What is "Cultural Imperialism," anyway? Anthony Appiah

Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has a long piece in the New York Times Magazine this week on his concept of cosmopolitanism.

It's a very rich piece, full of interesting examples of contemporary cultural change and hybridity, including many from Appiah's own Asante community in Ghana. But there is a powerful single thesis underlying it all, which Appiah returns to in each section: people ought to be free to choose what they like.

Appiah is skeptical about movements to protect the sanctity of "cultural difference" or diversity. Human cultures cannot be thought of in biological metaphors (i.e., genetics), partly because in liberal thinking the rights of individuals to choose their values supercedes the sanctity of the community that surrounds them. In other words, if I am an African who wants to wear t-shirts and jeans instead of traditional African attire, my right to do so ought to be protected even if someone feels I am damaging "tradition." And "cultural imperialism" is a bad term -- suited for shrill polemic rather than actual analysis.

The standard example that is brought up whenever one gets into debates about globalization and cross-cultural interaction is the American, British (and, via Rupert Murdoch, Australian) dominance of the global mass-media. But even if the infrastructure of globalization has favored American programming in the global marketplace, recent scholarship questions whether people around the world receive American cultural artifacts passively. Building on work done by Larry Strelitz, Appiah argues that people respond to foreign cultural artifacts through their own culturally-specific lenses:

And one thing they've found is that how people respond to these cultural imports depends on their existing cultural context. When the media scholar Larry Strelitz spoke to students from KwaZulu-Natal, he found that they were anything but passive vessels. One of them, Sipho - a self-described "very, very strong Zulu man" - reported that he had drawn lessons from watching the American soap opera "Days of Our Lives," "especially relationship-wise." It fortified his view that "if a guy can tell a woman that he loves her, she should be able to do the same." What's more, after watching the show, Sipho "realized that I should be allowed to speak to my father. He should be my friend rather than just my father." It seems doubtful that that was the intended message of multinational capitalism's ruling sector.

But Sipho's response also confirmed that cultural consumers are not dupes. They can adapt products to suit their own needs, and they can decide for themselves what they do and do not approve of. Here's Sipho again:

"In terms of our culture, a girl is expected to enter into relationships when she is about 20. In the Western culture, a girl can be exposed to a relationship as early as 15 or 16. That one we shouldn't adopt in our culture. Another thing we shouldn't adopt from the Western culture has to do with the way they treat elderly people. I wouldn't like my family to be sent into an old-age home."

It wouldn't matter whether the "old-age homes" in American soap operas were safe places, full of kindly people. That wouldn't sell the idea to Sipho. Dutch viewers of "Dallas" saw not the pleasures of conspicuous consumption among the superrich - the message that theorists of "cultural imperialism" find in every episode - but a reminder that money and power don't protect you from tragedy. Israeli Arabs saw a program that confirmed that women abused by their husbands should return to their fathers. Mexican telenovelas remind Ghanaian women that, where sex is at issue, men are not to be trusted. If the telenovelas tried to tell them otherwise, they wouldn't believe it.

Talk of cultural imperialism "structuring the consciousnesses" of those in the periphery treats people like Sipho as blank slates on which global capitalism's moving finger writes its message, leaving behind another cultural automaton as it moves on. It is deeply condescending. And it isn't true.

I agree with this. Just as violent video games do not make children go out and kill people, foreign TV shows do not make viewers into passive receivers of cultural values. Viewers read the shows with their own interests and preoccupations in mind, and their resistance to what they see of America through TV (as in the case of Sipho above) is not always the politically correct kind of "resistance."

The other example that is often discussed (and this is not in Appiah's essay, but in my own conversations with friends an family) is a concern that aesthetic values are becoming more homogeneous because of greater American penetration of global markets. This is especially problematic with Bollywood films and film music, which, rumor has it, now blindly copy American script ideas.

But is it really true across the board? First of all, Indian "copies" of American films often have interesting deviations from the American plots, generally in a conservative, pro-family direction, something that was especially marked in Murder (2004), the adaptation of Adrian Lyne's Unfaithful, but which can also be seen in loose adaptations like Salaam Namaste (9 Months). And one suspects the more conservative ending of Murder had more to do with the censor board than with the vision of the director. What does it say when the number one protector of "Indian values" in Bollywood cinema is actually an obsolete and repressive institution like the censor board?

Analogously, isn't it true that b-grade Bollywood movies (which dominate the industry) have always copied foreign films, while more serious efforts, such as Pakeezah (then) or Parineeta (now) have been few and far between? Remember, back in the "golden days of Hindi cinema," for every Pakeezah that was made, there was also an Aatank!

In short, I don't really believe the term "cultural imperialism" is relevant, not these days. There is, admittedly, an often alarming dominance by the western media in the global marketplace of ideas and images, but that dominance is arguable, because a) it might not be as extensive as people think, b) it might have more to do with branding, marketing, and corporate efficiency than political dominance, and c) it is dependent on the free choice of global consumers.

But of course, I'm willing to hear from people who feel differently.