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There may be a term somewhere else in the literature for cultural foiling, but since I have not heard it, I have had to invent a term. If the term isn't familiar, the phenomena certainly is, especially if you have been in the neighborhood of graduate school. A "foil" is a literary device where a character is constructed to somehow show, by contrast, the virtues of another character. When we take this and apply it to a culture, it means constructing a culture that is, for good or for bad meant to somehow highlight the positive and negative aspects of our own culture. Since mostly people don't have the resources to go out and found a culture,the cheaper way to do this is just to find some already existing culture, and then project the foil on to them.

As of this writing, it is 2008, and I would think such crude tactics as foiling would be out of our intellectual repertoire. Perhaps E2 has spoiled me, because for all its faults, there is a certain standard of familiarity with the more obvious ideas. But in certain fields of professional education, ideas that we would have groaned at in 2002 are still trotted out faithfully. And the idea that "non-Western cultures" are all full of ideas that we, as "Westerners" are totally unfamiliar with, is one of them. Here are a few examples of cultural foils:

  • Western culture is individualistic, Asian culture is group oriented.
  • Western culture stresses autonomy, but Hispanic cultures encourage family.
  • Western culture is scientific, but indigenous cultures have a holistic way of looking at the world.
  • Western culture is materialistic, but Indian culture is spiritual
And so on. I am sure that for the most part, the reader is familiar with these stereotypes. The reader might not be aware that these stereotypes, laced with jargon, are still current in academic circles.

I find several problems with cultural foiling. The first is that it often collapses a very rich cultural heritage into being simply a contrast for one's own culture. I can't speak for every culture, but as someone who has studied Chinese culture, I can say that in the past three thousand years, while there has certainly been thinkers that have stressed group identity and harmony, there have been many thinkers and artists who had opposite views, or at least very nuanced versions of this view. To collapse a culture that has existed for thousands of years with scores of competing thinkers into "harmonious", "group oriented", "traditional" is simplification of the highest and stupidest order.

Another major reason that cultural foiling is incorrect is it gives Western culture a privileged place as something radically different from the rest of the world's cultures. If you put various measures of cultural values in a continuum, Western culture, such as it is, would end up on one end in some, on the other end in others, and exactly in the middle in others. For example, some non-Western cultures have short histories of literacy and urban civilizations, while other non-Western cultures have had money, writing and urbanization much longer.

To finish off our third major point on why cultural foiling is wrong, it seems that in many places, the best part of a foreign ideal is being compared to the reality of every day contemporary Western culture. Comparing the spiritual practices espoused by Indian Yogis to the life of a stereotypical suburban American would indeed mark America as being less spiritual in its values, but I am sure that examining a cross-section of Indians would show plenty examples of both rapacious greed or just plain silly acquisitiveness.

And as a last note, cultural foiling is often used to give backhanded compliments. A characteristic is foisted onto another culture, acknowledged as being "valuable" and thus symbolically dealt with, thus reinforcing the observer's own values. For example:

  • "Asian cultures stress group consensus and harmonious interaction".
    Translation: Those Chinese people are a bunch of robots that can't think for themselves! They are happier with an authoritarian government that also knows how to churn out cheap junk for us!
  • "African-American communities often value spontaneity and social interaction.
    Translation: That is why they spend all their paycheck on cheap liquor.
  • "Native American cultures live closer to nature"
    Translation: And it was fun visiting their dingy little towns, now we have something to tell the people back in San Francisco, where we don't have to live close to nature.
And so on. I also have to regret that in places in writing this essay, I had to stoop to using a straw man myself, in effect turning academic culture itself into a foil for my own beliefs. And I didn't do that lightly, I really thought that this issue had moved on to a more sophisticated analysis of how cultures interact. But I thought it was worth writing it, because there are still some people (some in high positions) who still follow this remedial model of culture.

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