“European Culture”, “Never been to Africa”, Islam, Latino, Asians, Foreign Movies, Contemporary, Classic, Old-Fashioned – What do all these terms have in common? They attempt to very generalize a vast area of human knowledge and experience in a very coarse manner. Yet we all use them, all the time. Keeps us getting bogged down in a mire of useless details. Yet lets spend a minute or two, to think about each of them.
Ask any person who has lived in a moderately big and old city and he will tell you each neighborhood has its own culture. Big and old families claim to have a distinct culture of their own. Yet no one feels uncomfortable hearing the words “European Culture” – 2 words to describe 700 million people, about 50 countries, some of the oldest civilizations. The vast Russia(6.6 million sq mi – China & USA together occupy 7.4 million sq mi) and Luxembourg(1000 sq mi – Beijing is 6500 sq mi) come under a single umbrella formed by geography. Spain & Ukraine who as far as I know share only the continent. There is nothing similar is the climate of Norway & Greece and yet all these opposites harmoniously sit together on a single small self of our perception.
Africa – The second largest continent and yet like the uninhabited Antarctica it is usually referred to as the whole continent by itself. As if regional demarcation is just something purely political and anywhere you go across the length and breadth of the Africa, you will see tribes with exotic body paints, lions crouching in tall Savannah grasses, elephants and wildebeests drinking water from rivers and poor famine stricken children longing for a morsel to eat. Maybe its the truth, maybe it ain’t.But we are comfortable not knowing anything more about it. When I read Kenya leads the world in e-money adaptation,
I was forced to let go of the lions & giraffes in my head.
Islam is the second largest religion in the world with about 1600 million followers just behind Christianity (2000 mil) and yet although people can go on about the various differences in the individual sects of Christianity and Islam is just defined by a single word and few horrible acts of a handful of its followers. And most of the followers of either Islam or Christianity are unaware of the very close relationship between the two religions ( Abrahamic Religions).
Latino is a single word characterizing anyone from South America while Asians is even worse as it is a far more vague term for a much bigger continent and population.
Foreign Movies – The phrase itself is a joke. A film industry of one’s own country can have action movies, thrillers, romantic comedies, dark mysteries, Sci-fi, horror movies, creature feature productions, spoofs and so on. But everything that is made outside the country is just foreign as if that was sufficient information for a person to draw a judgement.
Avant-garde, contemporary, classic, old-fashioned – these are the chameleon words of any culture. Every generation kicks out the meaning out of them to replace them with new versions. Say for example the Old Fashioned Cocktail – this now very popular concoction(thanks to Mad Men) is now enjoying a revival and I see youngsters ordering it under the illusion that its the old fashioned since it was popular in the 1960s. Well the drink was already being called an old fashioned in the late 20s since it was based on very old techniques going back to early 19th century(then called just a whiskey cocktail). The point of this short detour is that tastes of the public moves in circles and depending on where you sit something very old fashioned can be the next big thing.
We all have been guilty of such sweeping generalizations. I have been a huge fan of “European Culture” and “Foreign Cinema”. It is something like watching the world through a telescope – being so focused on the microscopic bubble of our own existence that anything outside it seems irrelevant and perfunctory. We become a slave of our own problems and neglect to glance at the sweeping canvas of history rushing by our eyes every moment. We deem ourselves so important that we can dismiss the rest of the population, the history, the arts as something as vestigial as an appendix.
We truly are a victim of our ignorance and the only way to escape it is to steal short glances at the universe. Help your neighbor, hear some new music, watch a boring movie, watch a kids cartoon, read the sign on the road that says something about the history of a bridge you cross to work every day. We can toil ourselves to the grave or we can smirk at the paradox that is life – how it looks long and boring when you are busy and feels short and bustling with energy when you simply stop and stare.