Thursday, September 6, 2007

Cultural Equity, Indigenous Peoples, and Homogenization: Part I

Recently I have been corresponding with a colleague of mine on doing a couple of posts together. Victor is an ethnomusicologist, but also has concerns over issues related to indigeneity, cultural equity, and how all of this works out for us - i.e., all of us living on the planet today. Over on his blog Music 00001 he has done two very interesting posts so far on cultural equity, a pharse coined by Alan Lomax, founder of the Association for Cultural Equity. Some of what both Alan and Victor have been saying deserve further highlighting since they are particularly apt to the situation indigenous peoples are currently in.

In Post 82, Victor quotes from an article entitled Appeal for Cultural Equity, that appeared in the Journal of Communication (1977, vol. 2:2). Although these quotes concern Victor's speciality - music, they are just as relevant to indigenous peoples and their current struggles. For example, Alan Lomax wrote:

A grey‑out is in progress which, if it continues unchecked, will fill our human skies with the smog of the phoney and cut the families of men off from a vision of their own cultural constellations. A mismanaged, over‑centralized electronic communication system is imposing a few standardized, mass‑produced and cheapened cultures everywhere. The danger inherent in the process is clear. Its folly, its unwanted waste is nowhere more evident than in the field of music. What is happening to the varied musics of mankind is symptomatic of the swift destruction of culture patterns all over the planet.

This sentence could be applied directly to indigenous peoples and their situation. The Internet (Lomax's over-centralized electronic communication system) has brought many benefits to indigenous peoples and their plight, from allowing them to communicate about various resource exploitation process happening on their land, to activists using the Internet to track logging expansion in Brazil via Google Earth. However, the Internet also breeds homogenization in that all indigenous peoples become lumped under the category "indigenous." This is a particularly vexing problem since the category and all that is placed in it is largely the result of modern-day colonial and imperial processes that have no real meaning in terms of history or the people themselves.

Victor continues the quote from Alan Lomax:

One can already sense the oppressive dullness and psychic distress of those areas where centralized music industries, exploiting the star system and con?trolling the communication system, put the local musician out of work and silence folk song, tribal ritual, local popular festivities and regional culture. It is ironic to note that during this century, when folklorists and musicologists were studying the varied traditions of the peoples of the earth, their rate of dis?appearance accelerated. This worries us all, but we have grown so accustomed to the dismal view of the carcasses of dead or dying cultures on the human landscape, that we have learned to dismiss this pollution of the human environment as inevitable, and even sensible, since it is wrongly assumed that the weak and unfit among musics and cultures are eliminated in this way. The same rationale holds that war is a necessary evil, since it disposes of weaker nations and surplus populations,

We can see here that Lomax is touching on what has come to be called social Darwinism, the great homogenizing force that eliminates the "weak" cultures and allows the "strong" cultures to survive via some strange Darwinian evolutionary rule. Again, like above, "weak" and "strong" when it comes to cultures are subjective terms that often have no substantive basis in the real world. I have yet to experience a culture that was not both strong and weak, and that did not have something - some knowledge - that was of value.

I believe Lomax and Victor would agree, as Lomax continues in this same article:

Not only is such a doctrine anti‑human; it is very bad science. It is false Darwinism applied to culture‑especially to its expressive systems, such as music, language and art. Scientific study of cultures, notably of their languages and their musics, shows that all are equally expressive and equally communicative, even though they may symbolize technologies of different levels. In them?selves these symbolic systems are equally valuable: first, because they enrich the lives of the culture or people who employ them and whose psychic balance is threatened when they are destroyed or impoverished; second, because each communicative system (whether verbal, Visual, musical, or even culinary) holds important discoveries about the natural and human environment; and third, because each is a treasure of unknown potential, a collective creation in which some branch of the human species invested its genius across the centuries.

With the disappearance of each of these systems, the human species not only loses a way of viewing, thinking, and feeling but also a way of adjusting to some zone on the planet which fits it and makes it livable; not only that, but we throw away a system of interaction, of fantasy and symbolizing which, in the future, the human race may sorely need. The only way to halt this degradation of man's culture is to commit ourselves to the principle of cultural equity, as we have committed ourselves to the principles of political, social, and economic justice.

Indigenous peoples and their cultures are part of the unique, amazing, and essential component that we call "the world." Sure, some cultures and peoples appeal to some more than others. I know my parents are much more interested in European history, culture, architecture, and the like then they are about the culture, history, language, and such of the Mapuche or any other indigenous group. That is fine, it is their prerogative. However, I also know that they are smart enough to not want a monochrome, homogenized world system. The whole reason they like Europe and go there is to expand their horizons, experience the world in a new light, to see new things, hear new music, speak different languages, try new food.

We don't want the world to turn out like Alan Lomax wrote about, one giant homogenized goo. Indigenous peoples and their cultures are what bring flavor, spice, crunch to the world. I believe that is why he came up with "cultural equity" - the idea of giving voice to all of the world, allowing us to experience the flavor, spice, and crunch that the world has to offer. In the next post I will be talking more about cultural equity in specifics, combining Victor's take on it concerning music with my take via indigenous peoples and their cultures.

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