The Importance of Cultural Heritage

Cultural heritage is the backbone of every nation around the world. Culture was developed naturally in the lives of every human being. It provides individuals with an automatic sense of unity and belonging within a group and allows people to share stories of the past and the history of where we come from.

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Cultures are not developed over a decade or even a century but require many years of practice to be considered as the tradition and culture of a particular place or a country. For example, the country of Bhutan has relied on it’s geographic isolation and their government to protect their culture from outside influences. A small populated country bordered by India to the south, Bhutan has maintained a strict isolation both culturally and economically with the goal of preserving its own cultural heritage and independence (GCC News). In the 20th century, the Bhutan government started allowing limited numbers of foreigners to visit the country. In this way, Bhutan has successfully preserved many aspects of its culture, art, architecture and handicrafts which date back to the mid 17th century.

The emergence of the concept of cultural heritage is a result of a long historical development in which different values are attached to tangible cultural heritage such as monuments, buildings, works of arts, artifacts, landscapes and intangible cultural heritage such as rituals, language and traditions. The destruction and misuse of these significant cultural elements has a lot to do with the controversial issues that are related to cultural arrogance, cultural appropriation and cultural borrowing in today’s society. Instead of taking the time to learn and understand the traditions of a particular culture, people often take elements of culture for their own personal gain.

Cultural heritage and traditions represent a critical piece of culture. Both constituents form the structure and foundation of our families and society. They remind people that they are part of a history that defines their past, shapes who they are today and who they can become. If they ignore the meaning of our traditions, they are in danger of diminishing our identity.

Culture is an important part of many people’s lives. It influences views, values, hopes, loyalties and the way we take action in today’s society. For this reason, It is important that when an individual is working with different people and building relationships with them, they have some perspective and an understanding of different cultures. As we explore culture, it is important to acknowledge the fact that while we do have differences, we also have many things in common with others. Many people observe the world very differently, but they know what it is like to wake up and face another day. We are all human beings. We were all taught to love, learn, to have hopes and dreams, and we all experience pain and fear. However we cannot pretend our individual cultural differences do not matter. In today’s society, it is common for people not to acknowledge other cultures and their traditions and as a result to disrespect and even discriminate against them.

One particular example of an issue associated with cultural heritage is the issue of cultural arrogance. Cultural arrogance is considered an attitude of superiority in an overbearing manner. It often implies that one believes or acts as though their culture or beliefs are better than another culture. The recent death of American missionary John Allen Chau caused a lot of controversy after the young missionary was killed approaching the shores of North Sentinel Island. This young man from Washington state had decided that the small tribe on a remote island needed him to personally deliver them a taste of his religion. A self-styled Christian missionary, Chau tried to foist his presence and beliefs on the Sentinelese tribe who wished to be left alone. What he found was an early grave. Chau did not die from the tribes. He was killed by his own arrogance. (Review News). John Allen Chau’s death was a result of cultural arrogance. The Sentinelese who killed John Allen Chau were soldiers defending their culture and society against a potential threat; they were not murderers. Chau met his fate after ignoring the rules and regulations, as well as the warnings that were given to him by authorities to protect the Sentinelese people.

The Sentinelese were expected to respond to his intrusion exactly as they did. Chau brought his death upon himself. When people are unaware or chose not to respect the beliefs and practices of cultural groups, they could harm the people of that culture and also themselves. Those who adopt ideas of another culture may only be interested in what they have to offer and hope to gain from it by selfishly adopting the cultures values. It is important that tourists take the time to learn and develop different elements of a culture before representing these cultures. It is a code and form of respect that should be followed by all. Cultural arrogance can also imply that one believes or acts as though their culture is better than another culture. For example, there are a lot of Americans who arrogantly assume that Americans are better than Europeans or there are Japanese who believe they are superior to Chinese. In the US, Americans tend to believe that the American way of life is better or more superior than any other country when it comes to pursuing life goals, freedom and happiness. When people watch American films, they are given a over-fantasize the idea of the “American dream” and they promote the ideal of the american lifestyle to make Americans appear more dominant than other cultures.

Another example of an problem associated with cultural heritage is the issue of Culture appropriation. Cultural appropriation is the taking of intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from another culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc (Thought.co). In a way it can harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been racially discriminated or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation hold a significant meaning to them, e.g. sacred items. In the United States, cultural appropriation tends to involve people of the dominant culture (or those who identify with it) borrowing from minority cultural groups. African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans and Africans are often targeted for Cultural Appropriation(thought.co).

For example, ancient African artifacts like Traditional mask have been stolen and replicated to sell to people all around the world. African artefacts have also been stolen from archaeological sites and placed on display in European museums. Cultural Appropriation takes many forms. Native American fashion, decoration, cultural symbols and designs, and Asian martial arts and dress have been targeted for cultural appropriation. In many cases, Buddhist designed tattoos, Muslim-inspired headdresses as fashion, the wearing of native american headdresses for halloween and white gay men adopting the dialect of black women are other examples of cultural appropriation that are often called out (Thought.co). The examples are endless but it is important to consider the context of these situations. For example, is a tattoo performed on a person because it holds significance to that person or is the person receiving the tattoo because think it is cool? Why are musicians like Pharrell appearing on the front page of Elle fashion magazine wearing a traditional Native American headdress when this is considered a sacred item of the Native American culture which is only to be worn by war chiefs and warriors of native tribes?

Cultural appropriation is a huge concern for many reasons. For one, the concept of negative stereotypes is exploitative because it robs cultural groups of the respect and acknowledgement they ultimately deserve. In addition, a variety of Art and music forms had originated from minority cultural groups who then became associated with members of the dominant cultural groups who have been known to discredit the minority. The dominant group is usually deemed innovative, while the minority group are labelled with negative stereotypes that imply they lack in intelligence and creativity. During the 2013 American Music Awards, Katy Perry performed with a geisha-inspired performance of her new single, “Unconditionally.”

She claimed that she was paying homage to the Japanese culture. Asian Americans disagreed as they believed that her “yellowface”performance. They also believed there was an issue with the song choice, “Unconditionally,” with the stereotypical presentation of a passive Asian women. What one person perceives as a tribute to a culture, another group of people will perceive as a mockery or a form of disrespect. Katy Perry may not have intended to hurt or afford asian people, however, it was considered offensive that she was taking parts of the Japanese culture to promote her music. She took the beautiful, visual elements of the culture but did not embrace the significant and core traditions associated with it.

When adopting anything from a foreign culture it is crucial to follow some fundamental steps to create cultural awareness and avoid being accused of cultural appropriation. There are many people who have made cultural infringements that have affected another person or another cultural group without even realizing they are doing so. For this reason, it is important that people are aware of the steps they need to take to embrace other cultures and to also avoid disrespecting cultures unintentionally. The first step you should take towards avoiding cultural appropriation is to take the time to research the culture. Prior to adopting another culture, it pays to properly research and understand it. Taking elements of a culture without respect, knowledge or insight will ultimately lead to accusations of cultural theft and misrepresentation.

The second step is to ensure you do not overlook the sacred traditions of a culture. In western societies, it can be easy to completely ignore the sacred aspect of a culture. What might seem like a joke, or an innocent mistake to some, can actually cause serious distress and anger to others. Much of the world still holds some things sacred, whether that be God, gods, spirits, or any other symbolism. Using and abusing the sacred is an absolute no-no, unless you intentionally want to cause trouble.

The third step is to avoid encouraging shallow, one-dimensional stereotypes of a culture. One of the biggests problems with adopting from other cultures is that it can be based on stereotypes, which are often negative and incorrect. Stereotypes are often rigid generalized ideas that society imposes on others with whom they are unfamiliar or do not understand. The less people know about another person or cultural group, the more people have become dependent on stereotypes.. Hence, it is important that people decided to make a conscious effort to learn about a culture in more depth to understand it’s true identity and to avoid shallow stereotypes.

The fourth step is to acknowledge the diversity of the culture that you are embracing and promoting. An understanding of other cultures and traditions is vital when it comes to the long-term survival of humanity on earth. According to UNESCO, the conservation of many cultures and, in particular indigenous cultures is as important as the conservation of species and ecosystems to life (Butterworth-Heinemann). When people take the time to pay attention to the significance of other cultures and traditions, people are able develop a wider perspective and succeed in different areas of life. Recognizing and acknowledging other cultures is important aspect in the workforce as it encourages mutual knowledge and understanding between people by encouraging education and spreading culture and knowledge. For example, paying attention to the cultural differences in a business company can raise levels of co-operation and capitalize on different skills and abilities which can be an important asset in the productivity of a company. The ability to understand and utilize cultural differences can provide can cause a company to become a competitive threat.

Overall, it is important that people take the time to engage, promote and share the benefits of embracing the true traditions of a culture. It is important to engage with the culture you are adopting from to avoid cultural appropriation. Spend time in it, understand it, and then when you use a pattern, symbol, headdress or anything else, make sure you use that platform to promote that culture, its people and if possible share the benefits. To effectively build communities that are powerful enough to change, we need more people working together. If cultural groups join forces, they will be more effective in reaching common goals, than if each group operates in isolation.

Every culture has unique strengths and perspectives that all other cultures can benefit from. If people take the time to truly understand different cultures, there would be less racial and ethnic divisions. Racial and ethnic divisions result in misunderstandings, loss of opportunities, and can also lead to violence. Racial and ethnic conflicts drain communities of financial and human resources and they distract cultural groups from resolving the key issues they have in common.

An appreciation of cultural diversity is strongly connected to with an equal society. For example, research reveals that when students’ cultures are understood and they are appreciated by teacher, the students and friends, they tend to do better in school. In turn, students are more accepted and they feel as though they are a part of the school community. Hence, they work harder to achieve in life, and they are more successful in school. If we do not learn about the influences that cultural groups have had on our different cultures, we are all going to miss out on an accurate view of society and our communities. We would lose the unique, sacred, and beautiful part of who we are and also lose the meaning behind the traditions and beliefs of our ancestors.

Cultural heritage is the glue that binds us together as people. If we value our heritage, we can then to pass it on to our children with a little bit of ourselves attached to it. What we do now, how we live our lives and the character we build, will add to the heritage we leave behind for the next generation. It is important that people address the cultural issues of cultural arrogance, cultural appropriation and cultural borrowing so that we can continue to protect and preserve the importance of cultural heritage. The present is our priority. We need to protect and maintain what is still left of our culture heritage to ensure that the next generation can also embrace it.

Cited sources

  1. Barker, Neave. “Bhutan: What It Means to Be Happy in the ‘Happiest Country’.” GCC News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 31 Oct. 2018, www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/10/bhutan-means-happy-happiest-country-181031111711933.html.
  2. Fallas, Amy.”The Landmark 85-Year-Old Report Absent From Debates Over Missionary’s Death” Rewire News, Nov. 29, 2018, https://rewire.news/religion-dispatches/2018/11/29/the-landmark-85-year-old-report-absent-from-debates-over-missionarys-death/
  3. Feeney, Nolan.”Katy Perry’s ‘Geisha-Style’ Performance Needs to Be Called Out”, The Atlantic, NOV 25, 2013
  4. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/11/katy-perrys-geisha-style-performance-needs-to-be-called-out/281805/
  5. Nittle, Nadra. “A Guide to Understanding and Avoiding Cultural Appropriation”, Thought.co. June 01, 2018, https://www.thoughtco.com/cultural-appropriation-and-why-iits-wrong-2834561
  6. Reisinger, Yvette. “International Tourism: Cultures and Behavior”. Butterworth-Heinemann, 2008.
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