Thursday, 22 December 2016

Globalisation and the flattening of cultures

I feel like the information I receive about Mexico is American at core. As in, anything with a narrative that makes it all the way down here has an inevitable American point of view because it transmits through American media or online.

The US is my absolute favourite place, but they do have a tendency to look for problems. And their consideration of Mexico as a warzone (America is a martial culture after all, so everything is filtered through that lens) makes it tough to see their southern neighbour as anything else. My Spanish sucks, so I can’t read primary sources on the Mexican narrative. I would like to, though.

Maybe it’s because I see the world in funny ways, but I worry about what happens when a country like Mexico develops. If there’s one constant over the past 50-60 years it’s that every country that tries to increase its prosperity also makes an insidious trade. As it gets wealthier it carves off little pieces of itself – pieces that made the country unique.

It enters the international community, sure, but it homogenises itself alongside that internationalism at the same time. For instance, all the men start wearing suits, the women cut their hair in a certain way and every interaction is mediated by, well, the media.

And then it seems like the country you think you remember and miss no longer exists. You go back to visit, but things have changed along one cultural track, rather than scattering along evolving and interesting cultural paths as it did for generations. I see this all the time. Mexico might become safer and more developed, which is a good thing. But at what cost? Can its essential “Mexicanness” survive? Or will it succumb to the fate of every other developing country as it chooses integration?

New Zealand succumbed. In fact, I don’t think there is a “New Zealandness” because we never really considered the implications of joining an international community before sorting out who we actually are, and what makes us different. Everything we do is someone else’s idea: British, French, European, American, etc. There’s barely anything about this country I can point to and say “this is New Zealand.”

Even the Maori culture is commoditised, packaged and sold as a product. When people call themselves Maori or Kiwi, they say it as an thing, an identity. They want to put a name to who they are, a name they didn’t invent, because that’s how they’ve been trained to think – with branding. But surely to be part of a unique culture requires only that you be. Not to name it, package it up and wear it as a badge. It just is. It just is.

This “development” gives us all a deep anxiety. And because anxiety is the only emotion that never lies, we know something’s wrong.

One of my friends said recently, “I take it with me everywhere I go, in some form or another” referring to their culture of birth. This “it” is precisely what I’m worried about Mexico losing. Its people will be subjected to waves of murmuring forceful signs and signals about what it means to live correctly in the international community.

All of those messages will be broadcast in opposition to her home culture. They will be bright and exciting signs, full of aspiration. And without actually saying Mexican culture is inferior, her countryfolk will receive that message loud and clear. That message will of course be wrong, but it won’t matter and it will be too late. Pieces will start to carve off, small at first.

And then one day, perhaps 40 years from now, her own generation might notice how few people act Mexican anymore, and they’ll worry. They’ll start working to wedge Mexican traditions and rituals into school curriculums and legislating for "Mexican language week" or some other.

The whole enterprise will look artificial, contrived and desperate. Children aren’t stupid. They will only notice their normal schooling and won’t take “cultural studies” or whatever it’s called being forced on them seriously. A parent's final hope will be to hold onto some traditions at home – at least the ones they can remember – but they’ll get busy at the office or wrapped up in anxiety over the bombardment of images and eventually forget about it all.

Slowly, like water eroding rock into sand, there is no more Mexican culture, just as there is no New Zealand or Maori culture anymore. The default becomes this strange amorphous, international, homogenous, vanilla “way of being” which exists without a name. Only history books will show the edges of what used to be Mexcianness. Even her own mind will start playing tricks about what she remembers as Mexican, mixing it with the imported international traditions until she just doesn’t know the difference anymore. It will feel desperate as she rushes to repair the damage and more will only slip out the door.

All this wonderful stuff she cares about is so hard to hold on to. The idea that everyone will eventually be the same is a kind of hell, I think.

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