Culture vs. Humanity

To treat what we moderns call “culture” as an absolute — as we do when we speak of multiculturalism or cultural appropriation — is to reduce humanity as a species to its social conventions and habits, which means to deny the existence of any underlying human nature, which nature may, under varying conditions, manifest itself in alternative conventions and habits. In other words, it is to imply that “human being” is nothing but an alternative term for pure matter without essence or form, the nothingness itself, until geographic, climatic, economic, or racial conditions magically mold parts of this formless matter into a living, breathing set of social structures, i.e., a culture. This would make humanity, so created, an essentially collective and social being, and hence reduce all supposed “individuals” to nothing but derivative, subservient, and dependent facets or papillae of their respective collective beings (aka cultures).

Secondarily, it would make the various cultures, by definition, fundamentally separate and incommensurable, since on this view there can be no non-social, non-conventional human essence that precedes culture and is shared across or above cultures, but only these irreducible and unique social beings themselves. This incommensurability, in turn, radically relativizes the true, the good, and the beautiful along the dividing lines separating these distinct and self-created cultures from one another.

From this absolutism of culture — one of late modernity’s most basic premises — it follows that to assert one’s existence as an individual human being essentially separate from, and metaphysically prior to, one’s culture, or to regard the inherent fluidity and mutual influence of cultural conventions as evidence of maturation and the elevation of essential human nature over accidental cultural difference, is to live in falsehood and sin, in violation of the pious progressive belief in the primacy of collective being, which is to commit heresy against the faith in one’s divine creator, culture. The enforcement of this orthodoxy of the religion of culture is so important to the progressives because without it, they would immediately lose all their essential battles: against universal reason, against the uncomfortable reality of better and worse social outcomes, against the idea that compliance and orthodoxy can never be overriding social goods, against the view that education means the elevation of the individual out of the “social mind” (the tribe) and into the civilized, and above all against the intractable existence of human nature, however obscure and elusive that nature might be.

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