The Preservation of Quaintness?

Years ago, when I took a humanities course, the teacher provided an anecdote of someone fighting a “cultural takeover” by driving a bulldozer through a McDonald’s in France. The “punchline” was that he was an American immigrant, not a native Frenchman. The topic for the day, outside my comfort zone: The value of cultural preservation versus cultural change.

The phrase I’ve settled on for the moment is “preservation of quaintness” to cover a trend I’ve seen with a bit of retrospection on some people who generally complained about American or “Western” culture spreading to other places. Granted, I wouldn’t want their nightmare of paving the world to build malls for conspicuous consumption, but the dislike of American and/or Western culture in general isn’t what this is about.

The problem I had is that a lot of the rhetoric I heard in favor of the smaller cultures tended to focus on how exotic or quaint its traditions are, not how beneficial it is for the people who practice the traditions in question. In a way, it strikes me as similar to tourist whitewashing, where something is made more palatable to attract more tourists and their many American dollars, except in this case, instead of making it blander and more digestible, they seem to want to keep in all the unhealthy bits and call it spice.

When I first started watching anime, everything was strange and wonderful. They played around with different tropes and the plots were much more rigidly linear than the typical stand alone episodes I was used to in the American shows I watched. They made cartoons for adults, not just for kids. I became a big Japanophile. Now that I’ve watched enough anime to be generally familiar, I’m much more discerning, and have a much more level assessment of Japan’s output. Unfamiliarity can add a lot of appeal, but that’s a subjective factor, not an objective one. I tend to look at a lot of the people fighting against cultural imperialism the way I look at my Japanophile phase. There’s plenty of strange customs to be fascinated by, and I understand the desire to preserve them so others can see them. But some people lose perspective in that desire.

Another issue is the factor of individual choice. As the professor pointed out with his anecdote, no one was forcing the French citizenry to patronize McDonald’s. There are various subtle and insidious ways to manipulate people, but there are always people who simply prefer things from other cultures. There are also people who want to break from bad traditions that have been holding them back and want to emulate the good aspects of more successful cultures.

Change is also inevitable. There’s no magic moment when a culture is pure or ideal, just like there’s no pure member of a species. As time goes on, the labels change with the cultures. If you get attached to a particular species, I can understand feeling sad if it’s lost to history, but time marches on, and it’s likely to happen sooner or later. We can try to record the dying practices, rituals, and languages, but we shouldn’t go the opposite route of cultural imperialism and force people to stay exactly like their ancestors because some outsiders prefer the quaint old ways.

All said, it’s a tricky subject. I agree we should try to avoid passing on our worst habits to other cultures, but neither should we enshrine their bad habits because we like to gawk at them.

2 responses to “The Preservation of Quaintness?

  1. Very good post, I agree completely. It really does seem like a lot of protests about perceived “cultural takeover” do not pay a single bit of attention to what the people of that culture may or may not actually want. But wasn’t it in fact José Bové, a Frenchman, who demolished the McDonald’s with his tractor? There may have been a second incident that I didn’t know about.

    • I don’t know. I wouldn’t be surprised if the professor might have gotten an embellished version of the story and passed it on, especially since a bulldozer would be an upgrade from a tractor.

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