Cultural Imperialism Reconsidered

1        Culture and choice

Most of the time most people behave in ways that are compatible with the implicit “rules” of their respective cultures. In most cases they are not coerced. Globalization broadly construed however often changes people’s preferences, goals and behavior and some suggest that it is, to this extent, coercive: people are forced into a money economy, forced to adopt different customs, forced to behave in ways they didn’t behave before. Are they forced to change? Arguably sometimes they are and sometimes they aren’t

2        Coercion vs. free choice

To sort out the question of when, and to what extent globalization is coercive, that is whether it forces people to engage in practices or adopt ways of life they would otherwise reject we need to consider, more generally, when our actions can be understood as freely chosen and which kinds of conditions constitute constraints on free action.

3        Actions vs. happenings

As a preliminary, note that not all events that happen to me are actions, whether free or otherwise. Involuntarily bodily processes like digestion and the beating of my heart are not actions at all. Neither are some of the events that occur loser to the surface of my body, like tics and reflex “actions.” So, when we address the question of when actions are free or coerced we’re not thinking of these.

4        Constraints (or are they?)

4.1       Physical force and restraint

Uncontroversally, actions I am made to do by sheer physical force, including most obviously “negative actions” or acts of omission are not free actions. If I’m tied down, I am forced to remain still—a “negative action.” Where sheer physical force or restraint are not involved in this sense, it becomes problematic to distinguish between free actions and actions where, in one way or another, are the result of coercion. So, in order of increasing controversy, consider the following factors which have been cited as constraints on individuals’ ability to act freely.

4.2       Exorbitant costs (“your money or your life”)

When is a cost exorbitant, i.e. when does it count as a threat? Any market transaction involves decisions about whether to incur a cost to get what we want. But “your money or your life” is a threat: someone who gives up his money when this is the deal on offer is, intuitively, not acting freely. By contrast, people who give up their money to buy goods or services—including various kinds of non-interference are through to act freely. What’s the difference?

4.3       Irresistable incentives (“an offer you can’t refuse”)

Can providing people with more options ever be coercive? Consider Esau, who sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of pottage. Jacob made him an offer, provided him with an option that he otherwise wouldn’t have.

4.4       Coercive persuasion (“Brainwashing”)

People are often induced to acquire preferences they wouldn’t otherwise have in a variety of ways: rational argument, advertising, enculturation, “love-bombing,” etc. When is such persuasion coercive—if indeed it is? This poses the question of when individuals act “autonomously.” Is a gullable conformist, a dupe for rhetoric and advertising, who easily caves in to “social pressure” acting freely?

4.5       Lost innocence

Sometimes just finding out what possibilities are out there makes one dissatisfied with one’s lot. Is the provision of further information ever coercive? This is the most controversial case of all—arguably, the provision of further information can never impose a constraint on individual freedom.