Recently, I was faced with an interesting dilemma: A strongly-worded request to not share photos of an ancient site on grounds that members of a group laying cultural claim to it also wished to reserve usage claim to the knowledge about it.
Now, I do understand where this is coming from. It is undeniably true that small populations and cultures under threat of being subsumed by other populations and cultures can feel under siege, and in so doing there is a temptation to entrench and monopolize claim to identifiable elements of one’s culture.
Ultimately, however, I believe this represents a profound misunderstanding of what culture is, how it is formed, how it changes and the individual’s relation to it.
1. A particular form or stage of civilization, as that of a certain nation or period: Greek culture.
2. The behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group: the youth culture; the drug culture.
(There are, of course, other definitions of culture, but I want to be clear that this is the aspect of the term I am focusing on in this post.)
In fact, I would go further and propose the following, more memetically-specific definition of culture: “A culture is a set of prevalent memes found amongst a set of individuals who identify themselves as a group.”
Culture is, thus, nothing more and nothing less than a set of ideas, techniques, aesthetics, and styles held in common by a self-defined grouping of individuals. Cultures do not form Athena-like from Zeus’ head – they are born by blending with or fissioning from other cultures, as well as evolving to better match their environment.
In much the same way as parallel evolution happens biologically, so too do disparate cultures come up with very similar, even identical solutions, particularly when their respective challenges are similar. In other words, just because two different cultures have a similarity doesn’t mean one copied that aspect from the other. It might be, but it just as easily might not be. Original evolutions, moreover, are far less common than copied adaptations – witness the speed at which various art styles or technologies have been repeatedly spread between various populations.
How does this relate to the original question?
A cultural group may legitimately lay claim to a location and the access and direct usage of that location. In appropriate circumstances, control of commercial exploitation of associated specific images and iconography may also be justified.
A cultural group may not, however, lay claim to the knowledge, form, aesthetic or shape of cultural elements, whether this be a location, a practice, or an aesthetic style.
Yes, this means that people will sometimes copy or adapt cultural elements in a way that some will find offensive or disrespectful. At the end of the day, however, cultural elements are fundamentally memes and ideas. They will mutate, they will evolve, they will see usage of both a profound and profane nature.
Someone may say, “We claim/built this temple/church/sacred site and reserve the right to control access to it.”
Someone may not say, “We claim this symbol/idea/concept and reserve the right to control access to it.”
Ideas cannot be subject to monopolization, but are the birthright of everyone; to maintain otherwise is to deny our individual and collective right to learn, grow, adapt, create art, develop philosophy and construct out of the building blocks of today the aspirations of our tomorrows.
Sensitivity, respect, and courtesy are all things that should be striven for and held up as an example of ethical behavior. Unfortunately, such has frequently not been particularly in evidence throughout the history of anthropological research, not to mention the myriad less academic cultural contacts over the course of history.
Regardless, the best thing one can do for the expression of culture is to recognize it as a living, breathing, evolving creature, and not some strange kind of immutable memetic fossil. Embracing growth, adaptation and change are as necessary for cultural health as they are for biological growth.