was on my mission, many rural communities had local dialects with pronunciations and grammar that was unintelligible to most other Japanese. The development of language since the original translation of the Book of Mormon a century ago has required a significant revision in order to make it intelligible to modern Japanese. And that does not address the huge infusion of foreign words into Japanese with the incorporation of foreign institutions (like German law and medicine, and American technology).

    People who are opposed to the dilution of national culture like the French committees who try to outlaw the use of English terms are fighting against human nature. After all, 21st Century English is a polyglot language descended from a mixture of Anglo-Saxon and French carried to Britain by descendants of Vikings.

    It is one thing to remember and preserve worthwhile aspects of cultures. But every culture had beliefs and practices and assumptions built into its language that are hostile to many of the principles of equality and tolerance we now espouse.

  11. How many saints were there in California while Bro. Joseph was around that would cause him to say they would be come wise and holy?

    Irish, German, Argentinian, Australian aborigini, …. every culture has things worth saving that don’t conflict with the Gospel. I love to see those things continue; and don’t mind at all seeing the rest fall away and get lost even if it means a loss of heritage or diversity.

  12. When a trait is no longer seen as useful to a Culture, it will be dropped.
    If a cultural system is no longer seen as useful to it’s culture, it will be dropped. If too much is dropped, the culture dies.
    If you continue to repair your red sox with green yarn, at so point, it will become a green sox.
    Cultures come in packages. When you fool with their mixes, they will die.
    Some Cultures have good traits worth keeping__they will be moved into the stronger Cultures around them.
    This is the way of Nature__ it is also the way of Cultures.

  13. In my perspective the Celestial Kingdom includes both capitalism and luxury.

    I guess you and I either view Capitalism or the celestial kingdom a bit differently. I can’t imagine we’ll be trying to use what ever substance is there in an effort to get others to give us some form of currency. Capitalism, contrary to many LDS beliefs, isn’t even what God wants us to live under here, what makes you think it is what we would have there.

    As for luxury, well I define luxury not in terms of being well above the normal standard of living. And since equality is kind of the goal, no one would be above that – so while in earthly terms I think we’d consider it very luxurious, I don’t think it will be so there. Kind of the same thinking that today’s poverty in the USA would be lavishly luxuriant 400 yrs ago – when we reach the Cel Kingdom, it will be great, but not luxurious because everyone will have the same. IMO.

  14. Raymond (14) you make excellent points. It is indeed futile to try to legislate culture or freeze culture in place.

    Still, some cultural change isn’t natural, and I would argue that many of the things lost with cultural change are good and worthy, while many natural changes are NOT for the better.

    My sense of loss is mainly directed at the idea that these cultures are truly lost–no books written about them, few or no museum materials collected, no grammars, dictionaries, pronunciation guides and recorded materials to preserve the language. The true tragedy lies in not even knowing what we have lost.

    But, yes, you are correct. Change is part of nature, and we probably should not try to stop it–as if we really could.

  15. I must add that it is somewhat distressing that so many commentors seem to see culture as black and white. Elements are apparently either good or bad, something that can be present in the celestial kingdom or not.

    I do not think it is that simple. Aren’t many cultural elements both good and bad?! And so intertwined that separating them out is near impossible? Should we throw out the good with the bad?

    I have the sense that not everyone commenting understands the value of culture.

  16. Kent,

    I think keeping as much culture as possible, being as unique as possible, within the gospel is excellent and noteworthy. But if that culture conflicts with Celestial culture (the law of the celestial kingdom) then it must be thrown out to gain admittance.

    Should we throw out the good with the bad?

    Only if they are inseparable. If you must have the bad in order to have the good, then yes, dump it. If you can keep the good alone, then do so and cherish it. I think there are many elements of culture at are neither good nor bad in religious terms, they are neutral. Examples might include wearing kilts, or loin clothes – not gospel relevant, your not immoral for the choice.

    But I think there are many cultural characteristics (like economic policy, acceptable violence, etc) that are contradictory to the law of the gospel that need to be overcome when a person accepts Christ and embraces his Gospel and Church.

  17. I am saddened as things disappear in the larger world but also in my own personal culture. Things move on I guess that is how mortality works. In my own personal cosmology in the book of life exists forever my grandparents islander drawl and dialect preserved, also the jangle of copious silver collection as you walked through the dining room and the creak of the stairs, also sitting in the evenings in screened swing houses, or using fans at church to keep cool, the paper kind with a stick and some gospel illustration on or the church and town dances that I remember attending as a child listening to my other grandparents play in the band. The kind of get together and socializing that just doesn’t exist anymore, at least where I live. Stuff changes it has to but it is tragic all the same. So that’s what I like to think all of mortality is saved somewhere. When my child, sister in law or niece, or husband (sometimes to his embarrassment) use some word or phrase I’ve come up with playfully in some context that doesn’t directly involve me I think maybe more of ou personal culture is preserved and transmitted than we think.

  18. Horrors! Bad culture!? You must be some sort of cultural imperialist. :) Just as there are individuals who are thieves, liars and psychopaths, there are cultures that have serious flaws. I have worked with people from two non-western cultures where lying is chronic. Their societies punishes truth telling so relentlessly that everyone tells bald face lies and everyone knows they are lies but since they offer a reason not to punish they are disdained but ignored, People from these cultures have a very difficult time functioning in the US and they will be marginalized as long as they form their character from this aspect of their cultures.

  19. The Book of Mormon offers an acute example of a cultural norm that was at odds with the Gospel. The Lamanites who were converted by the Sons of Mosiah had been practicing routine violence, from the kings down to the man herding sheep. They recognized that they had to make a clean break with those behaviors if they were to live the Gospel.

    In Japan, it has not been customary for people, especially men, to be open about their emotions. Japanese TV dramas have lots of close shots of people who are looking at the ground, suppressing their emotions; in anime, their eyes vibrate from the suppressed energy of their emotions. The translations of standard LDS advice to men to tell their wives they love them, explicitly and often, were a real challenge for the Japanese. Not that the love was not there; it was just not a normal behavior to articulate it so openly.

    The Church has a constant infusion of new members from the background cultures of every nation, so the sorting through cultural norms to determine what is baggage that should be left behind, while hanging on to those behaviors and patterns that “lovely” and “praiseworthy”, is a constant process.

    Then there are all the cultural features of modern America and the West that are absorbed without thought, and become transparent to the predominant Utah-Idaho Mormon Corridor culture so we don’t even see them, let alone recognize they conflict with the gospel. One of the valuable things about learning a language other than the one you were born with is to understand more objectively how arbitrary your native tongue is, and what it really means. The same goes for living in a “foreign” culture, which is one of the values of the missionary experience. Indeed, some parts of the USA are so foreign to Utah cultural norms that there can be more culture shock than in other countries. (My wife, a Utah native, said that living in Marin County, California, felt more foreign to her than living in Japan.)

    My understanding is that we are supposed to be striving to create a culture that is worthy of being incorporated into Zion. To the extent that the Saints are succeeding in doing that, we are developing a new ethnicity.

  20. Kent wrote: “Still, some cultural change isn’t natural, and I would argue that many of the things lost with cultural change are good and worthy, while many natural changes are NOT for the better.”

    This may sound silly, but this reminds me of the argument between Ian Malcolm and John Hammond in Jurassic Park when discussing how unethical it is to clone dinosaurs, an animal CHOSEN by nature for extinction, as opposed to cloning some type of extinct condor whose species was destroyed by deforestation, for example.

    I am currently living in India for one year, and it’s definitely interesting to see the multidue of cultures here merging and adapting. Bangalore has become a microcosm for all of India, thanks to the outsourcing boom here. Even watching teevee, it’s interesting to see English and Hindi be used interchangably in commercials, or to see parents in sarees and pajymas with kids in jeans and T-shirts. What does it all mean? And which cultural aspects are natuarally falling off versus being killed off? It’s really hard to say, from what I see here.

    For example, if languages really were created as a byproduct of the Tower of Babel, then isn’t the notion we can all learn to communicate one language valuable? The creation of language seemed unnatural and the result of sin. That’s not to say the loss of Kannada, or Tamil, or Telugu, or Hindi wouldn’t be tragic nonetheless. But still.

    Kent, would you mind giving a few examples from the 21st century of natural versus unnatural culture changes? I’m genuinely curious.

  21. One reads of New Guinea initiation rituals where young men are tortured and raped by older men for the sole purpose of destroying their individual identity. This kind of culture is on the far end of depraved but you can move the meter way across the dial and still find a lot of culture that isn’t worth transmitting or preserving unless you are a relativist who doesn’t believe in Truth.

  22. @ Chadwick: For about two hundred years, the mighty British culture was in India. But, other than English, it hardly left a dent. A lot of studies were done as to how this could be__I don’t think anyone came up with the answer. I guess those culture changes are now coming to India.

    @ Al: Well, I have never been raped or tortured, but in the mid 60s, at 17, I was in Marine Boot Camp. The first half was totally about “the sole purpose of destroying their individual identity”. The second half, all about building your pride__”You made it son, you are now a Marine”.

  23. I guess a Marine culture would be good for fighting but I doubt it is good for anything else in a civil society.

  24. @ Al: Well, I guess you would have to defind for me a “civil society”.
    I would guess no society in the world, has even exceeded the honor or the Honor Code (Semper Fidelis) of the USMC. Watch NCIS. Look up Toys For Tots.

  25. I’ll certainly take the USMC in a fight but I can do without their whoring, drinking, brawling and scummy tattoos. “Rough men” good for a fight.

  26. @ Al: ” Culture is always a discussion of aggregates and never a discussion of individuals”.
    Not so Al__we are all a little culture unto ourselves. Mine is made up of many different cultures I have been part of, and nobody is ever going to be like me.
    (Just between you and me__in one week you have managed to piss off six tribes of New Guinea headhunters and the whole of the Marine Corps__good luck with that).

  27. Individuals have character. It may be formed from culture but it isn’t culture. Thus it is possible to be a Marine with no drinking, whoring or brawling problems yet see the Marines as a culture that has all those issues. Any Marine who has been to Camp Pendleton and its environs who doesn’t know what I am talking about may not be a Marine.

  28. “Native cultures don’t exist for our amusement. When people forsake a native language for a popular language, they are doing it because they believe it will better their circumstances and opportunities in life.”

    This statement is, of course, a very simplistic and largely inaccurate portrayal of how Native languages have been lost or beaten down. Talk to the elders whose knucles were rapped, mouths washed with soap, or forced to write again again and again on the blackboard, “we speak only English here,” or something close to that each time they slipped up and spoke their own language in class.

    Visit Native community after native community where the people are making big efforts to save and revitalize their languages because they know that those languages contain knowledge and identity not to be found anywhere else.

  29. @Al: Mine was the Marines of the 60s. We are talking of many men who had hit the beaches in the Pasific

  30. Bill, good point. I haven’t lived in places where “English-only” laws were enforced, though I think we voted on one when I lived in Oregon a couple years ago (it failed, as I recall). In other words, the battle to revive marginalized languages rather than the battle to extinguish them is what I’ve experienced in my life, and I have no doubt it makes me naive (and I’m grateful for it).

  31. Sorry, wrong button.
    @Al: Mine were the Marines of the 1960s. Many of those men had hit the Pacific beaches 15 years earlier as boys. We could not have a tattoo larger than a half dollar bill (then only a globe and anchor that did not show in long sleeves),or it was off to the crossbar hotel.

  32. @Bill: No one can overstate the harm done to the Native American Cultures by the French, British, and Americans.
    But I think it is very hard to force a language out of a people. They will learn the language of the new major Culture if they need to survive, but will keep those words they need for their Culture.
    In LA, we now have large groups that speak only two languages: Spanish + Korean.

  33. Bob, please understand that I do not speak hypothetically or from a distance, but from in the midst, where I have been for the past 41 years ever since I served my mission in Lakota country and have since spent my life in Native America. Your words tell me that you do not understand nor comprehend the force and effectiveness of the techniques that did, indeed, force the language out of many a people, and did severely damage and restrain languages elsewhere.

    What does this mean, “keep words that they need for their culture?” That a word here and there that describe certain things will survive and that is sufficient even if no one can speak the lanugage fluently. Yes, it is hard to force a language out of a people, and against the odds a few languages have survived in good shape, and others exist in part, as you imply, mixed with English, and there are places where there are just enough speakers left and enough interest in the young to perhaps revitalize a language, but so much has been lost forever and it was not just abandoned because times changed, it was forced out.

  34. @ Bill: I would never challenge you on your knowledge and closeness to Native Americans.
    But please, give me a little credit. I too spend my mission in Montana and the Dakotas in 1964/65. In getting my degree in Anthropology, I did a field study among the Navaho.
    In living in LA all my life, I have lived among Native Americans. It’s just people here don’t understand the many of the Latino Cultures here are Native American, not just “Mexicans”.
    Our local School systems deals with large groups of 26 different languages.

  35. Chadwick (28) wrote: “Kent, would you mind giving a few examples from the 21st century of natural versus unnatural culture changes? I’m genuinely curious.”

    I was thinking of times when governments have tried to force cultural changes, in the extreme through genocide but also by prohibiting cultural elements — language, religion, clothing, etc.

  36. I think it should also be pointed out that the mixing (and in this part of the death of some cultures) also brings wonderful and good cultural changes. I love a lot of the cultural imports that the U.S. has gained from the immigrant groups that have come here. If nothing else, the food! the wonderful variety of cuisine that immigrants have brought!

    Vamos, muchachos, let’s go get Thai food!

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