Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

In Defence of McDonaldisation

Written by johnleemk on 11:34:28 am Dec 11, 2006.

Globalisation, both in its cultural and economic forms, has often been opposed for its ostensible negative effects on non-Western societies. Significant efforts have been made to stop the march of economic globalisation, but likewise, economists have continually explained how economic globalisation will only benefit us all in the long run. It is for this reason that today I turn to the phenomenon of cultural globalisation - or as some put it, McDonaldisation - which, though often as heavily opposed as economic globalisation, has not seen much written in defence of it (except by some loony kooks, whose views are so ideologically-coloured as to render them worthless).

A disclaimer, however; I am one of those many in the developing world who have clearly been McDonaldised. After all, if I hadn't, I would not be writing this in English, but rather some Oriental language (which one I am not too sure, since my mixed cultural background complicates matters). As a sidenote for those opponents of economic globalisation, there is a chance I would not be writing this at all - or if I were, I would not be writing this on a personal computer.

At any rate, despite clearly being a "banana" - yellow on the outside and white on the inside - I feel somewhat qualified to develop a thesis justifying McDonaldisation (but not necessarily being a banana). It is important to separate the two concepts - one who has been exposed to Western culture is not necessarily a banana. This leads us to the first important point in any discussion of culture and ideas, which many seem to woefully ignore.

The point is: culture is not a zero-sum game (to borrow a little jargon from game theory). As proponents of the free software movement love to point out, ideas are not like physical goods, where if I take something from you, you have nothing. On the other hand, if I take your idea, you still have that idea; society as a whole is only enriched by the transaction because, in effect, it has gained something for nothing. In the same way, cultural exchanges are not exchanges where one culture will entirely supplant another, or where one culture can "invade" another without remaining completely unchanged. Interaction between different cultures always produces an interesting amalgam that tends to produce a synergy worth more than the sum of its parts.

It is absolutely beyond me how one can denigrate the natural flow of ideas and cultures created by the unshackling of humanity. No longer are we bound by the constraints of time and space - I can talk with a French-Taiwanese student in the UK, while emailing a Russian girl in Ireland, without ever crossing the threshold of my house. Such liberation would be something to be welcomed, not rejected as introducing alien influences to different societies. The same Western liberals who, given the chance, could waste hours of your life expounding on the bountiful benefits of liberty and freedom, would then tell you that the freedom afforded to mankind by globalisation is something to be feared instead of welcomed.

It cannot be denied that cultural globalisation results in the loss of old traditions, old languages, old mannerisms, and the like. But the same would happen, regardless of whether suddenly American television was banned from African airwaves, or whether Youtube was blocked from Chinese computer terminals. Cultures are not dead, fixed objects - they are constantly evolving, dynamic beings, ever-changing as new generations introduce new practices and ignore old ones. For every tradition that is lost, a new one is introduced. All globalisation has done is speed up this process of evolution, by allowing people worldwide to interact with one another. We have a true global "marketplace of ideas" now, and as happens in any marketplace, the best ideas, the best traditions, the most efficient media of communication, are all brought to the fore. This is of course at the expense of older, and probably valuable traditions - but as economists are fond of pointing out, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

In essence, opponents of globalisation merely think that these new traditions and ideas are inferior to the old ones. Globalisation is just a convenient scapegoat - a convenient whipping-boy - for these people. Eradicating "foreign influences" is not going to halt the evolution of culture - it will only slow it down. And needless to say, completely erasing access to foreign media is all but impossible - even in Malaysia, where we have had a "National Culture Policy" and "National Language Policy", this has not stemmed the inflow of foreign ideas, nor has the tide of the English language been prevented from washing upon our shores.

I have nothing to say with regard to those locals who oppose globalisation - differences of opinions are inevitable, especially between generations. (I would say, however, that the older generations tend to fight a losing battle.) I do have plenty, however, to say for those Westerners who would prefer to impose what they think is best for us on us. Much of the anti-globalisation literature I have read pours forth from the printing presses of Western countries, written with the ink of Western authors. The problem here is that these Westerners would presume to tell us what to do with our lives, and what culture is best for us. They cling to that ideal of the civilised savage - they seem to think that just by virtue of not being Western, other cultures must be "protected" by being insulated from the marketplace of ideas. Considering how these same people are the proponents of ideals such as liberty and freedom, it is terribly hypocritical of them to claim to speak on our behalf, and know what is best for us. They are no better than those idiots like American columnist Ann Coulter, who would love to see, say, Islam wiped off from the face of this earth.

The exchange of cultures is furthermore not a one-way street, nor is it as simple as one culture supplanting another. When two cultures meet, when two peoples meet, both parties walk away changed forever, and often for the better. Remember, globalisation accentuates the natural evolution of culture; it does not conflict with it, but rather aids it. The result of say, American culture meeting with Malaysian culture (and yes, damn it, there is such a thing as a Malaysian culture), is not a Malaysian + American culture, but a new culture that fuses different elements to create a new culture that is not recognisable as fully Malaysian or American. Take that favourite whipping boy of anti-globalists, economic and cultural: McDonald's. In the Philippines, McDonald's serves the Big Mac, like it would anywhere else in the world (except for India, where Hindu dietary regulations proscribe beef). But it also serves local favourites like, say, spaghetti. Similarly the Malaysian McDonald's differs from any other McDonald's in the world, because it serves dishes unique to Malaysian culture, like rice porridge. Even the condiments are different; I was aghast when I went to the US and couldn't find chilli sauce at any of the fast food restaurants I visited. In every country that globalisation has touched, the result is not a culture simply infused with elements of another culture; it is a culture that has evolved, aided by the external stimulus of that foreign culture.

And this cultural trade is never a one-way street, or if it is, it is not so for long. Anti-globalists often seem to think that all evil hails from the Great Satan, the United States of America. Incidentally, these same people often tend to be Americans - and they are flattering themselves far too much. I recall seeing an American once whinge about how American Idol was spreading across the globe. He was of course quickly corrected by a Brit, who pointed out that American Idol is an import; it was based on a British television show called Pop Idol. Likewise, in Malaysia, American culture is definitely a great influence - but so are the cultures of Spanish-speaking countries, whose soaps are a great hit on the local TV channels. And of course, anyone who would deny the influence of Japanese and Korean culture here is obviously one who is blind. Sure, countries everywhere are being McDonaldised - but these same countries spread their own cultures elsewhere as well. And in a great many cases, the exchange can even be a direct two-way street. After all, American baseball is close to the national sport of Japan, while Japanese anime seems to be the national pastime of just about every damn American teenager these days.

And as I love to point out, this is rarely at the complete direct expense of local cultures. The same Americans who are crazy about Naruto are hardly "Japanised". I have friends who are just about as Chinese, Tamil, Punjabi or Malay as anyone can hope to be, but at the same time, can appreciate a television show produced in Japan or relate to American cultural nuances nearly as well as one born and bred in the US of A. Actually, I think most people I know would easily adjust to living in the US, and adapt to American culture - but that does not mean they have been Americanised, or that they only relate to the American culture. We are still all, essentially Malaysian. This is what we're most comfortable with. I have heard numerous complaints about people who are ashamed of being, say, Chinese, and wish they were born White. While these people may exist, I have never met a single one of them. Just because we understand and appreciate another culture does not mean we would prefer to have been born into it.

I notice that I have spoken about how in the marketplace of ideas, the superior ideas will come out on top. Some may take umbrage at the suggestion that particular cultures are superior to other cultures. However, let us be objective: a joke that makes more people laugh will always be more popular. A song that can make more people happy will always be more popular. A culture of life will always defeat a culture of death. In the context of ideas, particular ones will always be more preferred, more efficient, more enjoyed, more favoured, than others.

Whether this is something to be welcomed is of course another question. After all, this purely utilitarian approach suffers from a problem that utilitarian John Stuart Mills first identified in the 19th century: the tyranny of the majority. For instance, every decade, we lose certain languages, certain cultures, certain traditions, that while not necessarily favoured by many, contribute to cultural diversity and enable us to learn more about ourselves. As one example, linguists have managed to prove and disprove many hypotheses about the way we think from studying arcane languages - perhaps most famously, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (that if we cannot verbalise a particular concept, we cannot think of it) was disproven through such studies.

There is no clear cut and dried solution to such a problem. However, even if globalisation was not taking place - if all economic development was grounded to a standstill (a highly impractical proposition, by the way) - cultural evolution would still take place. We would still inevitably lose these cultures and languages to the mists of time. This, of course, is hardly comforting - but despite this being a heavy cost to bear, globalisation in the main still offers benefits that far outweigh the price we must pay. That is not to say that we should irresponsibly eradicate old cultures and ideas, but it is to say that if we do end up doing so, we should not revolt against globalisation. Globalisation is far too important to humanity - and its momentum too difficult to halt - that we should react in the kneejerk way that many anti-globalists have.

If none of this is convincing at all, you just have to remember that economic and cultural globalisation go together. The two are different concepts, but they are concepts joined at the hip. You cannot have one without the other. Money makes the world go round - money drives the marketplace of ideas. You cannot export Japanese anime without money; you cannot press Eminem's CDs without money; you cannot write a 2000-word essay in defence of globalisation without money. If you accept economic globalisation, you must accept cultural globalisation as well. And economic globalisation's benefits are undeniable - those who aren't convinced would do well to read The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford of the Financial Times. If you don't have the money or time for that, Google some essays by Paul Krugman - a noted left-leaning economist - on globalisation.

If that still does not convince you, just look at one simple case study: the two Koreas. South Korea embraced globalisation, economic and cultural, while North Korea rejected it. Today, South Korea is an economic powerhouse, with the average household's internet connection blazing past that of any other developed country's in terms of speed. South Koreans have notably imported some aspects of foreign cultures, such as a fetish for video gaming - but there is a distinctly different, uniquely Korean aspect to it. (Tell me, where else on this planet will you find a professional video gamer who is considered a sex symbol?) And at the same time, South Korea is spreading its culture across the region - its movies and TV shows are selling like hot cakes across Asia. It won't be long before they reach Europe and the Americas as well. (Poor Africa will have to wait, for reasons obviously beyond the ken of this article.) And as for North Korea? It's the economic basketcase of the world - far worse off than any African country. I rest my case.

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