Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Culture - Two

For the purposes of the Intercultural Studies Project, culture is defined as the shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs, and affective understanding that are learned through a process of socialization. These shared patterns identify the members of a culture group while also distinguishing those of another group.
University of Minnesota Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition
Two things had me thinking about culture this morning. A discussion that turned to African-American culture is one, and an article about rape culture was the other.

Being a guy, I stumbled into the idea of rape culture primarily through its use as a bludgeon. Something I would do without thinking about it would earn me the charge of perpetuating rape culture. Of course, I would push back, mainly because I had a hard time understanding the difference between being labelled a member of rape culture and being labelled either a rapist or someone who was okay with rape.

Having the definition of culture from the top of this post in mind when I read "How Not to Talk About a Culture of Sexual Assault" on The Atlantic gave me a better frame of reference to think about the topic. (As an aside, do "Men's Rights" activists and anti-Feminists have radar for these sorts of discussions, or what?) Still, what constitutes members of the rape culture group is a bit fuzzy for me, and so it's difficult to use the definition of culture as clearly as I could when thinking about African-American culture. Linked to that is the idea that rape culture is more about normalizing and legitimizing a specific set of behaviors. So perhaps the definition should be worded differently:

A culture is defined as a group, distinguished from those of another group, that, through a process of socialization, learn specific, common, cognitive constructs and affective understandings. This group learning identifies shared patterns of behavior and interactions that are seen as legitimate and normative.

That work? I think from there, we can better define "Rape Culture" because now we have rape, and other forms of sexual assault, on one side of the equation, and we can then work to solve for the other side. Actually "solve" really isn't what we're after here - the question isn't what is on that side of the equation, but is there something on that side of the equation. Sure, it's helpful to know what it might be, but we don't need a high level of precision in the answer. So the question becomes: "Is there a defined group, distinct from other groups, that socializes its members to see the world in a certain way and understand others' emotional and mental states in such a way that it normalizes and legitimizes rape and other forms of sexual assault?"

Now - here's where I run into trouble. I'm not a researcher. I'm not really in a position to evaluate whether or not there is an independent rape culture or not. It's something that I had always understood to be baked into other, more accepted understandings of culture. So, for instance, in many different cultures, a man's sexual desires are referred to by "a man has needs." And, it's common in a lot of cultures to view needs as begetting entitlements. Cross the two, and you wind up with the idea that if a man needs sex, he's entitled to take it, even over certain objections. This, to me, was less indicative of a specific "rape culture" than it was of aspects of other extant cultures that lent themselves towards an incidence of sexual assault. But here's where an understanding of the definition of culture is helpful. As I noted before, cultures are not mutually exclusive. When we're talking about groups of people, "the shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs, and affective understanding that are learned through a process of socialization" can be viewed as a single, cohesive set. That is, the same set of people can always be one culture. As long as the same set of people is involved, any changes to the rest don't spawn a new culture. But, there is nothing about any specific behavior or interaction, a particular cognitive construct, or individual affective understanding that limits it to a particular group. Groups, even those that are clearly different cultures, can share.

So perhaps it's more accurate to speak of rape culture as a group of cultures, where what they share is certain behaviors and interactions. In other words, if a certain legitimization and/or normalization of sexual assault are the "behaviors and interactions" that we're talking about, there are multiple groups for which this is true. It is simply a subset of the groups broader shared patterns.

In the end, the one of the issues with "Rape Culture" is one that it shares with what one can call "Racist Culture." It is, to a degree, something that is defined by the viewer, moreso than by the members of the culture themselves. While there are people who understand what the rest of term as rape is justified (just as there are people who happily self-identify as racists), that is a small, and often considered fringe, group. Most people who are identified as being part of rape culture want nothing to do with the practice. That is, they don't intentionally socialize themselves or others with an eye towards making sexual assault acceptable.

Just as a culture can be invisible, and thus seemingly non-existent to people outside of it, it can be the same to people within it. But the issue with invisibility is that it becomes difficult to understand if someone doesn't see something because it's invisible, of if they don't see it because there's really nothing there. Just from my own musing about the subject from writing these blog posts, I'd be inclined to say that there is no singular "Rape Culture," given the understanding of culture that I'm working with. But I would say that several different cultures have aspects to them that, when viewed from a distance, can create the appearance of a homogeneous rape culture. It's in the forest, but it isn't a single tree.

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