How Not to Understand a Culture: Popular Culture, the Distorting Telescope
By Youssef Sourgo
Morocco World News
Casablanca, January 20, 2013
Our understanding of a cultural identity that is, to a given extent, distinct from ours, is sought through a plurality of means. We sometimes get the chance to be in direct contact with a different culture for the first time, either by travelling to the location where it belongs, or by receiving native representatives of it. In both cases, our discernment and familiarization with the cultural identity in question is achieved through an exposure to accurate manifestations, accounts, practices, and so forth.
My understanding of the Japanese culture, for instance, would be remarkable if I go to Japan, or receive a Japanese person in my own country. Nonetheless, people seek acquaintance with a culture they know little or nothing about via other means than the aforementioned ones. Popular culture is one of those means.
Delineating popular culture is indispensable for the discernment of how it serves, as I will discuss in later paragraphs—through the example of ‘Islam’—to garble and distort our understanding of a different cultural identity. So what is popular culture? According to Wikipedia, popular culture is any cultural practice, component or product that is within the “mainstream’ of a particular culture. Reposing on this designation, we understand that popular culture is the ‘familiar’, the ‘popular’ and the widely accessible features of a given culture—comprising movies, books, music, fashion, etc. But what makes popular culture ‘popular’?
Media stands out as one of the pivotal means of propagating the popular culture of a given country or community. In this respect, let us consider the African American popular culture for the sake of illustration. What made Hip Hop, one of the most globally recognizable and practiced components of the African American community, so popular? Unquestionably, media is what rendered the so widely practiced rap music, for instance, a ‘universal’ practice. We now have Moroccan rap, French rap, Algerian rap, Indian rap, etc. They are all differently colored versions of the original ‘drawing’, which is African American rap. Ultimately, what makes popular culture ‘popular’ is its wide accessibility and appeal to different groups in the same society it is produced in, or to a foreign society.
Having delineated the general significance of popular culture, we now reach the stage in which popular culture is to be understood as the distorting lens via which some cultures attempt to understand a dissimilar cultural identity. Popular culture at this stage, and in this sense, becomes a serious problematic, for it delves into the realms of concepts and notions that are miles aloof from its cultural demarcations. Rendered an optic via which one endeavors to understand a culture foreign to him or her, in lieu of resorting to much more efficient means, popular culture sometimes tends to generate destructive stereotypes and tropes on the the culture or group standing on the other side of the ‘telescope.’
Islamic culture, for example, was not immune from the distorting reflections of popular culture’s ‘telescope.’ Ironically, non-Muslims or people foreign to the Islamic culture do not even ‘take the trouble’ to approach Islam through the popular culture produced in a Muslim nation, but rather try to understand Islam either via the popular culture of countries which know nothing about Islam, or via that of cultures, sub-cultures or groups of individuals which are—let’s say—‘in bad terms’ with Islam. In so doing, those people amass a collection of destructive stereotypes that they mistake for the true essence of Islam and Muslims. Worse, they use those stereotypes as arguments and factual data upon which they formulate hasty generalizations about Islam and its culture. Consequently, deplorable are the backwashes of using popular culture as means of understanding the different ‘other.’
“Innocence of Muslims,” the blasphemous anti-Islam movie that astonishingly propagated throughout the social media six months ago, is one unarguable instance of the distortion that popular culture generates of a particular identity—Islam in this case. The movie, tremendously sacrilegious and irreverent towards the faith of Muslims, morphed from a low-quality, low-budget and ridiculous movie into a recurrent reference in the discourse of non-Muslims. Disturbingly, it is now repeatedly brought up by non-Muslims in debates about Islam; for the sake of illustration when approaching a feature pertaining to the Islamic culture; as a reference when engaging in a comparative discussion about Islam in relation to other religions, and so forth.
However, it would be an unrealistic and almost unconceivable thing to claim that one has to resist completely to any product of popular culture to ensure the accuracy of one’s knowledge about the different ‘other.’ Popular culture has become an inseparable constituent of people’s knowledge; it also is an academic area of inquiry, and has proved to be of enormous indispensability for the understanding of non-cultural phenomena, human behaviors, ideologies, etc. Instead of resisting to popular culture, one can resort to other ‘exits’ that can relatively assist in controlling our consumption and appliance of products from popular culture.
One has to keep a critical lens adjacent to him/her when intending to use popular culture in his/her understanding of a different culture. Not everything movies or books depict about Morocco, for example, is accurate. Even fact that a book on Morocco was published by a well-accredited foreign university, and written by a prominent scholar foreign to Moroccan culture, after presumably conducting extensive research on it does not forcibly mean that all the data that the book contains are unwaveringly true. The same thing applies to products of popular culture that are not built on research, comprising movies, magazines, pictures, music, etc.
Edward Said’s controversial book, Orientalism, comprehensibly tackles this issue of distorted representations of the different ‘other.’ Besides his comprehensible historical account of how ‘it all started,’ and besides the notions of power, hegemony and control that underlie the craft of representing the ‘other,’ as rigorously presented in his book, Said puts another critical issue in the academic limelight, relevant to what popular culture does, which is homogenizing the other; that is, making of a specific attribute, be it accurate or not, the essence of the other’s identity.
An example of the premise above is turning the delusive claim that ‘Islam is a religion of terror’ into a common knowledge among numerous groups of people –why? –because a book said so, or a movie depicted it as such, or a very popular, non-Muslim, platinum-holder singer said so in an interview answering the question ‘What is Islam for you?’ – and the sad news are: He watched that in a YouTube video, whereas he deplorably does not even know the name of its prophet.
Having considered Islam as an example for the sake of illustration in this article, I would like to conclude by sending out a message to our dear non-Muslims and those who use popular culture as a ‘telescope’ to visualize a distant and foreign culture:
If you want to understand Islam, ask a Muslim, but take the trouble, first of all, of finding a real and knowledgeable ‘Muslim’, for not every adherent to a particular religion knows much about it, and not everyone who claims he’s or she’s Muslim is stating the truth, and not everyone understands what the essence of his/her religion is. One more thing – get rid of your movies, books and other popular culture products about Islam, unless they are made by a scenarists, or a producers, authors, artists, etc. who know what they are portraying in their movies, and who can manage to represent Islam without distorting its image, and the constituents of its identity and significance; your criteria for assessment? Well, if you cannot prove something to be true, or if something is ambiguous, over simplistic, dramatized, foreign to the culture your attempting to understand, then disregard it – otherwise, you really don’t want to understand anything!
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