What’s wrong with cultural imperialism?

At a human rights activists’ conference I overheard someone fretting about whether objecting to the practice of forced marriage and infibulation of 12 year old girls (on human rights grounds!) was imperialist. This is a common apprehension. The assumption here is that human rights are ‘our’ culture and to impose them on someone elses’ culture is imperialist. The critique of cultural imperialism is premised on cultural relativism. All cultures are supposed to have equal worth. Therefore, it’s bad for one culture to impose itself on another. But why?

Let’s take the United States. Left and Right unite to condemn the ‘Americanisation’ of the world. American culture, crass and commercialised, blots out ‘authentic’ indigenous cultures. Why is American culture like that? Well, it’s an imperialist culture. Expansionism is built into US culture; it’s the country’s original sin, from the first white settlement of the continent to the invasion of Iraq. The Americans – White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant ones, at any rate – are cultural imperialists par excellence.

But if all cultures are equal then American culture is as good as any other culture, including those it supplants. Therefore, what harm has been done?  We have fewer cultures. Diversity is reduced. But what is so good about diversity? To assume diversity is superior than homogeneity is a value judgement, which the relativist cannot make. It is to assume one state of affairs is better than the other.

More to the point, the relativist argument fails to offer any intellectual basis to oppose cultural imperialism If your culture is superior, then why should anyone object to having its ‘benefits’ thrust upon them? Cultural imperialists – not just American ones – can justify their imperialism on relativist grounds: ours is as good as anyone else’s so why not be imperialists? The relativist can offer no defence to imperialism,  of any stripe.

 Sometimes, the criticism of Western imperialism looks like a relativist argument but is nothing of the sort. iSaudi Arabia and other Muslim-majority nations exempt themselves from human rights treaty obligations (especially in relation to the rights of women) on Islamic grounds. They challenge western universalism with a supposed superior Islamic alternative, which has universalistic pretensions. If a universalistic claim is imperialist, then, by definition, this must apply to non-Western universalist ideologies like Islam.

 In practice, the West’s critics do defend some cultures as superior to another, just not ‘white man’s’ culture. This is usually made on empirical grounds. Non-Western cultures  have spiritual depth – think of the Beatles taking up with some Hindu guru. They live in harmony with the environment. They are less violent. They are more consensual and communal. They love children and animals more than we do. This is a kind of reverse racism, justified on supposedly empirical grounds. Western culture is not as good as anyone else’s – it’s worse.  

This style of thinking is only as sound as the empirical grounds on which it rests. If contrary evidence emerges, the defence is weakened. Take Tibetan Buddhism, whose best-known spokesman is the Dali Lama. The attraction of the Tibetan cause doesn’t just rest on the injustice of China’s invasion and occupation of Tibet. It is boosted by the sanctified status of Buddhism itself. It is not enough that Tibetans’ human rights are violated daily – it is worse because this is happening to good people.

But not all strands of Buddhist thought or practice are peaceful and not all Buddhists are tolerant. The independent Tibetan kingdoms could be warlike. In today’s Burma, gangs of Buddhists commit pogroms against Burmese Muslims, egged on a Buddhist priest. If not all Buddhists are good, or have always been good, does this mean they forfeit their rights? This is the thinking the Chinese express in rationalising  their invasion. The Chinese point to the backward, reactionary social practices of pre-invasion Tibet. Therefore, Tibet was not conquered, it was liberated. China’s self-serving rationale does not make the continuing occupation of the country any less just. It does however undermine those in the West who consider the Tibetan cause worthier on account of the supposed people’s purity. This is a mistake. China violates Tibetans’ human rights. The Tibetans have a legitimate grievance against the Chinese invasion and occupation of their country. They do not have to wait until they prove they live up to some impossible standard of purity before they can make this complaint.

We assume that the critique of imperialism is linked o respect for cultures. But there is no such logical relationship. It is possible to critique imperialism from the opposite perspective that it is too tolerant and respectful of cultures that deserve to be swept aside.

A case in point is British imperialism in India. Critics of British imperialism claim it retarded the country’s development. There is much truth in this. India’s textiles industry was deliberately destroyed in order to protect British producers. The assumption here is that the British did the wrong thing. They should have developed Indian industries, not retarded them.

Of course, if the British had sponsored an industrial revolution in the subcontinent, then this would have promoted massive social and cultural change. Modernisation of India could not have been achieved without the overthrow of traditions like the caste system. This probably would not have happened without a great deal of social upheaval and violence. It would have been akin to what the Bolsheviks did in the Soviet Union during the 1930s, when they modernised  the country by hammering traditional social forms in the countryside, such as the Russian villagers or Kazakh nomads, inspired by notions of modernity and progress that originated in the West – in other words, cultural imperialism. At the end of this process, the country had built an industrial system that withstood Hitler’s invasion in 1941.

Many commentators, especially on the left, who consider themselves anti-imperialists, celebrate this achievement, without pausing for a moment to consider what they celebrate was a form of cultural imperialism. The same people are unlikely to be great fans of British imperialism in India but what they condemn in India is not imperialism per se but the wrong sort of imperialism. It destroyed incipient industries and hence the seed of modernity and progress but left other backward institutions – like the caste system – intact.

The broader point is that is no need to link the critique of imperialism on relativist grounds. It is possible to criticise it on universalist grounds. Conversely, imperialism can be defended on relativist grounds. The term cultural imperialism is less about explaining what is wrong with the world and more about signalling what sort of person you think you are. If you are against cultural imperialism, then you mark you are for diversity and tolerance, and against bigotry and racism. Closer examination reveals that the phrase and the assumptions it expresses are just muddled thinking.


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