The ‘other’ in culture

What is the ‘other’?

The ‘other’ is a key idea in what is commonly known as post-modern thought. Writers such as Lacan made it into a key tool in the analysis of culture, where it essentially defined as applying to any group that society chooses to marginalise, wishes to exclude or subordinate. This has led to some rather strange conclusions, such as Foucault’s notion that mental illness is a label used by society to render ‘other’ those it wishes to exclude.
Passing on to more sensible applications of the theory, it has borne fruit in the concept of multiculturalism, where we acknowledge that ‘other’ groups exist and create a situation where none is forced to adopt a majoritarian (or ‘other’) culture, but where the fruits of all the existing cultures are available to them.
Unfortunately, there are negative applications too. The ‘other’ has been turned into a political tool, with the ideal of supporting the political aspirations of groups that are identified as being ‘other’. As people sufficiently broad-minded to support all ‘other’ groups are exceedingly rare, this generally turns into an excuse to support some ‘other’ groups and ignore others, the choice being based on personal preference. So, in this situation the ‘other’ theory becomes an elaborate way of giving personal prejudice the veneer of philosophical justification. Also, self-identified ‘other’ groups have tended to use the concept of being ‘other’ as a tool to assert their political presence. This has led to the concept of ‘other’ separatism that I will discuss below.

A definition of ‘other’

Before I start analysing the consequences of identification as ‘other’, it is worth seeing whether the rather woolly definition given above is philosophically meaningful. I will therefore show multiple cultural communities can come to exist even within one apparent cultural group. That is to say, how it is that within one ‘culture’ that official culture may be the majoritarian culture, that of the majority, but there will be minority ‘other’ cultures. The consequence is rather startling, as it directly contradicts established wisdom on the nature of the ‘other’.
I use an evolutionary model to show how subgroups can coalesce out of the majoritarian culture over time. Say we have a population of individuals within a group, who vary statistically around the mean. This is not to say that there is such a thing as a ‘normal’ person; rather there is a purely notional concept of a ‘mean’ person, who is, in a sense, the statistical average of the population as a whole. Obviously such a person need not, and most likely will not, exist. Now assume that there is a common culture across the group. This can consist of any form of information that can be passed from individual to individual, with errors creeping in en route. Provided that the strength of communication between individuals is (statistically) uniform across the population. In that case then the culture will preserve itself as a unity, though it and its mean value will change over time.
Now suppose that there is a subgroup of the population such that communication links between members of the subgroup are always stronger than those between members of the subgroup and individuals outside the subgroup. Then changes in the passed information are retained within the subgroup, and the averaging-out effect of the wider group is reduced. So, after not very long, the cultural information within the subgroup will have begun to diverge from that within the main population (the biological analogue to this is groups of animals that become to a greater or lesser extent isolated from the main population and eventually speciate, e.g. Darwin’s finches).
Translating this concretely, we find indeed that marginalised groups tend to communicate more within-group than without, whether due to persecution (religious minorities, homosexuals), discrimination (women, people of non-majority skin colour) or choice (closed sects). And these tend to be the groups that we think of as ‘other’. So, we can draw from this analysis two key points about ‘other’ cultures:
  • There is nothing essential about ‘other’ cultures, so there is no inherent aspect of an individual that marks them out as ‘other’; it is entirely possible for a majoritarian individual to be part of a minority ‘other’ culture if they happen to have closer ties to members of that ‘other’ group than to majoritarians.
  • There is nothing special about the membership rules for ‘other’ cultures; just about any assemblage of people can form a non-majoritarian culture, so long as they have unusually strong within-group links.
  • ‘Other’ groups need not arise from exclusion by majoritarian society; they form as a result of preferential attachment, and this need not arise purely from exclusion: it can be a result of choice.

These facts are incredibly important, as the theorists of ‘otherness’ would have us believe the exact opposite. In particular, they undermine the notion that the ‘other’ is the excluded and disempowered.

One could, of course, try to come up with some definition that means that some ‘other’ groups (e.g. women, homosexuals, non-majority skin colour groups) are the real ‘other’ while others (mainstream Christians, aristocrats) are not. But then that depends on a value judgement, and not any well-defined criterion. Being ‘oppressed’ is a popular criterion, but it has the problem that while we should clearly (that is, if we happen to be liberals) stand against oppression, and aim to undo it and its effects, that has nothing to do with culture. To assert (as one hears from time to time) that oppression somehow makes the resulting ‘other’ culture more authentic is special pleading; the judgement is based not on anything inherent in the products of the culture but on the imposition of an external idea. So, any such judgement, being based on personal choice, must be capricious; in fact, it usually seems to be a function of the commentator’s political views. But a definition of other that (essentially) boils down to “‘other’ is what I say it is” is meaningless.
Hence, the only meaningful definition of ‘other’ is, it turns out, a non-majoritarian cultural group. One may form a personal ranking of said groups based on one’s political and cultural preferences, but one should not mistake this preference for a general theory.

Monoculture, polyculture, multiculture

Many world-views

Let us start the argument by considering Christian theology. There are different schools of Christian feminist theology applying to latina women, black women and white women. Now, if they are Christian then they must all be referring to one God, and yet they take radically different views of what that God is. That is to say, it is entirely plausible that one’s starting point in discovering God will depend on ones sex and race, and that the questions one asks will also be so contingent. But the end-point should be discovery of truths about the one God, which means that these truths should remain true regardless of ones sex or race. Moreover, the same applies to majoritarian theologians, which implies that their theology cannot be rejected out of hand.

But, of course, that is precisely what those who define themselves as ‘other’ do do: they reject majoritarian theology as being somehow tainted and arrive at pictures of God that seem more like pictures of themselves than of any universal deity. Of course, they could assert that their God is not universal, in which case the argument stops here, but in that case they are not Christian, which they say they are, so let us continue. Consider specifically the rejection of majoritarian theology (the same argument applies to the necessary rejection of differing ‘other’ theologies). The only intellectually tenable way of doing this is to assert that (say) Aquinas was mistaken, because he had the world-view of a man in a male-dominated culture, and that world-view has been shown to be, or is taken to be incorrect. But in that case, what guarantee is there that a feminist / womanist / latinista theologian’s world-view is any better? The hidden assumption in the preceding statement is that majoritarian thinkers’ world-view is flawed whereas that of the particular ‘other’ to which the theologian making the argument belongs is not.

Rejecting majoritarianism

The frequently rehearsed argument justifying this rejection is as follows. (1) The ‘other’ group has been oppressed by majoritarians, and now they have thrown off the shackles of that oppression; (2) they reject being forced themselves to act and think as majoritarians; (3) they assert that the majoritarian world-view is not useful to them; (4) By extension, they assert that the majoritarian world-view is not useful at all, and that any product of it is of no value to them; (5) depending on how relativist they are, they either (5a) assert the existence of an epistemic barrier between their culture and majoritarian culture, or (5b) assert that majoritarian culture is entirely worthless. Now let us analyse this. Step (2) is trivially correct; it is not a matter of logic, but of justice. Step (3) is, as I have hinted above, questionable, as it may be that not all aspects of the majoritarian world-view are pernicious, but it is certainly the case that they should start from their own world-view and see whether there is anything useful to be gained from adopting parts of the majoritarian view, and not vice versa. Step (4) is where the argument breaks down; it and step (5) are not logical or philosophical statements, but political, being the starting point for a power-grab of greater or lesser extent (depending of which of (5a) or (5b) is chosen). And, as one would expect of political statements, they have no basis in observed fact, but are emotional statements designed to resonate with those who feel anger against majoritarian culture.

Therefore the argument in favour of rejecting the majoritarian culture is unsound. However, consider its consequences. Deploying (5b), the ‘other’ group silences the majoritarians and becomes the new majoritarian culture. But then different ‘other’ groups can do the same to that group and each other, until in the end everyone is silenced. Deploying (5a) and fractioning from majoritarian culture leads to a regression of smaller-and-smaller non-communicating monocultures, which continue to fraction until they reach the end-point of one-person cultures, and hence silence. Or the argument can be dismissed, in which case it is necessary to accept that all groups, including ‘other’ and majoritarians, have a part to play. So either everybody’s views should be taken into consideration or nobody’s should.

To say that nobody’s views should be considered is, of course, the end state of deconstruction, but it is something of a counsel of despair. We can do better than that. Say we have a number of schools of theological thought, each of which sets out from some world-view (and bear in mind that even the majoritarian culture is hugely fractured in this respect). What we could do is to have a big fight, with the strongest group getting to decide what is true. That is what is said to have happened in the past (though a quick look at the sheer variety of theological ideas espoused by majoritarians suggests that the true position is somewhat less black and white), and it is clearly not an acceptable approach. So, instead we could announce that each ‘other’ group has its own version of Christianity, that they are all equally valid, and that to try achieve consistency between them is disallowed, as it dilutes their status as ‘other’. That is essentially what we have now. It is a position much beloved of post-deconstructionists, who revel in a false ‘diversity’ of ‘truth’. False because in fact the logical consequence of their position is that there should be a number of totalitarian groups within each of which only one ‘truth’ is permitted. True diversity can be achieved only if all accept that they must listen to the views of those who are our ‘other’, regardless of how ‘other’ we may consider ourselves to be.

Quine’s rabbit

So how can we listen to the ‘other’, for it is surely true that something obviously true within one world-view can be not obvious at all in another? The following is a highly condensed version of an argument of W.V.O.Quine. Say you and I have no langage in common, and I note that whenever you see a rabbit you use the word ‘gavagai’. What do I do? I could assert that it’s your culture and I have no right to interfere, in which case we are off down the road to island monocultures with no intercommunication save the occasional sling-shot. Or I could conclude that ‘gavagai’ means rabbit. Now it may actually be that in your culture you discuss animals not as wholes, but as a collection of body parts, so ‘gavagai’ refers to a collection of two short legs, two long legs, a body, two long ears, etc. Now there is no way that I could ever know that ‘gavagai’ conveyed much more information than the word ‘rabbit’, for I would hear ‘gavagai’ for rabbit, I would take words for individual body parts as referring to those parts, and so on. But this means that though some meaning would be lost in translating from your language to mine, the part that is lost is precisely that which you cannot express linguistically. And, similarly in translating from my language to yours (to assume otherwise is a form of inverted chauvinism).

Before anyone objects, I am aware that this is a purely linguistic argument. I am not thereby denying the possibility of meaning conveyed by numinous states. However, that meaning becomes culture, which is a shared public thing, only to the extent that it can be communicated, which requires expressive ‘language’ of some form, whether it be natural language, symbolic language or the emotional languages of art. Therefore, within this broadened scope of ‘language’, it follows that those ideas that a group can communicate internally using the expressive means available to it, can be translated and communicated externally. To deny this implies not only that intercommunication between cultures is impossible (a commonplace of neo-deconstructionism), but also that cultures cannot intracommunicate, so individuals are locked inside their own heads. So there are no epistemic barriers between cultures, or, to put it another way, contrary to what a university acquaintance of mine once claimed, the lyrics ofBohemian Rhapsody do not hold secrets that can only be understood if one is gay.

Putting the rabbit into action

In the case of a feminist theologian talking to Aquinas, this means that though Aquinas may not appreciate the feminist’s private meaning (or she his), they can be confident that they understand one another in as far as they limit themselves to the expressible. Which means that if the feminist theologian disagrees with Aquinas, they can identify which of his premises she takes issue with, though he may not be able to explain to her why he believes it (because he cannot explain that even to himself). And at this point they can have a discussion, which might lead to each of them understanding the other better.

So I am not denying the value of differing perspectives, far from it. I am saying that in academia as in culture, we need the input of many different world-views, as they are the only way we can become aware of unjustified cultural assumptions that shape our thinking, and begin to understand what is baggage that we can let go and what is real core belief that we cannot. Or, in a wider context, what is assumption about the way art should be that can be challenged, and what is essential to our artistic identity. We can only do this if we have a cultural marketplace, where artefacts are valued based on their merit, not their tribal adherence. As soon as we start privileging certain artefacts on the basis of their ‘other’ status, or asserting that there are epistemic barriers between groups, we are taking the first step on the road to the isolated monocultures.

Multiculturalism or death

So to conclude this part of the argument, I am arguing for multiculturalism, in which we do not destroy individual cultures or preserve them in aspic. Rather we allow them to join to a wider discourse in the hope of producing greater. The alternatives are not pleasant. In monoculturalism one group gets to assert its pre-eminence and suppresses all ‘other’ cultures. This has been tried and found wanting. In polyculturalism we defend many small totalitarian cultures in the only way we can, by retreating from contact with one another. And once that has been done it will happen again, with each of the small cultures fractioning into smaller cultures, until we achieve the end-state of the deconstructionist programme: six billion cultures, each consisting of one individual locked inside their own head. That way lies silence and death.

Appendix: epistemic barriers

I argued above that there are no epistemic barriers between groups. The argument was elementary, but relied on a certain amount of hand-waving. There is a much more powerful general argument which does, however, assume a certain amount of philosophical machinery, namely knowledge of the sorites paradox. I present this argument here, but it does not affect the argument, so readers may, if they choose, skip to the next section.
Briefly, the outcome of the sorites paradox can be stated as follows. If I have a population of things to each of which I can assign a parameter (age, gender, sexuality, race, etc), and two types such that:
  1. Things at one end of the range of the parameter are of type 1 and things at the other end of type 2
  2. If thing A has one type then so do all other things with parameter value sufficiently close to that assigned to A

Then one of the following is true:

  1. The two types are identical
  2. The range of parameters can be divided into two regions that are clearly separated from each other

Let the population be the human population parameterised by some variable used to define groups as ‘other’ and let the types correspond to communities of intelligibility, so within a type individuals are mutually intelligible. Then the preconditions are met (clearly a small change does not effect intelligibility) and so one of the two outcomes is true. In outcome 1 the two types are identical, so the whole population is mutually intelligible and there is no epistemic barrier. In outcome 2 there is an epistemic barrier and the population can be divided into two groups, one of type 1, the other of type 2, with a clear gap between them in terms of values of the parameter. But the standard variables – gender (not sex), sexuality, race – are all extremely malleable, so this gap is unrealistic. Therefore there is no epistemic barrier. To put it more succinctly: we are one species; an epistemic barrier would require us to be two or more.


The danger of being ‘other’

Cultural isolationism

Increasingly, self-identified ‘other’ groups announce that majoritarian culture is of no value to them, and that their own culture is all they need. As such, cultural products of members of that group are asserted to adhere to different norms to those of other groups, and so cannot and should not be held to the same standard. In extreme cases it is even argued that non-members cannot appreciate or comprehend the group’s culture. This is the cultural equivalent of the fragmentation of Christian theology discussed above.

Now, the end-result of this agenda, if taken in its strong form, is obvious: every person is their own culture and communication is impossible, so all that is possible is silence and death. So, if it is obvious, why do the ‘other’ separatists not realise this fact? There seem to be three possibilities
First, the ‘one big push’ approach. The idea is that all that is needed is to destroy majoritarian culture, and then everyone will be happy. Apart from the fact that this is incredibly destructive, it forgets the fact, by their own logic, if majoritarian culture is and can be of no value to them, then ‘other’ culture is and can be of no value to majoritarians: there is a key principle at work here, that everyone is someone else’s ‘other’. So the consequence would appear to be that majoritarians have no right to exist. So, say we remove the majoritarian culture and do – something – with the majoritarians. Why should the remaining ‘other’ groups not start to bicker and fracture, which one would have thought more, not less, likely, in the absence of the oppressor. The idea, espoused by theorists of the ‘other’ that their shared experience of oppression will make them more reasonable, more amenable, ‘better, is simply a statement of faith, and it has no evidential basis (indeed, the fact that feminist theology comes in White, Black and Latina forms, and Latina theology has two violently disagreeing sub-factions suggests, on the contrary, that, to coin a phrase, ‘other’ individuals are human, all too human). Therefore, this theory cannot be taken seriously.
Second, the ‘monocultural other’ approach. The idea is that while the majoritarian view does not represent the entire population, hence ‘other’ groups form, the ‘other’ groups are each uniform in culture and therefore never form their own sub-‘other’ groups. But people are inherently variable, and so these sub-groups will form unless there is some mechanism to prevent that from happening. There is a commonly expressed belief that members of ‘other’ groups are somehow more cooperative than majoritarians, but this is simply a restatement of the ‘shared experience’ idea demolished above. Another belief is that those who disagree with the set of cultural beliefs that the writer considers to be authentically ‘other’ are not really ‘other’ at all (e.g. culturally majoritarian women are said to have subordinated themselves to the patriarchy); ironically this is the kind of exclusion that it is claimed led to the creation of the ‘other’ group in the first place. The only way to achieve the required uniformity is to impose it, which requires totalitarianism. Therefore, this theory cannot be taken seriously.
Third, the ‘multicultural other’ approach. The ‘other’ group accepts internal variation and adopts internal multiculturalism. This could work, but then why not multiculturalism across the entire population? There are two possibilities. One can assert that the majoritarian culture is inherently incapable of sharing with other cultures. Apart from being an exceedingly pejorative assertion, on a par with saying that ‘all men are sexists’ (which, regrettably, is not something I made up), this seems to ignore the fact that cultures are malleable things, and so it is entirely possible for majoritarian culture to reform, should it be given a reason to do so. So this possibility is based in prejudice, not fact. The other possibility is that one refuses to make the compromises required of any culture (see above) if it is to enter into multicultural cohabitation, so one insists on the purity of one’s isolated culture. This is simply selfish. So the ‘multicultural other’ could work but is insufficiently ambitious, and the only plausible reason for not extending it to full multiculturalism is an isolationism that means that the members of this ‘other’ group have turned majoritarians into their very own, marginalised, ‘other’.
So out of all that argument, it seems that the reason why ‘other’ separatists do not see the consequences of their position is based either in delusional beliefs about human nature, delusional beliefs about their own ‘superiority’ and prejudice against their own ‘other’. In other words, all the qualities that they rightly criticise in majoritarian culture. And this is because of the key point they miss: whatever our cultural categorisation, we are human, and so share essential human nature, including both the positive traits and the negative, one of the foremost of which is tribalism. Why tribalism is so fundamental a human characteristic is a question for another day.

Isolationism and art

So far we have seen the isolationism is incoherent and unsustainable. But let’s, for the moment, pretend that an isolationist cultural group, or even individual manages to sustain existence. There is actually an insidious danger inherent in defining oneself in terms of being ‘other’ that means there is a very high probability that art produced by any individual who so identifies themselves cannot be great.
Why should this be true? At first sight it sounds like a pejorative statement, but it is not. I repeat again, we are dealing with an individual who entirely identifies themselves and their cultural activities in terms of being ‘other’. That is to say, they accept a cultural definition of their ‘other’ group, and, essentially, say ‘this is what I do; here and no further’. So they have made a conscious decision to limit the toolkit available to them in creating art, both technical and expressive, to that hallowed by the current definition of what their culture is.
Before I explore why this prevents great art, consider for a moment what majoritarian art with the characteristic of defining itself in terms of the artist’s majoritarian culture is like. There is a very simple answer: academicism. Composers like Cherubini, so loathed by Berlioz, painters like Landseer and Munnings are what you get: solid, competent and completely without any spark that takes them beyond competence and into greatness. Because, basically, defining yourself entirely in terms of a culture – any culture – means that you can never do anything new.
And so, back to the main argument. As I have observed elsewhere, great art always has something of the other about it. But the point is that that isn’t the ‘other’ the creator belongs to; rather it is other to that ‘other’. So to create great art, the artist has to transcend their culture and go beyond it. But if the artist is self-defined by their ‘other’ status, that is what they cannot do. And so they cannot create great art.
This is, by the way, one reason why the proliferation of different ‘other’ schools of art is not entirely a good thing. By promulgating the view that ‘other’ art does not need to be measured by the same standards as ordinary art, they essentially absolve the artist from the need to strive for greatness, because quality is measured not in terms of how their work transcends their ‘other’ status, but in how it conforms to it. Hence a new spectre appears: not only do the ‘other’ groups become monocultures, but those cultures will with and die, or at least end up irrelevantly preserved in aspic, while individuals who seek greatness desert the ‘other’ for the mainstream.


One metaculture, many cultures

So, to conclude, there is nothing essentialist about culture. To say, as I have heard one critic say, that male writers cannot write convincing women characters, and indeed, should not be allowed to do so (I wish I were joking) is nonsense. To switch ‘other’, Thomas Mann could write convincingly about an elderly ephebophile in one book and an exuberantly heterosexual young man in another. Stravinsky could write brilliant jazz-inflected music without diminishing jazz or his own art.

The analysis above showed that there is only one stable situation, which I will now give a new name. What we need is a metaculture, within which many cultures exist. Each of us exists predominantly within one of those cultures. But rather than being told that that is where we must stay, and that appropriating ideas from other cultures is oppression or imperialism (take your pick) we should have in front of us the whole toolkit making up the metaculture, and be able to appropriate what we need from it. And then if we create something new, it doesn’t become the property of our culture, it becomes part of the metaculture.

So we celebrate the diversity of people, not as members of homogeneous groups, but as people, and allow each to form their own personal cultural toolkit that they use and extend as they reach for the one other that really matters – that of transcendance. That is the individual’s personal culture, and it, the selection of tools and the way they are used, reflects the individual’s nature. Some may prefer to stick broadly with the tools of a particular culture, and to extend and enrich that culture, others may prefer to create fusions of many cultures, and to create new things that belong only to the metaculture. Both approaches are equally acceptable. But to say that one can only use the tools that the doctors of cultural theory have hallowed for one’s use, based on one’s officially identified status as ‘other’ (or not) is fascism.


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