THINKING OF CULTURE

In the case of culture, stirring it up and thinking about it strike me as two complementary and even sequential operations: you have to give it a good stir first in order to think about it more productively. The latter depends on the former. They are like the fox and the porcupine in the Invectives of the Greek poet-soldier Archilochus: the fox knows many things, juggles many ideas, runs madly off in all directions and is in danger of being misled by the merest hint. The porcupine, on the other hand, knows one big thing and clings to it. This evening we shall endeavour to combine the agitation of the fox and the stubborn vigilance of the porcupine: on the one hand, we shall give our culture a stir; on the other, we shall strive to give it some thought.

The need to ponder, to think about culture, that is so clearly felt in Calgary is also a national symptom. It reveals an identical need that is Canada-wide. Townspeople and country dwellers alike ask us the same question: as individuals we have identities, but what are we as a community? I think the time has come for Calgarians and all Canadians to take a risk—possibly a calculated one—and agree that the central challenge of the 21st century is the defence of the human environment. Culture is a vital component of it, and must be defended and protected just as nature must be. That is the issue, if we want a world that is habitable for human beings. We all have a responsibility, because it is clear today that we have to draw a terrible lesson from the history of the 20th century: of all the threats that hang over us, the one we should fear most, the only real one, is ourselves.

To begin with, however, what are we talking about? Culture, of course—and the word is such a part of our daily lives that it seems obvious. In fact, we are so accustomed to saying “everything is cultural” that we should clarify the use and meaning of the word before we go any further.

So, what is culture, if it is not the momentum that drives humankind to greater humanity? Over time, in fact, culture seems to be what indicates progress in the humanization of human beings. If we go back to the etymological origin of the word culture, in old French its first meaning was religious worship, and the religious practices and rites that bring people together around a shared belief, a world view, what today we might refer to as “fellowship.”

At the same time, the same word designates the process of imparting culture, of cultivating, the first step mankind took in transforming nature, namely agriculture. Thus the cultivation of wheat, corn or potatoes was the first example of how mankind put a human face on nature, making nature subservient in order to ensure survival of the species. Thus, cultivation or culture was both primeval and essential.

Beginning in the 18th century, by analogy, “culture” came to mean human progress, the ascent of reason and enlightenment, and hence the advance of knowledge and critical thinking. It was in the English language that the word would assume its contemporary meaning, particularly with the development of anthropology, which used it to designate the ways, beliefs, modes of expression, behaviour and customs of societies and peoples. It could be said that we are indebted to the English anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (1871) for the first modern definition of “culture.” He wrote: “Culture or Civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”

Today, for the purposes of our discussion, I would say that culture is a shared asset in the same way air, water and all natural resources are. It is central to modern societies, in many different forms. It might even be added that we can no longer measure the success of a country, a province, a city or a community of any kind by its economic achievements alone. More than ever, the development of a culture—that is the greater humanity essential to a shared life together—contributes not only to individual well-being, but also to economic growth and success.

In Canada, we have difficulty in regarding culture as a whole, given the structural diversity of Canadian society. For decades, for lack of more profound reflection, we have had the habit of describing “culture” as a combination of interrelated cultures tied to the two dominant cultural groups: Anglophones and Francophones. That is no doubt why we have had numerous studies of regional subcultures, with no really exhaustive study of how relations operate within this set of subcultures. People have generally been satisfied with an ethno-geographic description that has more to do with the desire to facilitate administrative management of resources than with a desire to derive a model of the overall operation.

As a result, there seems to be no end to the divisions: from Western Canadians and Central or Eastern Canadians, and their respective and contrasting mentalities, we move on to the subcultures that spring from divisions between Northern Ontarians and Southern Ontarians, Quebeckers from Abitibi, Beauce or Lac-Saint-Jean, or residents of Calgary or Edmonton. There are also contrasts between the mentalities and characteristics that urban legends have assigned to Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver and so on.

Confusion reigns supreme when we take into consideration the ethnic multiplicity of Canada, particularly resulting from immigration, and add the distinctiveness of the First Nations—the Aboriginal peoples—of which at least six cultural groups made up pre-colonial Canada. With that, no one will be surprised to learn that since the 17th century, Canada has been the primary arena of cultural conflict in North America.

The initial confrontation in cultural terms between Europeans and the Aboriginal peoples came through evangelization and the imposition first of French and then of English ways. In some senses, this is still going on today. This confrontation, I would say, is both our glory and our misery. It has been at the root of destructive conflict, but has also produced a society whose cultural diversity could be a model of harmony. The greatest challenge we face today is precisely that of not only recognizing this diversity, but incorporating all its aspects into an original and harmonious way of living together. A Utopian view, you will say, but there is many a slip twixt cup and lip, between the dream and the socio-political reality. My own view, on the other hand, is that the 21st century elevates this challenge to the global level, and we must resolve it or risk the experience of a fourth world war that would be very much like a war between civilizations.

I believe that dialogue between cultures, far from being Utopian, is a primary necessity. Humanity and a habitable world have been developed through such dialogue, in good times and bad, because there have been bumps along the road and barbarity has frequently triumphed.
Dialogue between cultures within Canada’s diversity existed well before “cultural diversity” became an administrative concept. It is the central means of socialization in our country, our cities and our communities. It is indispensable, the special case that has been produced by nearly 200 years of misunderstandings. Dialogue is the only way of overcoming the distrust of others inherent in our animal nature. Our first reaction to others is fear, perhaps followed by flight, at worst by confrontation, and at best by dialogue. “Conversation” between cultures can take place only if we move beyond our original fear and distrust that is still all too often the primary obstacle in relations at the community, national and international levels.

Today, our identifying, artistic and scientific culture, on at least an equal basis with our technology-dominated material output, constitutes a broad universe of essential activities, the open logic of which cannot be made dependent on industrial or financial performance without exposing civilized humankind to the mortal danger that will follow the inner destruction of its democratic pluralism.

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