Culture is a defining aspect of what it means to be human. It is the totality of the man-made parts of the environment in which we live. The buildings, the parks, the social norms, the educational and legal system, music, art and mobile phones. We learn of our culture through socialisation, and then we absorb or critique it. We also generate it. We creatively communicate our experiences through dance, ritual, religion, porn. We build communities. We fight. Culture is far from static, it is lived and dynamic. The world is a bright collage of different cultures, and we all subscribe to various ones, but the pervasive mainstream, western, neoliberal consumer culture we invariably find ourselves entrenched in does not reflect our values. We do not agree with it’s norms. We distrust in the commercial and the horrible amounts of money behind it all. A small representational group is choosing the way most of us see and talk about our world and its history. It is deciding what is normal and through this, it is determining our laws, our education and our identities.
We live in a prosperous corner of an abstruse and multifaceted world, and while in other, out-of-sight-out-of-mind corners, people are navigating war, famine, and man-made ecological disasters, here in the west, we are navigating social media, the possibility to have anything we want, any way we want it, and a stagnant economy. We now assume the right to live our lives by our rules and we now navigate highly complex subjectivities. Finding out who we are, how the world works and connecting with other people are all natural impulses. But in an age already more individualistic than any before, we are paying witness to a shift from TV as the main source of information for the majority, to the internet, where individualism has reached max strength.
The internet is culturally transformative. Social networking sites now dictate the way we interact and experience each other and are highly suspected of reinventing how we view ourselves. Children are now recording and publicly sharing themselves in ways inconceivable to those of us born before 1995. Personal identity, identity construction and self-representation have not only become extremely important, they have also never been more fragile. Our first point of contact with the culture we are a part of is our parents. They have a significant influence on our self-esteem and perceived acceptance. Unconditional love from parents helps us develop a deep-rooted sense of self-respect. What happens when many within our communities have an unhappy relationship with their families and particularly their parents? We are othered in school and begin to naturally seek wider social acceptance. Our society then puts bizarre expectations on us in the form of unattainable body ideals, reproductive success, perfect mental health and white teeth. Every day we are measured up against the people around us and we are told in no uncertain terms that we’re not quite good enough.
And that’s just the lucky few who are actually represented. Many of us are not reflected in popular culture at all, which means we don’t exist for society. Self-respect largely depends on the recognition that we receive from the other. Our sense of personal value in society, our dignity, our self-worth is directly affected by our perceived acceptance in our shared existence. Identity is undeniably abstract, fluid and transformable but the impact it has on our lives is immeasurable. We are given no worth. Our only defense is self-compassion, a weapon we don’t all have the capacity for, so we don’t accept ourselves. We all suffer deep insecurities at the hand of competition and hierarchy, and as a result, we are more likely to minimize the risks of destructive behavior, poorly handle stressful situations, and abuse ourselves and others. We are more likely to be pessimistic, negative, and more likely to drive people away. Psychological well-being is not possible unless the essential core of a person is fundamentally accepted, loved and respected by ourselves, and by others. Only when we accept ourselves do we have genuine confidence, benevolence and optimism. All necessary ingredients in a successful society, but none of which are facilitated by ours.
Though there are sceptics who believe identity is a choice, that it separates people and creates difference, identity is ultimately created by the society we are in. We may not like or agree with an us-vs-them mentality, but they are the ones who decided we can’t sit with them. The white-cis-male created the world and we have little choice but to live in it. While larger society might not be for us, it is still very difficult to actually separate ourselves from it. We have to walk through it every day. It is also very easy to only see yourself as others see you. If it is how you have been treated your whole life and there are no tangible alternatives visible to you, then it is all you’ve ever known. And it’s cyclical. How we are treated affects how we act towards others, which in turn affects how we are treated. Whilst we are certainly capable of making culture, mostly, culture makes us. It is our main source of education and the unavoidable means through which we discover ourselves. We can be severely damaged by the cultures we are reared by. Because of this, our identities are politically and epistemically significant. Our identities frame our worldly experiences and make them intelligible. They contextualise our personal and collective historical experience and give us meaning. In the world we share we are not in charge of how we are defined. Our sense of ourselves is made possible by our public identity, but we have very little control over it. It exists before us, already telling the world what we are.
Culture does not mix well with the modern western world, it gets lumpy and weird. In parallel with global capitalism relying on the underdevelopment of third-world countries for its endurance, mainstream culture depends on minorities. We generate wealth for them. The entertainment industry financially depends on the subordination of women to sexual objects, more so now than it ever did and alternative identities are routinely either exaggerated for comic relief, sexualised for male pleasure or exploited for shock value. Furthermore, the natural human potential and capacity for creativity is suppressed by exploitation and oppression, leading to the further erasure of our ‘other’ identities.
Some aspects of culture we can happily ignore, but even though it becomes particularly sticky and unpleasant when mixed with money, art is such a valuable form of communication for us that we are clinging to it with vigor. Film is arguably the ultimate art form. It has a broad audience, a rich history and an unbending capacity to captivate. The good ones are honest and probing renditions of the human condition. The not so good ones can at the very least be used as a form of escapism. But film at it’s best is storytelling that refreshes and invigorates you. It cuts deep into the soft places you might otherwise keep hidden. They resonate with you. Film combines theater, literature, music, aesthetic forms and technology, another defining feat of human existence, and communicates ourselves to ourselves. Nothing compares to watching a film in a real cinema, where you are truly immersed in the sensory beauty and can feel the music as well as hear it. There is something for everyone in film. Or rather, not quite, as for the most part the film industry keeps telling the same stories, from the same white-male perspectives and the ticket prices are only going up. Political correctness has come a long way in the last twenty years, and cultural sensitivity has come a long way in the last five, but still white audiences can be given a character to laugh at because they’re ‘Asian’, black face is still a thing, and while images of gay and lesbian identified people in the media have become pretty commonplace, it is not all rainbows and unicorns. The recent Stonewall movie has come under justifiable criticism for not representing the real people, people of colour and trans women, who were the fundamental forces behind the Stonewall riots, a movement white people benefit from daily. Film is not only a cultural medium in which society’s values and standards of reality are formed, reinforced and circulated, they are blown up to 30 by 70-feet. How can you escape to a world in which you don’t feel safe?
We’ve no one to accept us except each other, and that’s why we do what we do. It is immensely important for us to create our own culture, to share with and support each other. Putting on a show, a film, a benefit, a festival, can seem like a little thing, but it can mean so much. It can turn lives around. It can put faith where it’s needed. To be genuinely and truthfully represented by external reproductions of your own existence is hugely validating. We gain positive self-esteem and self-acceptance from the generated sense of community and belonging. When we are around people like ourselves we finally feel at home. Of course, separating ourselves from others in order to protect ourselves is not a successful long-term strategy, either psychologically or politically. We must remember that we all bleed. But our varied identities do not have to be impervious obstacles to a harmonic mutual understanding. Our identities may limit and constrict us, but they’re all we’ve got. Tempered with an awareness of partiality and fallibility, our personal experience is our only true starting point of understanding. Only when we are aware of our true position in history can we authenticly work towards positive change. In the age of ultimate convenience it’s also easy to forget that not all members of a society have equal access to the law or to information, which means they don’t have access to the very culture which ensnares them. It is one of the finer aspects of democracy that we are no longer submissive sheep bowing to the status quo. We have learnt to speak up for ourselves, and to respect our rights. We’ve emerged from thousands of years of history, where only a tiny percentage of people were allowed anything they wanted, with everyone else only able to work and serve. But this is an illusion. Not only are we far from free, we still a privileged minority.
If we want to radically reorganise our society, eradicate systematic domination and stimulate systematic compassion we have to work towards a complete acceptance and integration of marginalized minorities in mainstream culture, but until then we have to keep creating culture on the fringe. We are extreamly fortunate to have so many platforms available to us to do so in this city. By creating more choices you are granting people free agency. People can choose something they support. You enable people to choose themselves. And if we want to lay the groundwork for a society in which all individuals have the ability to claim their true identities, free from oppression, we need to make paths for the ones we don’t notice because we can’t experience the ways they are discriminated against. They are the ones we need to make society better because they are the one’s who know what’s wrong with it. The ones who are able to enact change and fight for inclusion are already in a position of privilege. We are the lucky ones.
Photo: AKG - Filmhuiscavia