because ‘art’ can be a reductive notion, i’ve decided to start a new ‘thread’ (if you will) on culture in general. the word ‘culture’ suggests a myriad of things–it could range from having heavily religious implications to referring to the creative or industrial production of a society. even within the productive sector, different subcultures emerge: film culture, coffee culture, food culture, etc.

as this is my first post on culture in general, rather than art, i’m going to start with the comparison of two major cultural tendencies based solely on tradition and pertaining to the roles expected of people in these societies: individualistic cultures vs. collectivist cultures. these are some of the most common terms to identify the difference between western and eastern cultures respectively.

western culture is associated with capitalism, democracy, and individualism, and encourages one to focus on themselves rather than on the collective. the focus can sometimes extend onto immediate family members, but rarely ever beyond that. this is known as ‘me’ culture, which recognizes individuals (past a certain age) as being responsible for their own autonomy and well-being, and is intent on applauding and highlighting individual efforts of success. thus, the higher one climbs the corporate ladder, the more one owns, and the more they’ve done, essentially, for their own well-being, the more successful they are considered.

eastern culture is more often associated with communist tendencies and collectivism (particularly in far-eastern nations). one is expected not only to take care of themselves, but also those around them whom they are capable of helping. efforts are expected to extend beyond the nuclear family, as family and community are important in traditional, collectivist societies which thus might be known as ‘we’ cultures that prioritize the group over the individual. unlike in western culture, successes are celebrated in terms of the collective effort that brought them about, and the responsibility of failures is similarly shared. furthermore, the nobility or iniquity of a person’s success or failure is measured in relation to its effect on the collective: the nuclear family, the extended family, and even the state, meaning that the highest of achievements is one that benefits not only one’s relatives, but one’s entire community.

another major difference between eastern and western cultures is religion. while western culture is predominantly monotheistic, with populations adhering mainly to christianity, judaism, or islam, people of eastern cultures generally tend toward more spiritual and polytheistic practices of religion. however, there are traces of monotheism, particularly islam, in the east, with significant communities in places like india, china, and pakistan.

eastern peoples also tend to be more traditional in terms of the way they interact with one another, the way they form relationships, the way they dress, etc. as well as in their attitudes towards nature and technological development. people of eastern cultures are more likely to develop a connection with the earth and are more disposed towards holistic healing rather than western medicine. specific headdresses or skirts for women, arranged marriages, gestures of respect–such practices are common to eastern culture, practices which western peoples are inclined to interpret as primitive or encroaching on freedoms. in individualist, western cultures, notions such as personal space and freedom of choice (which are virtually nonexistent in some eastern societies) are of utmost importance, and customs such as arranged marriages and headdresses are blatant infringements on said notions.

none of this is to say which culture is ‘better’ than the other. years ago i watched a ted talk by an indian professor on the freedom (and the burden) of choice. she revealed how the infringement of the freedom of one person might be the alleviation of a burden off another. because there are a myriad of factors at play consistently shaping our personality–upbringing, society, home life, school, peers, television, etc.–the question of which culture is ‘better’ or more suited for someone always comes down to the individual themselves. in the ted talk, the professor demonstrated how young indian high school graduates would more often than not prefer to have their family’s help in deciding what major they should enroll in, while young americans are more likely to enroll as undeclared majors for a year or two, and choose their major based on their comfort with the courses. most importantly, young americans want to make the decision by themselves. it is considered almost a right of passage.

there are of course those cultures which fall somewhere in between, like my own. in lebanon there are whiffs of collectivism–big family get-togethers, nosy aunts, marriage arrangement attempts, sometimes successful, oftentimes not–but in the absence of a stable ‘collective’, or nation-state, there is also a heavy streak of individualism, or little individual clusters of checked-collectivism, balancing on the policies of messy feudalism. and while each extreme has its strengths and weaknesses, it’s safe to say that the wobbly middle-ground is more unstable than it once seemed.

i’m sure there’s a lot more to say about the differences between east and west culture, so if anyone is reading this, please add what you know below.

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