Globalisation and Culture

by Satish Tandon, September 2005

The greatest critique of globalisation derives from its perceived impact on indegenous cultures. It is feared that as globalization spreads, it will decimate local cultures everywhere by homogenizing societies across the globe. In fact, this is probably the only point on which most countries, except the United States, agree. The French, the Germans, even the British, have problems accepting American cultural penetration that globalization entails. The loyal international clientele, cutting across segments of class, society and population, of big American multinationals such as Coca-Cola is evidence of the immense power of corporations to spread a global consumer culture.

What is culture in the national context? It is a way of life--an indigenous way of life--that includes religion, spirituality, language, moral and social norms, family values, eating habits, and so on. There is genuine concern that huge American corporations such as MacDonald's, with their equally massive advertising and publicity budgets, are able to set up operations almost anywhere they wish, and exert strong influence on local character and lifestyles. No matter where we are, we read Time or Newsweek, view Hollywood movies, eat American food, and wear denim jeans. We see the world, whether external or our own, through the eyes of CNN. If this is not cultural imperialism, I don't know what is. My kids have dual nationality - Indian and Japanese, they are therefore bilingual - in English and Japanese, they are also bi-cultural - American and Japanese, and they eat American and Japanese food. They represent the emerging new generation of "global" citizens. I used to think this was my own personal situation, or worse, I was inward looking, narrow-minded or conservative. But now I understand I am not alone, most of my friends here are in exactly the same situation. Comforting thought!

To be fair, let us visualize some of the benefits of globalization in the cultural arena. Firstly, an increased American cultural presence in our lives can have either of the 2 results: it might raise our level of understanding of American culture and way of life, unifying positions, and thereby reducing conflicts that arise from cultural misunderstanding. On the other hand, a better understanding of American culture may bolster our confidence and pride in our own culture and heritage, and enable people to stress cultural differences or rather similarities in more effective ways for greater mutual understanding. It is entirely possible that exposure to alternative ways of life and thought will help increase global awareness and appreciation of the unity of humankind in all its diversity. This, however, will not be achieved if only one side is being exposed. Cultural understanding, like everything else, is a two-way street.

Secondly, globalization will bring about a greater degree of individualism as people will be judged based on merit and achievement. This is already happening in Japan--a country where group achievement took precedence over individual performance--due to intense competition from American or other multinational corporations. Now, individual performance and achievement have replaced seniority as the sole criteria for promotion and recognition.

Thirdly, globalization brings increased interaction and adaptation between cultures. As happens in interpersonal relationships, we usually learn and grow as we interact; societies and cultures also get enhanced through interaction, observation, and mutual give and take. The Japanese culture was enhanced in various ways as a result of interaction with the Chinese over the centuries.

Fourthly, globalization helps development of a plural society. One characteristic common to most developing countries is the monolithic state structure that exercises tremendous control and influence over most aspects of people's daily lives. Increased economic activity in developing countries will give birth to a multitude of institutions, interest groups, industry groups, non-government organizations and civil society to protect and promote the interests of their respective constituencies, and thereby help in the creation of a pluralistic society.

In response to an ongoing debate over whether trade in cultural products should be governed by different rules from those for other commercial products, and what role governments should play in protecting national identities in the face of globalization, the United Nations convened an international conference to discuss how to help countries protect their native cultures. Government delegates from over 180 countries are currently negotiating the second draft of the proposed Convention on Cultural Diversity (CCD). The Convention proposes to take cultural goods such as films, plays, and music out of the realm of trade negotiations. It aims to exempt them from free-trade rules, allow governments to protect and support their cultural industries, and enshrine the "cultural exception" that European nations have defended in international law. It would be an international legal agreement to implement the principle that culture cannot be reduced to a commodity. The CCD enjoys the broad support of NGOs and civil society groups who have argued that it must not be subordinated to the WTO and must be written to support cultural and media diversity inside countries, not only between them.

French President Jacques Chirac, in an address to the UNESCO general conference before the UN Convention, suggested, "if such a treaty were passed, peoples and states concerned about their identities will open up to the world with greater confidence. Canada's heritage minister, Sheila Copps, believes that if you don't see yourself reflected in your books, movies, TV, and music, there is a part of civilization that's missing. To leave cultural trade issues to the WTO would reduce the world to a giant shopping center.

Politics is the art of the possible. It can be also defined as the art of balancing competing interests in a race against time. Globalization is unstoppable, and probably unavoidable. We therefore need to ensure that it does not take us where we do not want to go. It is of utmost importance that we sit together with an open mind and define rules that will help shape the kind of world we want to leave for our children.