Wednesday 15 August 2012

"Outsider Behaviour" and Cultures Made for Export

This is an adaptation of a short essay I wrote as an undergraduate which I believe has useful applications to present-day society.

In summary, this is a look at how an ostensibly "weak" culture can come to influence one that is "strong" by essentially marketing itself for export, over-emphasising exotic and interesting qualities to draw attention to itself. Such cultures create new identities that can be adopted by foreign "consumers" seeking to define themselves in new ways. The Romano-Egyptian cult of Isis is a notable example mentioned here. Developed in more central parts of the Roman Empire, it took hold among groups of people who, for whatever reason, felt the need to behave in an idiosyncratic "Egyptian" fashion. It certainly did not escape my notice that this activity has about it some reminiscences of the young conservative at Oxford in my recent post. Feeling the need to act like a member of the "upper class" around his friends to conceal his disadvantaged background, he comes across merely as peculiar and pretentious.

The main disadvantage for the outsider culture in such a relationship however is that it makes itself entirely reactionary. The basis of its existence is gradually transformed under the terms of the "strong" culture, and it eventually loses any self-determinism or ability to develop organically in a healthy way. In the end, it becomes a weird curiosity, maintained only by the few remaining adherents who, for whatever reason, feel no shared identity with the dominant culture.

Remember the martial arts craze in the 80's that drew lots of aspiring ninjas to disciplines such as kung fu and karate, fuelled by popular films such as The Karate Kid? In such an environment, leaders of schools would have found it beneficial to acquire the characteristics of stereotypical "martial arts masters", even though many of those qualities were entirely fictional, created for the world of cinema and having no real equivalent in their respective countries (martial arts, or "wushu", are rarely taught in conjunction with mysticism in the famous Shaolin Temple in China, for example, and in such cases it is a lengthy education, often spanning multiple decades). The same thing happens in Roman Egypt, when such features as oracles, magicians (the original source of the famous tale The Sorcerer's Apprentice!) and the aforementioned cult acquire reputations abroad which then lead to the re-adoption of stereotypical traits in their country of origin, largely aimed at attracting interest from outsiders. What I am not suggesting is that native Chinese culture is "weak" - far from it - but what I seek to point out here is how some very quirky and unnatural cultural behaviours can come to assert themselves even in fairly normal situations.

Broadly speaking therefore, it is observed that those who feel themselves to be "outsiders" in a social relationship tend to respond to what they take to be cues from the other party, developing behaviours that naturally belong to neither.

Becoming an "Insider": Kingship and Indigenous Ideology in Roman Egypt

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