Cultural Habits: Far More Than the Sum of Their Parts

For decades now, it has been fashionable to condemn, discredit, or deconstruct anything generally understood to be Western.  Most recently, this has been accomplished by associating racism with whatever aspect of Western civilization is under scrutiny.  Classical music, literature, grammar, and even gardening have all been attacked for being tainted by the colonialist enterprise or for being suffused with white supremacy.

I want to take a look at a seemingly trivial example of this phenomenon in order to consider what it reveals about our historical moment and its intellectual underpinnings.  While this example of cultural demolition hails from Britain and concerns a cultural practice considered fundamentally British, what we can glean from it has social implications for all Western nations that find themselves face to face with today's Visigoths.

Since 2009, with only one short interruption, the BBC has produced a children's comedy television series under the title Horrible Histories, featuring the crude, the cruel, and the revolting in history.  Naturally, at least among the younger demographic, the show was quite popular.  It also won numerous awards, including the BAFTA children's award.  In 2020, to commemorate Brexit, it offered an episode composed of a selection of sketches from previous years' episodes.  One of them, featuring a song first aired in 2009 titled "British Things," generated quite a bit of controversy this time around.  The sketch was intended to lampoon English assumptions about their inventions and "Britishisms" by pointing out that there really aren't any.  And the central British cultural practice targeted for erasure in the sketch is "British tea."

In this skit, "Queen Victoria" asks her butler for tea, only to be enlightened regarding the ugly realities associated with this seemingly innocuous custom while he serves it.  The butler inundates her (in song) with facts concerning the drink's association with slave labor, from the tea itself to the sugar with which it is sweetened.  Most importantly for the purposes of this essay, the butler informs his monarch of the shocking truth that tea is not from Britain.

Now, this was an observation that quite a few creators — eager to jump on this anti-English ideological bandwagon — picked up and ran with.  Suddenly, there appeared a raft of videos decrying the alleged "Britishness" of certain customs or trumpeting the "theft" of aspects of British culture from other countries, thus "proving" that Britain has no culture of its own.  In all of these, the observation that tea is not originally from England is pronounced in the ultimate "gotcha" tones, despite its origins usually being misattributed in these amateur productions (as well as in the aforementioned BBC take) to India.  Some wunderkinds even lumped it in with all the things from around the world that Britain "stole."  (Yes, there are a plethora of videos on that theme.)

Witting or not, most of these productions are crude attempts to deconstruct elements of English culture by exposing the foreign origins of things known the world over as "British," as if once foreign origins are proven, the practice as a singularly British phenomenon unravels.  The result?  Britain ceases to have a culture and essentially evaporates as a distinct place.

But what a bizarre notion this all rests on!  For the underlying premise here is that if a thing has foreign origins, a different country's claim to it as fundamental to its culture is negated.

When I first encountered this absurdity, I wondered how anyone could think the origin of a thing is a constitutive element in how it transforms into a cultural practice elsewhere.  For instance, China invented noodles (as well as tea, unbeknownst to these opinion-makers), but the culinary delight that pasta dishes eventually became as a staple of Italian culture is a long way off from those noodles that originally hailed from the East.

The premise I referred to above rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of what cultural practices are and what meaning they have to a people, an opinion I discovered was shared by others.  While many high-profile media personalities quibbled with the historical inaccuracies in the BBC sketch in question, one of the most astute responses to this cultural vandalism came from media influencer Carl Benjamin, more popularly known as Sargon of Akkad.  Benjamin produced at least two videos in response to the Brexit sketch.

In one, during the course of a shrewd analysis, he puts forward a couple of observations that had occurred to me when I first saw one of these inane productions, the most central being how absurd it is to totalize the ritual of "British tea" as the tea itself, mistaking the whole for the sum of — or even one of — its parts.  As Benjamin points out, not only was tea planted in India by the British rather than stolen, but it is irrelevant where tea came from in the first place.  Why?  Because the experience of tea transcends the particulars of which the ritual is composed.  Tea is situated in a cultural practice that is much greater in significance than the steeping of rolled, dried, and fermented leaves in hot water.  It isn't the thing itself, the tea, that is the central element in the practice of "afternoon tea," but something else — the meaning of the ritual to those who participate in it.

For instance, consider how different the practice of Japanese tea is from British tea.  Early on after its introduction to Japan, "Japanese tea" became a ritual whose purpose was to encourage disengagement with the cares of the world.  It was associated with a specific sort of place — a small, austere structure set in a garden at the end of a pathway composed of natural elements chosen specifically to begin the visitor's transition to a state of tranquility.  As one walked along that path, one shed one's worldly burdens and entered the tea house prepared to consummate one's inner peace with the drinking of tea, itself a highly ritualized, tightly orchestrated process.

British tea time was something else again.  The entire world correctly associates it with a particular sort of aesthetic — a table carefully set with China and gleaming silverware loaded with dainty sandwiches, scones, and an array of scrumptious desserts.  This vision of upper-class British tea is still sought all over the globe and is experienced in places which manifest the same aesthetic — delicate beauty.  But while this version of the ritual betokens moneyed gentility, the reality is that the British quickly became obsessed with tea at all social levels from its earliest importation from China.  The tea break was as important as the tea itself — so much so that in the late 19th century, tea breaks were bargained for by English trade unions, usually successfully.  

These two cultures' superficially different experience of leaves steeped in hot water might very well be summed up by the words of Chinese sage T'ien Yiheng: "Tea is drunk to forget the din of the world."  And that is precisely the meaning of this ritual to the British — the brief suspension of toil accompanied by as much ritual as one can manage.  And it is ultimately ritual that defines the experience.

Image via Max Pixel.

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