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Culture and power

Published: 
Sunday, September 27, 2015
Dr Dylan Kerrigan

Last time out, I suggested there are differences between how anthropologists understand culture and how politicians use it. The implication was members of a society learn and are shaped —amongst other things—by the ideas of various institutions in a society. 

If those institutions share ill-conceived ideas about culture, many of us will learn those ideas. Consent to them and reproduce them. These versions then become dominant. Not always benevolent and often silence alternatives. 

Institutions of socialisation and cultural pedagogy are obvious and ordinary. They begin with the family, and expand outward to include such things as the fourth estate, religion, popular culture, social media and many state apparatuses too, including education, political culture and the criminal justice system.

For example, when members of the fourth estate like op-ed columnists or radio presenters sensationalise the current race baiting and conflict on social media, and do not offer other narratives of everyday life, such as commonplace examples of our living multiculturalism, they simplify reality. They also support a cultural pedagogy shaping the public that makes ethnic identities divisive and negative, rather than potentially outward looking and positive. 

Yes, of course racial and ethnic tensions happen here, but we also have many valves for defusing such tensions such as humour, language, sport, festivals, friends, rituals, colleagues, and more. These are silenced by the attention and prominence given to a racist few over a more inclusive majority.

In more global terms, think of the war on terror and how it shapes people culturally. In the US, a brown boy called Ahmed Mohammed makes a digital clock, takes it to school and is accused of being a Muslim terrorist rather than smart. In the UK, a Muslim teen speaks of eco-terrorism in a French class (in French) and is taken out and interrogated about ISIS.

Where did the teachers, officers and administrators learn such behaviour? Maybe many were racist already. Or equally, perhaps using the media, law, politics, and many other institutions. The war on terror has taught people to spy and report on certain others. It hasn’t made the world safer. Instead it has taught racism is normal and permitted. It has made teachers report innocent children to authorities. It also takes away peoples’ ability to criticise the fear-mongering madness of the discourse. 

“Cultural pedagogy” is a theory in the academic discipline Cultural Studies. As Raymond Williams noted in 1982 of Cultural Studies, it emerged as an educational field concerned with helping people understand the various cultural pressures upon them and by which people are organised socially and politically in everyday life. It was designed to make people more critical of the information fed to them culturally.

For its architects like Williams, Richard Hogarth, and the Jamaican Stuart Hall, Cultural Studies was a way to understand the relationship between culture and power. That is, we are not simply shaped by an inert and simply out there culture, accepted by years of traditions and experience. Rather, we are subjected to formative and pervasive forms of political power embedded in culture, which produce particular ideas and forms of programing we swallow, consent to and consume culturally.

Of course this is not a one-way relationship, resistance, counter-cultures and agency are all elements in the process of cultural pedagogy. However, for cultural resistance to lead to change populations need to learn how to read culture critically, understand its power relations and organise collectively. Something we in T&T no longer seem very good at.

Are we critical enough of the information we are fed by the media and politicians? Does the fourth estate hold power and its ideas to enough scrutiny? What about education? Do our classrooms—places of constant examination and regurgitation—produce a culture of question asking or a culture of PowerPoint silence? How do you develop a critical thinking population? And why would those in power want that? 

Well one way, in contrast to what the former president Max Richards believes, is you don’t push everyone to do STEM subjects at university. Otherwise you wake up with a society of people who know how to make digital clocks, but have no idea why some people get arrested for making them but others don’t. 

Another way is you get more critical subjects in secondary schools and replace bullet-point learning. For example, why are there no anthropology classes at sixth form? And transferring this problem to the UWI, why are the social sciences at the UWI dominated by the least critical ones? Or why as Justice Ivor Archie noted at the recent opening of the Law Term do we not have more evidence-based decision-making in our various institutions?

The answer is under various pressures culture and power has shaped the society to be a lot less critical of the information fed to it than it should be. We switch off and lose our ability to impact change and the status quo remains. Or as the anthropologist David Harvey notes of culture and power, “political questions become insoluble when disguised as cultural ones.” 

Dr Dylan Kerrigan is an anthropologist at the UWI, St Augustine.

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