Writing: Cultural Identity / erasure of cultural identity

One recurring element in the past days and weeks is Identity. Or cultural Identity.

I wrote several posts on discrimination and racism, exploring the deeper workings from a superficial point of view (not doing more research than what I am reading on a daily basis and summarizing my thoughts.)

This post — no doubt — contains some false facts. I was in a hurry. Fact-checking had to wait. No worries: I will fix them later.

Base definition

Wikipedia on cultural identity

Cultural identity is the identity of a group or culture, or of an individual as far as one is influenced by one’s belonging to a group or culture. Cultural identity is similar to and has overlaps with, but is not synonymous with, identity politics.

Social Identity

A social identity is the portion of an individual’s self-concept derived from perceived membership in a relevant social group. As originally formulated by Henri Tajfel and John Turner in the 1970s and 80s, social identity theory introduced the concept of a social identity as a way in which to explain intergroup behaviour.

My take

Any culture has specific traces leading back into history by which it took a direction that can be seen as “unique”. Meaning that when you put a person from that culture into another context, several things will happen, of which 2 come to mind:

  1. That person will stand out — Either by behavior and/or way of wearign the body and dressing that body
  2. That person will see specific “hidden” aspects of other cultures — Invisible as the proverbial water for the natives of that other culture

This goes for any person in any culture, moved into another.

Responses to the differences between native and “strange” culture can be several:

  1. Feelings of superiority — “My culture is better”.
  2. Feelings of inferiority — “My culture is worse”
  3. Bafflement — “What the fuck!?”
  4. Culture shock — “What the fuck? — It is too much! Let me go home!”

Taking simplified Korzybski, the range of responses will probably be:

  1. Surprise — Physical / emotional. “What the fuck?”
  2. Rationalization — “Well: what happened to me must be so and so”.
  3. Taking a stance — “Since I responded so and so, and related to my own beliefs, what I experienced must be [fill in whatever]”
  4. Final conclusion — “It [sucks / is stupid / I am stupid / they are stupid /is awesome / I love it]” and so on.

Five ways to deal:

  1. Rigidly — Rigid systems do not like change. They are inward bound and there to protect a specific idea or situation. The standard is set once and should remain as is. “This is what I know. That is unknown. Unknown is per definition suspect. Whatever is suspect should be rejected and ejected.”
  2. Inclusive — Inclusive systems are hungry for new things. They love change, different kind if ideas. They love to learn, grow. They can take, they can reject later on, but the reaction is “yes! tell me more!”
  3. Sceptical — Sceptical systems want to include, but also try to protect what is already in. Something new could be added, but has to valued first.
  4. Cynical — Cynical systems rather reject. They are not rigid as they tend to look outside, but whatever is there is met with negativity. It is safer to hide behind the old than to take in the new.
  5. Fluidly — Fluid systems border to be Inclusive, but do not hold on to the new stuff. They also do not hold on to the old. There is no center. They change constantly. In short: a fluid person can hold completely different ideas the next day while still be the same person.
  6. Rebellious — Rebellious systems like to throw over old stuff. Like fluid systems they change, but as a purpose. The old is old. Away with it!

Cultural identity

Cultural identity can be based on each and any. The culture can be rigid, inclusive, sceptical, cynical, fluid, rebellious and several other things.

To ask: “what is your cultural identity?” starts with the basic principles of that culture.


To understand any culture requires understanding of the history. What happened in the past? What behavior is there now? How does this relate? Even when you reject old systems and even when you reject history itself, that history has shaped the collective mind within that culture.

This includes:

  1. Collectively shared fears — What is the worst that can happen? It will be surprising how different the answer can be. “Death” can be one, but “the loss of a family member” can be another.
  2. Ways to approach situations — How do you solve a problem? What systems of cooperation are there? How does a group re-organize itself? Who takes the lead? How is that lead taken?
  3. Traditions — What is important? What is celebrated? What is a recurring event or activity? How are you welcomed? How are you goodbyed? How will people respond when you ridicule it? When you question it?
  4. Hijacking — Who conquered you? What did they override and destroy? What did they replace? What did they ridicule and made suspect?

An example

Europe is a lot of things. One is “fearful for strangers”. Another is: “judgmental to other cultures”. Centuries ago we believed:

  1. Commoners were not really people — If you — the land owner — found a commoner on your lands doing something suspect (like poaching) nobody would condemn you if you would kill or maim that person on the spot.
  2. Slave-trading to get cheap laborers was OK — So we went to Africa and buy slaves from local, African, slave-traders. Slaves which were — in most cases — prisoners of war. People from places that were conquered.
  3. Slaves were not really people — So we could stack them in tiny boats and drop the ones who did not make the long travels overboard

It was OK to murder strangers as a Christian for several reasons. But mainly because the Moores were invading Spain and introducing a competing religion: the Muslim belief and the Roman Church was a very jealous bitch, already killing a lot of competing religions who had the dare to promote another take on Jesus Christ and the gospels as they did.

Based on many things, European culture developed a cultivated state of mind of “superiority”. We segregated to our hearts belief. In short: hate was good. Hate among anyone who did not fit the pristine image of purity and male-first image. Women of liberal sexual beliefs. Disbelievers. Pagans. Healers. Women of knowledge.

A side-note: Being male-dominant, we have more words to condemn women who have liberal sexual beliefs than men. Men who fuck around are “studs”. Women who do the same are “whores” or “sluts” and rape has often been a “justified” way “to put such a women in place”. Just to point out the niceness of things.

To understand the present, the past is relevant.

To understand traditions and behaviors that do not make any sense at all from more “modern” points of view you need to look at what shaped that country and that nation.

Highly unfounded speculation on Italy and Belgium

What struck me — as an outsider — between Italy and Belgium — and compared to the Netherlands — is the deep lack of belief in the political system. A second one was how the population seemed to be OK with cities in decay. Enter Brussels by train and you see buildings in the middle of the city in states of decades of neglect. The same I saw in Florence.

And I take a risk here. I did not research. It is like being a tourist. And then freewheeling.

Talk with an Italian person about politics and the responsibilities of the people to assure the right one is in power and people will do something similar to “pffrt” pointing out that politics is one thing and the thing people do another. Like two different worlds. As is politics do not really influence your lives or the way a country goes.

Might Italy and Belgium have something in common here?

Both are torn countries. Belgium once belonged to the Netherlands. Like an extra province. Before that it belonged to France. There are also German-speaking areas, so probably Belgium also belonged (partially) to Germany.

Until 150 years ago, Italy belonged to the Swiss (the North), the Spaniards (the South) and the Pope (the middle). Before that, like many European countries, including the Netherlands, Italy consisted mainly of city-states. Each city had its own domain, ruler and laws.

Italy became one country around 1861. But the unification was that of three parts who never really merged. While the map says differently, Italy apparently is not really one single country, but three different regions forced to apply to the same ruler or government.

Take Belgium. Similar situation, similar issues. You have the Flemish, the Walloons and (apparently) the region of Brussels drifting like an  island in the Flemish region.

Walloons will never unite with the Flemish. Northern Italians will never unite with the Southern.

While a country like Holland has similar issues, they are not as explicit as the Belgium or Italian. As an economical country we tend to do a lot better than both as we tend to work together to make things better instead of still fighting old disputes between different regions. Sure one province looks down on another, but we are all Dutch in the end.

Germany succeeded in comparable ways. When Germany was united, the once Communist part was not treated like the sick, poverized little brother, but united as good as possible. Solving a lot of problems now instead of letting them to rot and grow for the future.

So what if there is some pattern here?

Scars and wounds

Part of the shaping elements of cultural identity are the scars and wounds of the past. Others are older behaviors and traditions and newer ones emerging from the acknowledgement of things that need — and can — be solved.

The question is: which one do you hold dear?

Do you treat the scars and wounds as dearly as the good things? Do you look at the behavior that created those scars as something good? Like: “my father sometimes almost beat me to death when I did stuff wrong, but it made me a stronger person”. A thing that was not uncommon in Dutch culture until five decades ago.

What parts of tradition are OK and which are not?

Which one do we want to keep? Which do we reject?

Old beliefs

Also: what old beliefs are still there? Hidden? Watered down? But still recognizable?

I wrote about the Dutch festival of Sinterklaas. Whatever you can say about it, it IS reflecting racist stereotypes with the character of Zwarte Piet. That same character is quite recent, going back to only 1850, meaning that the “tradition” as we know it now, is based on a re-invention made in a time where racism was still there and less criticized as it is now.

Nobody told the writer who invented Zwarte Piet (as a replacement of a tamed demon Sinterklaas had as assitent before) “maybe you should not do this. We just abolished slavery. To create this stereotype of black people in these modern times of 1850 is quite wrong.”

Instead the book and the stories became so popular that Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet became a persistent meme. A duo you still see now.

Destruction of a culture

What destroys a culture? What destroys a cultural identity? What is that identity?

Taking the Dutch.

  1. Sea-farers and traders — We ruled the seas in the 1500’s. The VOC traded spices and raw materials from all over the world. We traded with Japanese and Chinese. We traded with Indonesia.
  2. Pirates and hardcore resistance — We resisted the Spaniards for 80 years. We fought them with all we had, killed many, sabotaged their armies using both guerrilla warfare and head-on war.
  3. Inventors — We invented several things including the microscope. We had great scholars, painters, scientists. We invented bookkeeping as it is now, with cross-checks. We invented the stock market and speculation. We probably were not the only ones and not the first, but traces lead back to us.
  4. Kickstarter before internet — To build the ships and to fund the costs we did something similar to kickstarter: telling people “we are going to build a boat. We will sail over the seas. We will bring back awesomeness. If you invest, we build the boat, find the crew and you will get a share. If we succeed, you will be rewarded.”
  5. New York — New York was once called New Amsterdam. We traded it to the English for Suriname, that was rich of ores and woods. The English liked York more than Amsterdam so hence the name change. You still find references: “Breukelen/Brooklyn”, “Haarlem/Harlem”.
  6. Winning land — We created land out of water. We literally shaped our country by making dykes and pumping the water out of these areas using wind energy and mills powered by cows and donkeys.
  7. International trade — Even when the VOC collapsed under its own weight, Dutch people continued to trade. We are everywhere. Look at multinationals world wide and our footprint is there. Unilever. Shell. Philips. LG, which was a subsidary of Philips making LCD displays.
  8. Cheese and flower bulbs — Yes. That too. Cheese… We took the Turkish Tulip, imported it to Holland, started cultivating it. Became market leaders world wide.
  9. Old-school bio-engineering — Dutch people have a deep history in bio-engineering. Apples. Beans. Pears. Peas. Cows. Tulips. The principle was cross-breeding and a process called “veredeling” which translates maybe closed to “cultivation”. You cross-breed, isolate the best species and cultivate these until you have something new. Something better.
  10. Clogs and wind mills — Yes. Wooden shoes. They are cheap to produce, strong and protect the feet from harm. People in the country sides still wear them. Why? Imagine dropping something bone-crushingly heavy on a foot in a leather boot. Got the picture? As the Netherlands are close to the coast, wind is abundantly there. Add mechanics and cleverness and you mine that energy to mill grains and pump water.

We were awesome!

We must also have looked bat-shit crazy compared to our neighboring countries.

(We also sucked a lot. Dutch people were not nice people. We enslaved, colonized, murdered. Al lot in the name of trade and economy.)

Out of nothing. Out of a land of sand and trees and water we created a force of nature.

Go to the Netherlands now. Take a random person. Start talking about “cultural identity”. Tell a Dutch person “The Netherlands are awesome. You did all these things” and watch the response. (Some people I know did.)  It is likely not going to be a proud smile.

So where is this proud stride? This open smile? This welcoming feeling you get from people who are really inclusive with the pride they have from their present, their past? This thing that tells you: these people did it. Something. And they can do it again. Sure. With one hand in the pocket. Smiling.

I find almost the opposite. Like something got broken and we never were able to repair it again and we (in some cases) need real blunt rudeness to hide the cruel truth. Whatever that is.

So what happened?

I have no fucking clue.

I am still looking for the cause.

An example of broken-ness

In 2006 I did something called “Essence training”. It is a group-based thing for self-development. Confrontational and using a specific systematic approach.

One of these training’s in the series I did was a four-part thing where the second weekend was a trip to an unknown destination somewhere. The trick: we were not told where. We were not told how. Or what circumstances.

Part of the last hour was:

  1. To organize the group
  2. To find out where we would be going

The things to do were quite simple:

  1. Make a list of things we think we need
  2. Decide who will do what

What happened was shocking to me.

Instead of worming together, people started complaining, forming isolated groups, fighting each other as one person “knew better” than others “what should happen”. The discussion were not about: “what do we need?” but about “what is the appropriate approach?”

Basically something like this: “should we wear the red or the blue sweater? Or the black?” “The black is more appropriate.” “But we are drowning. The blue should be better.” “But the red is more a signal color!”

The result was a destructive chaos that led nowhere. And imagine that the whole setting was basically: “You are on a boat and the boat is sinking. In one hour you are dead.”

Instead of cooperation, people were scoffing others. Ego was more important than solution.

To me, that behavior is not normal. It is the behavior of damaged people.

And note that these people considered themselves educated and reasonable. Logical people. People who think before they act.

What is cultural identity?

What is cultural identity?

Is it the broken things we learned from our oppressors? Are they the things we developed in between the lines? Is it the social thing? the things that work?

Are these elements fixed in time? Is that identity the clothing we wear? The way we look? The way we dress up?

Are we “us” when we take that frozen image from centuries ago and dress accordingly?

How important are values? Customs? Behavior? What is appropriate behavior in this? And what is just “appropriate” because once upon a time we had one or more oppressors who used these restrictions to break our spirit by social engineering?

What kind of people are we? Are we kind? Are we brutal? Who do we want to be? What do we want to be?

How important is language in this? How does that language reflect that culture? And literature? And acknowledgement of the past? And awareness of the present?

What about the structure? Is it rigid? Fluid? Should a rigid culture be kept for future sake? The people in that culture cultivated to remain that structure like animals in a zoo? For others to gaze at in wonder and say: “Oooh”.

How bad is globalization? The disappearance of local brands and local crafts? How destructive is the introduction of shops in a historical center of any city? Turning it in a shopping center that sells the same shit as everywhere? How bad is it that kids like fast food from an American company more than the things you ate as a child? Where local cuisine is colonized and eradicated by tasteless bland food?

I wrote an open letter to the Dutch SF and Fantasy scene yesterday, asking the same questions in different forms. Why reject English language? Why mainly publish in Dutch? Why make yourself obscure? What does that do for the Dutch Identity to the outside world? How does that reflect Dutch culture at all? Respect it?

Should we then show up as writers in panels wearing traditional clothing? The stuff people wore 120 years ago? I was tended to: imagining myself in just such clothing defending my point to the audience. The female clothing’s. As I shit on roles. And yes: I would do it.

Colonization and Cultural Identity Amnesia

We tend to think of colonization as “boats with Spaniards landing on the American shore” and subject everyone. Making slaves.

Colonization is broader.

Each brand that wipes out local produce is a form of colonization as well. “We come in, we take over, we leave a clear footprint.”

Each local grocery shop that disappears because a big chain opened one of their subsidiaries dies due to similar mechanisms. Each block that sees local stores disappear and replaced by big brands becomes more and more anonymized, loses more of its unique identity.

When each city becomes a copy & paste clone of each other city, it has lost some of it’s identity. And sure: progress. Sure the old days have gone. Sure the past is not as beautiful as we remembered it. Sure this is market-working. It is just an example.

Cultural Identity is defined by that what makes you unique, different. If language (or the name of your street) is the last thing that separates you, your culture is basically already dead.

Cultural Identity Amnesia is a term I invented just now. The Amnesia is: “forgetting” and “forgetting what mattered”.

It starts when things from the outside become more important and relevant than the things that came from inside. Starts when we all want to be like the popular boy or girl and all dress the same. Conformity and disdain for local produce, unique voices.

White power/nationalism

Then what? Take Golden Dawn in Greece. Or our beloved Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. What makes you think that your problems are caused by a powerless minority? How can you claim any pride on your nation when your answer to a crisis is finger-pointing, violence and destruction?

Any consistent negativity is already a sign that you lost any concept of pride. That you believe everything already is beyond repair. That destruction is the only way forward. It is just another form of suicide. Let’s get drunk and watch it all fall down.

The fact that you attack your own people, the people living in the same country as you do, indicates one main thing: chaos and hate is the only way you see to gain power. And then what? More hate?


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