In an entirely unscientific piece of research, an opportunity sample of five students aged 16-19 who happened to be taught by myself, were questioned at the end of an early spring Friday afternoon session discussing ethics, globalisation and cultural imperialism, ‘what do you think of when you think of British culture?’
Perhaps it was the time of day or the end of the week, but many of the responses revolved around food, with fish & chips (it was Friday after all) and a roast dinner on Sunday being particular favourites, along with that great British event, the trip to the seaside.
The link between food and culture is not new. It is believed that one of the reasons that culture developed among early homo sapiens is due to the fact that larger brains that were made possible through the discovery of fire and subsequently cooking and eating meat. For many cultures, food is a vital part of their culture and the enjoyment of food is a recreational activity rather than merely a necessity is common among most societies.
In this post-Brexit, pre-general election (scheduled for June 8th) atmosphere, it is as relevant to reflect on culture and identity, even if Brexit is less of a reason for the election than has been claimed by some in the past few days. Although we are individuals we can often be reduced to an identity that is assembled from an off the shelf collection of societal components and sub-cultures, as well as those labels that society likes to put upon us.
The rise of social media in particular has made it easier for us to gravitate around the sub-cultures in which we are interested whilst avoiding those that we don’t share or are abhorrent for us. It was a surprise for many left leaning Remain campaign voters on June 23rd 2016 when 51.9% of the voters opted to leave the European Union, because those voters were not represented significantly in their social media circles. There are a number of individuals who request publicly in their statuses that those who have opposite, usually right-wing views, kinly ‘unfriend’ them, and then are surprised when it turns out that there are more people with those views than they expected.
It can be disingenuous then to think of British culture as a homogenous entity, but rather a collection of overlapping, complicated, often contradictory sub-cultures, and individuals a collection of these sub-cultural forms in a self-assembled identity that is subject to change in our minds, ideals and beliefs, or so it should be.
There have been three major elections or votes (Brexit vote, US Presidential election, Turkish constitutional referendum) within the past year where the votes have been within a few percent, and where significant political and/or cultural divisions have become evident. Those who have won those elections, and in one case with a minority of the vote (US Presidential election) have claimed a larger mandate for the future than perhaps anything more than a casual analysis of those votes would suggest. These close results hint at the deep social and cultural divides that exist around the world at the moment, particular with recent rises in populism, although results in the Dutch general election in March suggest that it is not universal.
The entrenchment of two, increasingly antagonistic sides, runs the risk of reducing both the quality of debate around cultural issues as well failing to challenge those on all sides of the cultural, social and political spectrum to be willing to have their views openly debated and put under intellectual challenge by those with whom they disagree.