Cultural Identity Essay
With a mere few weeks left of my time at college, I've been doing some Spring cleaning and discovered an essay I'd written two years ago that I'd like to share.
Preface: This essay was written as a final paper for an elective Multimedia module in 2nd year. It explores the notion of Cultural Identity and makes reference to a project I was undertaking at the time.
Final Paper - Cultural Identity
Cultural identity is the sense of belonging to a particular group or society. It’s the way in which we come to define our place in our wider social sphere, and hence is inherent to our self-perception and our identity as an individual.
Therefore, not only is our identity the manner in which we define ourselves, but also how others choose to define us. This concept is important, as it determines the level of respect, judgement and prejudice we may face; either as a minority or as a majority within our society.
Likewise, our own cultural identities influence our bias towards others, whether we perceive them as a threat or of benefit. Without any meaningful common ground with other cultural identities, we may be quick to pass judgement and dismiss them as inferior. This is especially relevant where our cultural identifiers, such as religious beliefs, nationality and ethnicity are in direct conflict or appear dissociative or incompatible.
Hence the importance to realise that any,
‘categorisations about identity, even when codified and hardened into clear typologies by processes of colonisation, state formation or general modernising processes, are always full of tensions and contradictions. Sometimes these contradictions are destructive, but they can also be creative and positive.’ (James, 2015)
From a historical perspective, this phenomenon can lead to disaccord at best and violence at worst. With such strong associations with nationality, ethnicity, religion and social class, it’s not surprising that cultural identity can be contentious at times, particularly in heterogeneous societies.
In this argument resides two schools of thought surrounding cultural identity. Some critics arguing that cultural identity is a divisive force, only serving to fragment and weaken the collective whole, denying the state a shared framework for society and hampering its efforts to identify with its citizens.
Instead they postulate the ideology of Cosmopolitanism, an inclusive social backdrop that encompasses people of different cultural identities, giving of mutual respect, despite differing beliefs.
Will Kymlicka (1996) writes succinctly on this belief by describing how he imagines the state’s role in a multicultural society,
‘the state does not oppose the freedom of people to express their particular cultural attachments, but nor does it nurture such expression [...] the members of ethnic and national groups are protected against discrimination and prejudice.’
The opposite side of this argument asserts that this perspective is unapologetically utopian and overly idealistic; ignorant of the cultural realities governing current societies today, and hence its embrace has been slow.
The argument for Cosmopolitanism can also be faulted for ignoring the celebration and expression of cultural identities, where it cannot fully demonstrate partiality for a particular group. It realises that full recognition and continuous observance is essential for the subsistence and preservation of cultural identity while also deserving of our respect.
And moreover, we must share this respect for other cultural identities that co-inhabit our society; building a shared framework, nurturing the bonds that tie us together.
However, Martin Guevara Urbina (2014) rightly states,
‘[that] we must recognise that multiculturalism is not simply understanding ethnic/racial histories or the mere appreciation of cultural “difference,” but accepting that multiculturalism [...] is ingrained in the very essence of life for multicultural perspectives, ideas, and ideologies empower us to elevate the multicultural discourse to a higher level of social transformation - ultimately, universal equality, justice, respect, and human dignity for all, in all facets of human existence’.
Without following these wise principles, a sense of alienation and marginalisation can deepen in society amongst certain groups, especially already vulnerable minorities. This discontent, when gone unnoticed, can grow and fester, sometimes leading to open resentment or ethnic strife towards other cultural groups.
From a historical perspective, this is a routine narrative that foreshadows almost every event in world history, from the smallest political crises to outright revolution. Sadly, these illustrations abound from ancient times, right up to the present day. Everywhere from the Balkans to the Middle East, where cultural identities have been subdued or persecuted.
And neither does their frequent occurrence show any signs of abating, where ‘since the end of the cold war ethno-cultural conflicts have become the most common source of political violence’. (Kymlicka, 1996).
In fact, the term ‘balkanisation’ has come to describe the process of fragmentation of a state into smaller regions (centred on a shared cultural identity) that are uncooperative or openly hostile with each other (Wiktionary, n.d.).
It must be noted that these historical events aren’t simply foreign matters or unrepresentative of our own advanced societies, but that we too, in modern liberal democracies are subject to the same prejudice at home.
Furthermore, for my Creative Project Assignment, I decided to carry out a more extensive investigation into this understanding and broaden my knowledge relating cultural identity’s manifestation in the realm of politics and governance.
My reasoning was twofold. The matter of cultural identity, especially in relation to politics, is a very current topic and it touches on a number of social issues. Secondly, I wanted to explore and discuss the role of technology has on the former, and how these digital tools may be used to manipulate and influence our cultural identities deceitfully.
For my creative project, I based my case study on the events leading up to and surrounding the US presidential election because I felt it was an ideal example to explore questions affecting cultural identity for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the USA is the world’s third most-populous country and one of its most ethnically diverse. Uniquely, this large multicultural country is also home to the world’s largest immigrant population, and can be said to be one of the first true globalised societies. Furthermore, the USA is also highly urbanised and one of the most technologically advanced societies in the world, founding some of the biggest and most successful global technology industries.
These distinctive features make the USA wholly unique in the world, and provide an unrivalled example for studying the role of cultural identity in a society. For not only do events happen in the USA, but their influence is also felt strongly abroad, with the USA being one of the most prominent political and cultural forces internationally.
However, in my study I also wanted to highlight the pressures and questions facing cultural groups in the USA, and the growing issues surrounding inequality, poverty, immigration .etc. And also rather than falling into a trap of discussing the issues head on, I felt it was more important to focus on the responses given by various cultural groups and their relations on these issues with others of a different cultural identity.
As I’ve previously argued in this essay, a country with a shared framework provides a means for citizens to identify with each other and to form a cohesive and inclusive society. For my project I set upon discovering how this might be externalised in the USA and how being an ‘American’ is embodied by people from different cultural identities.
The absence of a common heritage, folklore or binding cultural narrative in the USA poses a unique circumstance in world history.
Often described as a melting pot, but in the words of Baudouin Léopold (1959),
‘it seems better to call it a mosaic, for in it each nation, people, or race which has come to its shores has been privileged to keep its individuality, contributing at the same time its share to the unified pattern of a new nation’.
It is this concept that heralds American exceptionalism. Its cultural flexibility and evolving nature that serves to include all its citizens regardless of their cultural identities. For this reason, America’s most highly coveted cultural artifacts are its constitution and Declaration of Independence where these tenets are enshrined.
Yet the USA’s greatest strength can also be revealed as its greatest weakness. Fundamental social issues, growing inequality, political polarisation and the marginalisation of cultural groups has stressed every fibre of American society.
In the aftermath of the US political election, this disquietude of the status quo was exposed in the form of a protest vote. A reckless vote showing little basis in fact or any due prudence, a populist reaction to turmoil through the election of a shameless demagogue, in turn proving that, ‘People can behave foolishly, recklessly, self-destructively in the aggregate just as they can individually’ (Remnick, 2016).
Therein lies the question, how did an individual so misaligned and (disputably) racist come to represent the diversity of the American people, as head of state? It’s completely contradictory to our established definition for a representative democracy and goes against core American values.
It’s nothing short of a tragedy for democracy and of the constitution, and a victory for the powers of authoritarianism, nativism and misogyny.
I felt this was the fundamental question to my Creative Project and I believed I could best answer it by scrutinising the election cycle, in connection with the role of technology and the new media.
The feelings of anguish and disappointment in the dismal aftermath of the election were almost palpable, but within that sense of disbelief and incomprehension lay the root of the real issue. ‘The information loop had been shattered’ (Remnick, 2016) and people woke to a very different reality than what social media had been spoon-feeding them for months on end.
Social media and the online world has evolved to best serve our personal interests, through smart algorithms and machine learning. It now increasingly entertains us, amplifying our existing beliefs and habits, simultaneously pushing less desirable material to the background.
What we find ourselves in now is the result of its failings. A deeply fragmented society, driven apart by human emotions and hampered by the radicalisation of cultural groups. With no real discourse, nothing stands to challenge our steadily ingrained beliefs. Our stale opinions comforted and invigorated by the same familiar voices within our digital echo-chambers.
Not surprising then that the Oxford Dictionary has labeled 'post-truth' as the word of the year, describing it as, 'relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals.'
In this polarised online world, how does this undermine our cultural identity and how does it impact on our ability to identify with others across the digital divide?
We understand from our definition of cultural identity the concept of homophily, or the tendency for us to seek out others that share in our cultural background. It’s this innate preference transcended online, in tandem with algorithms and machine learning that’s engendered the creation of online filter bubbles. In essence, our own separate online realities.
It wouldn’t be too far a stretch to claim that social media has facilitated and even incentivised this natural tendency. It capitalises on our cultural identities, encouraging comfort and complaisance, shielding us from opposing views. Its entire business model is built around the aim of maximising user time spent on the platform and it holds no moral incentive to stimulate informed participation in public discourse.
Instead, it indiscriminately feeds our timelines and news feeds with disinformation designed to appease and nourish our cultural leanings. Disinformation shouldn’t be mistaken for fake information but rather misleading information. Skewed and shabbily dressed up as clickbait, it exists not to inform but to entertain.
This is a dangerous precedent. When news is relegated to mere entertainment it loses its value, depriving the reader of trustworthy information. Needless to say, an informed and educated voter is critical for a stable and functioning democracy.
And hence this is the state of affairs in today’s world. A post-truth society divided on cultural lines, so far removed from our early aspirations for the world wide web.
It wasn’t that long ago that the internet was envisioned as a unifying force. An anonymous decentralised forum with equal opportunity for everyone’s voice and opinion, regardless of our cultural identities. Somewhere where we could learn and grow as a global community and share in our diversity.
We must continue to strive for this ideal whilst guarding ourselves from the known shortcomings of social media. Our aim should be in highlighting disinformation and bias, not relishing in it.
The onus is on us, the individual, to recognise our own cultural identity, realise our possible prejudices and seek out differing viewpoints. Only through self-exposure can we truly think critically on the subject of cultural identity and grow as a unified society in today’s digital world.
Wiktionary (2016) [online] Available here (accessed 19 December 2016)
Kymlicka, W. (2016) ‘Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights’ Oxford University Press Inc., New York.
James, P. (2015) Despite the terrors of typologies: The Importance of Understanding Categories of Difference and Identity, Taylor & Francis.
Guevara Urbina, M. (2014) Twenty-first Century Dynamics of Multiculturalism: Beyond Post-racial America, Charles C. Thomas Publisher.
Léopold, B. (1959) Reader's Digest, October 1959. New York.
Remnick, D. (2016) ‘And American Tragedy’. New Yorker [online] 9 November 2016. Available here (accessed 19 December 2016)
Oxford Dictionary (2016) [online] Available here (accessed 19 December 2016)