Culture Question:

Could you find one word or phrase to describe Western Culture?

(posted: Sep 2010)


I did pose this question to a number of friends of mine in Canada and it lead to some interesting email conversations.

I will share some of them here:

"Doomed"? "Unsustainable"?

Okay, I don't really want any Chinese students thinking our "way of life", as it's commonly perceived, to be desirable. Mind you, I don't really want any Canadian students thinking that, either.

Anyway, one word sure won't do it justice. I'm not sure one phrase will, either. A more conventional approach (compared with the depressing one above) might be "openness, rights and responsibility", but it's not really a phrase in the sense the student was looking for, I suspect.

I'd like to know what the student would say if the same question were asked of him/her.

Western culture is...

    • voraciously expanding by assimilating anything of value that it finds in other cultures
    • multi-faceted and endlessly complex

A word or phrase isn't going to do it. But I think I can sum it up in less than a page.

Western culture is based on:

  • The rule of law
  • Property rights (which often transcend human rights)
  • Freedom of speech and the press
  • Freedom of religion and secular government
  • The right to assemble to talk to each other. (As long as you are not going to riot, and as long as the police don't riot.)
Western cultures assumes that the individual is as important as the collective and that individual freedom should only be limited by the rights of others.
  • Your right to swing your fist stops at my nose.
Of course culture is a big word, and includes the whole history of western literature, not only writings in English but also French, Italian, German, and Russian. Movies, plays, music, art, cuisine, and recognized relationships between people.

Most recently, Western culture has been defined by consumerism, the industrialization of just about everything from entertainment, food, gadgets and cars to ideas, removal of people from any relationship with the natural world, the source of their food, or the source of their money.

So, one word of phrase? No. Lots of shared assumptions, values and ideals which collectively make a culture, yes.


The one word that first sprang to mind was "materialistic".

But Western culture encompasses a whole lot more than our recent way of life, and it is indeed very rich, diverse, and as you said, multi-faceted and complex.

I think our concept of rights is very central to our culture, but also our long history of arts and sciences, and our philosophies, form a very important part of this culture.




Multi-faceted? Ambiguous? Unbelievably diverse?

How about: A Myth?

It is my belief that Western Culture, as such, is a work in progress rather than a set standard.

As the West is actually made up of various regional cultures - and in some of those cultures the line between East and West is somewhat blurred - there really is no one thing that defines Western Culture to me. The more people move away from places of regional/ancestral origin, the more the lines are blurred as to what actually constitutes cultural norms.

This has resulted in taking the very best - and sadly, sometimes the worst - of various cultures/societies/beliefs and blending them into other cultures/societies/beliefs.

North American culture differs from European culture (which is itself broken down by country and region) and each is in the process of changing.

Immigration brings new and different ideas/beliefs/mores into the larger framework, and both the old and new are changed.

Not always in an overwhelming manner, but a tweaking here and there occurs.

The process is not yet complete.

Mind you, I do not believe there can be a true "Western Culture". We are connected to one another on a global level, and ideas and traditions are invariably exchanged. It is unavoidable and inevitable.

Perhaps that is the way to describe Western Culture -- adaptable and ever-changing.

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