Edward Skidelsky on a word that has gone from the sublime to the shapelessby Edward Skidelsky / July 21, 2010 / Leave a comment
Modern English contains a number of locutions whose sole purpose is to shift agency from individuals to collectives. “Peer pressure” is one such trickster—a blatant one, since the peers in question must presumably have been pressured by other peers, and so on. Another is “epidemic,” as in epidemic of obesity, drug addiction, etc. (Here the medical metaphor is clearly misplaced. One does not “catch” heroin; one chooses to inject it.) But the chief offender is undoubtedly “culture.” It is just as well that I do not carry a revolver. Otherwise, I would be tempted to imitate Goebbels by reaching for it every time I heard that duplicitous word.
The term “culture” has undergone a number of downward shifts since its adoption by German romantics in the late 18th century. It originally designated a process of intellectual or artistic refinement, individual or collective, and open-ended in its upshot. “Culture” was thus opposed to civilisation, a word with more universalist connotations. It suggested that human ingenuity might run in a number of different directions, all of them precious. German Wurst could be accorded a charm of its own, by no means inferior to French saucisson.
This original, honorific sense of culture gave way in the 20th century to a value-neutral interpretation derived from anthropology and popularised by sociology. “Culture” in this new sense is equivalent to a set of habits; it carries no suggestion of refinement or transformation. Any behaviour, so long as it is established and shared, can count as a culture; there can be cultures of bullying, of dependency, of racism, and so on. Recently, solicitor Tim Hughes nicely illustrated this usage when he described a client of his, a youth arrested last year for urinating on a war memorial, as “a young man caught up in a culture of drinking far too much.”
There is, of course, no point in squabbling over terms; still, there seems to me some use for a distinction between what a group aspires to do, or prides itself on doing, and what it actually does. In assimilating these two things, “culture” in the modern sense lends dignity to some very rum practices. Call it “part of our culture” and any behaviour, however gross or idiotic, becomes by implication as harmless and loveable as folk singing. Culture has replaced patriotism as the last refuge of scoundrels.