A lot of culture–aside from that time your parents dragged you to the ballet–is what we would, in honest moments, classify as “stupid things people used to do/believe.”
Now, yes, I know, it’s a bit outre for an anthropologist to declare that large swathes of culture are “stupid,” but I could easily assemble a list of hundreds of stupid things, eg:
The Aztecs practiced human sacrifice because they believed that if they didn’t, the world would come to an end.
In Britain, people used to believe that you could literally eat the sins of a recently deceased person, speeding their entry into Heaven. There were professional sin eaters, the last of whom, Richard Munslow, died in 1906.
Americans started eating breakfast cereal as part of an anti-masturbation campaign, and in Africa, many girls have their clitorises cut off and vaginas sewn nearly shut in a much more vigorous anti-masturbation campaign.
The Etoro of Papua New Guinea believed that young boys between the ages of 7 and 17 must “ingest” the semen of older men daily in order to mature into men.
In Mozambique, there are people who kill bald men to get the gold they supposedly have inside their heads; in the DRC, there’s a belief that eating Pygmy people will give you magic powers.
People in Salem, Massachusetts, believed that teenage girls were a good source of information on which older women in the community were witches and needed to be hanged.
Flutes assume all sorts of strange roles in various Papuan and a few Brazilian cultures–only men are allowed to see, play, or listen to the flutes, and any women who violate the flute taboo are gang raped or executed. Additionally, “…the Keraki perform flute music when a boy has been sodomized and they fear he is pregnant. This summons spirits who will protect him from such humiliation.”
Spirit possession–the belief that a god or deity can take control of and speak/dance/act through a worshiper–is found in many traditions, including West African and Haitian Voodoo. If you read Things Fall Apart, then you remember the egwugwu, villagers dressed in masks who were believed to become the spirits of gods and ancestors. Things “fall apart” after a Christian convert “kills” one of the gods by unmasking him, leading other villagers to retaliate against the local Christian mission by burning it down.
In India, people traditionally murdered their moms by pushing them into their father’s funeral pyres (and those were the guys who didn’t go around randomly strangling people because a goddess told them to).
People in ancient [pretty much everywhere] believed that the gods and the deceased could receive offerings (burnt or otherwise,) of meat, chairs, clothes, games, slaves, etc. The sheer quantity of grave goods buried with the deceased sometimes overwhelmed the local economy, like in ancient Egypt.
Then there’s sympathetic magic, by which things with similar properties (say, yellow sap and yellow fever, or walnuts that look like brains and actual brains) are believed to have an effect on each other.
Madagascar has a problem with bubonic plague because of a local custom of digging up dead bodies and dancing around with them.
People all over the world–including our own culture–turn down perfectly good food because it violates some food taboo they hold.
All of these customs are either stupid or terrible ideas. Of course the dead do not really come back, Zeus does not receive your burnt offering, you can’t cure yellow fever by painting someone yellow and washing off the paint or by lying in a room full of snakes, and the evil eye isn’t real, despite the fact that progressives are convinced it is. A rabbit’s foot won’t make you lucky and neither will a 4-leaf clover, and your horoscope is meaningless twaddle.
Obviously NOT ALL culture is stupid. Most of the stuff people do is sensible, because if it weren’t, they’d die out. Good ideas have a habit of spreading, though, making them less unique to any particular culture.
Many of the bad ideas people formerly held have been discarded over the years as science and literacy have given people the ability to figure out whether a claim is true or not. Superstitions about using pendulums to tell if a baby is going to be a boy or a girl have been replaced with ultrasounds, which are far more reliable. Bleeding sick patients has been replaced with antibiotics and vaccinations; sacrifices to the gods to ensure good weather have been replaced with irrigation systems.
In effect, science and technology have replaced much of the stuff that used to count as “culture.” This is why I say “science is my culture.” This works for me, because I’m a nerd, but most people aren’t all that emotionally enthralled by science. They feel a void where all of the fun parts of culture have been replaced.
Yes, the fun parts.
I like that I’m no longer dependent on the whims of the rain gods to water my crops and prevent starvation, but this also means I don’t get together with all of my family and friends for the annual rain dance. It means no more sewing costumes and practicing steps; no more cooking a big meal for everyone to enjoy. Culture involves all of the stuff we invest with symbolic meaning about the course of our lives, from birth to coming of age to marriage, birth of our own children, to old age and death. It carries meaning for families, love, and friendship. And it gives us a framework for enjoyable activities, from a day of rest from our labors to the annual “give children candy” festival.
So when people say, “Whites have no culture,” they mean four things:
- A fish does not notice the water it swims in–whites have a culture, but don’t notice it because they are so accustomed to it
- Most of the stupid/wrong things whites used to do that we call “culture” have been replaced by science/technology
- That science/technology has spread to other cultures because it is useful, rendering white culture no longer unique
- Technology/science/literacy have rendered many of the fun or emotionally satisfying parts of ritual and culture obsolete.
Too often people denigrate the scientific way of doing things on the grounds that it isn’t “cultural.” This comes up when people say things like “Indigenous ways of knowing are equally valid as Western ways of knowing.” This is a fancy way of saying that “beliefs that are ineffective at predicting the weather, growing crops, curing diseases, etc, are just as correct as beliefs that are effective at doing these things,” or [not 1]=.
We shouldn’t denigrate doing things in ways that actually work; science must be respected as valid. We should, however, find new ways to give people an excuse to do the fun things that used to be tied up in cultural rituals.