Cultural Cringe

La Malinche

Cultural cringe, in cultural studies and social anthropology, is an internalized inferiority complex which causes people in a country to dismiss their own culture as inferior to the cultures of other countries.

It is closely related, although not identical, to the concept of colonial mentality, and is often linked with the display of anti-intellectual attitudes towards thinkers, scientists and artists who originate from a colonial or post-colonial nation. It can also be manifested in individuals in the form of ‘cultural alienation.’ In many cases, cultural cringe, or an equivalent term, is an accusation made by a fellow-national, who decries the inferiority complex and asserts the merits of the national culture.

The term was coined in Australia after the Second World War by the Melbourne critic and social commentator A. A. Phillips, and defined in an influential and highly controversial 1950 essay of the same name. It explored ingrained feelings of inferiority that local intellectuals struggled against, and which were most clearly pronounced in the Australian theater, music, art and letters. The implications of these insights potentially applied to all former colonial nations, and the essay is now recognized as a cornerstone in the development of post-colonial theory in Australia. In essence, Phillips pointed out that the public widely assumed that anything produced by local dramatists, actors, musicians, artists and writers was necessarily deficient when compared against the works of the British and European counterparts. The only ways local arts professionals could build themselves up in public esteem was either to follow overseas fashions, or, more often, to spend a period of time working in Britain.

Austrailian author Henry Lawson wrote in 1894, ”The same paltry spirit tried to dispose of the greatest of modern short-story writers as ‘The Califorian Dickens,’ but America wasn’t built that way.’ The cultural cringe of Australians and the cultural swagger of Americans reflects deep contrasts between the American and the Australian experiences of extricating themselves from English apron-strings. Dealing specifically with Australia, Phillips pointed out that sport has been the only field in which ordinary people accepted that their nation was able to perform and excel internationally. Indeed, while they prided themselves on the qualities of locally produced athletes and sportsmen, whom they invariably considered first rate, Australians behaved as if in more intellectual pursuits the nation generated only second-rate talent. Some commentators believe that cultural cringe contribute to the perceived anti-intellectualism that has underpinned public life in Australia.

The cultural cringe is tightly connected with ‘cultural alienation,’ that is, the process of devaluing or abandoning one’s own culture or cultural background. A person who is culturally alienated places little value on their own or host culture, and instead hungers for that of a — sometimes imposed — colonizing nation. The post-colonial theorists link alienation with a sense of dislocation or displacement some peoples (especially those from immigrant cultures) will feel when they look to a distant nation for their values. Culturally alienated societies often exhibit a weak sense of cultural self-identity and place little worth on themselves. The most common manifestation of this alienation among peoples from post-colonial nations at present is an appetite for all things American, from television and music, to clothing, slang, even names. Culturally alienated individuals will also exhibit little knowledge or interest in the history of their host society, placing no real value on such matters.

Some argue that a form of cultural cringe resulted in anti-heritage attitudes which lead to the demolition of many world class pre-war buildings in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney, destroying some of the world’s best examples of Victorian architecture. Modernism was promoted to many Australians as casting off imperial Europe to rebuild a new independent identity, and the existing pre-war architecture, which was a feature of Australian cities, was denigrated. This resulted in many calls to demolish the Royal Exhibition Building, referred to as the ‘white elephant.’ It was not until Queen Elizabeth II granted the building Royal status that Australians began to recognize its value. The building became the first in Australia to be given World Heritage status. This reaction against the cultural cringe continues in some fields such as architecture, where local architects are shunned for using introduced styles.

Another manifestation of cultural cringe is the ‘Convict Stain.’ Many Australians felt a sense of shame about the existence of British Convicts in what is now Australia, and many did not even attempt to investigate their families’ origins, for fear that they could be descended from criminals. This was known as the Convict Stain, and it made research all the more difficult. It was most evident in sport, where people with known convict heritage were sometimes banned from sporting clubs. For example, in cricket, the Melbourne Cricket Club has a well known Convict Stain policy, making exception for very few, most notably Tom Wills the inventor of Australian rules football. The effect can be reinforced in Britain, where Australian tourists have been asked in jest if they are ‘returning to the scene of the crime.’ In recent decades community attitudes have changed, and many Australians with convict ancestors are now more comfortable investigating and discussing their past.

Many cultural commentators in Canada have also suggested that a similar process operates in that country as well. Canadian cultural commentators speak of a ‘Canadian inferiority complex,’ or label specific instances of the phenomenon with satirical terms such as ‘beaver hour.’ Prior to the 1970s, Canadian radio stations gave almost no airtime to Canadian music, and Canadian television stations spent very little money on Canadian-produced programming. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) adopted Canadian content regulations to resolve this, although even today such regulation is still criticized by some Canadians as representing inappropriate government interference in the right of Canadians to choose US entertainment. It has also been claimed that some segments of Quebec society experience cultural cringe in relation both to the rest of Canada and to France. In addition, some western Canadians, mainly from the province of Alberta also have an extended cultural cringe from the rest of Canada. The feeling of isolation from mainstream Canada, and envy of the more populated provinces of Ontario and Quebec contribute to this inferiority complex.

The cultural cringe of Japan can be traced back to the introduction of Western culture in the 17th, 18th and 19th century. Western knowledge was soon desired at first by Japan in fascination, where it was until 1854, that westernization was desired by the government for Japan to strengthen its power. After the wars and conflicts of interest of the Bakumatsu period, Japan’s desire to westernize dominated, nearly wiping out traditional trades in favor of western ideals. Over time, Japan would succeed to industrialize and rise in power with the rest of Europe and America, at the price of nearly costing its cultural identity. Following the aftermath of World War II, the Empire of Japan surrendered to the Allied Powers, and remained in occupation until 1952. After suffering defeat at the hands of its enemies, Japan soon showed a great deal of shame, in light of its immediate recovery in the 1960s.

Mexico has experienced sustained cultural cringe dating back to the colonial period where European born people called Peninsulares or Gachupines, were privileged with access the best positions of authority and commerce while Mexican born Spaniards, even if they were 100% European with no indigenous admixture, were barred from such privileges. This led to the suppression of Mexican developments in favor of importing everything from Europe such as: machinery, lawyers, governors, culture, art, science and the common world view among the colonists. Today the cultural cringe is still prevalent throughout Mexico where foreign cultures, attitudes, technologies, arts, and academics are seen much more favorably than Mexico’s own indigenous scholars, technologies and artists. The result of this has been brain drain as competent and talented Mexicans choose to move abroad, mostly to the United States, where they can develop their skills and practice their talents.

In the Mexican popular media, news anchors and variety show hosts, Telenovela actors and actresses are distinctly white despite the fact that most of the Mexican population is Mestizo or Indian. This phenomenon still resonates the old colonial attitude of the caste system which favored the European image, culture and aesthetics over Mexican development which it perceives as inferior or substandard. This attitude is commonly known as malinchismo and its bearers as malinchistas in reference to La Malinche, slave, interpreter, and concubine to Cortés.

New Zealanders are said to suffer from a cultural cringe, which has been wearing off in recent years. The New Zealand English accent is said to have been influenced by a cultural cringe since the 1900s but it too is lessening in recent years.

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