The theory of “cultural hegemony,” developed by the late Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci in the 1930s, might have been misconstrued at the time, but its basic insight into the influence of culture on behavior, values and policy remain as topical as ever. It may even be argued that the ubiquity of technology has allowed cultural hegemony to wield a far greater stranglehold on cultural diversity than ever before.
Gramsci’s insight unmasked how the ruling class controlled society not only through its institutions, but also - and more importantly - by the domination of culture. Cultural norms are portrayed as self-evident and eternal truths, thereby exposing dissent to ridicule or social excommunication.
Today we would say that the rulers define and control the narrative.
Recently the Western-centric cultural paradigm evangelized by tech was buttressed by the decisions of Facebook’s Oversight Board. These decisions are largely based on the assumption that all moral, ethical or any other judgements (1) are or should be the same all over the world and (2) that they should reflect American or “Western” values and norms.
This paradigm of universality is, however, pegged on the infinite nature of tech rather than on reflection or philosophical analysis of the appropriateness of the belief.
The paradigm seeks moral recognition and support from human rights. Many believe that the promotion of uniform cultural values is somehow a “human rights obligation,” given that foundational human rights like free speech are universal by nature. By conflating tech universality with human rights universality, the realm of cultural values is subsumed into the maelstrom of Western norms.
Take as an example nude photos. Whether or not they are deemed appropriate is strictly a cultural phenomenon. The point is not the specific decision of the Facebook Oversight Board, which dealt with nude photos in the context of breast exams, but the fact that this private corporation (and now its Oversight Board) has elevated itself to exercise universal judgement on a culturally specific subject.
Another example of the Westernization of cultural paradigms is the failure to “regulate” cartoons and the degrading treatment of religious figures. These have somehow become vital to free speech, and the failure to recognize the existential dimension to other cultures of the sacred nature of their beliefs is conveniently justified by the pursuit of “agnosticism” - a new universal cultural value.
In the name of free speech social media have anointed themselves guardians of human rights worldwide, but in their quest for consumer influence they have usurped a right to impose Western morals and values on other cultures. It’s almost a modern version of Manifest Destiny and the primacy of individual rights (a capitalist ethos) over collective rights - a remake of the paradox reflected in the Declaration of Fluman Rights from 1948, which resulted in the UN adopting two separate human rights treaties in the 1960s: The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
No nation has the right to raise its own values and norms above those of other civilizations, and that principle necessarily extends to corporate shadows.
Unfortunately history abounds with the horrific consequences of such an approach. This is one of the reasons why the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions was developed under the auspices of UNESCO in 2005.
It’s imperative that the universality of Western norms be seriously re-examined and that social media adopt a respectful attitude to cultural diversity by applying regional norms to the territories they operate in or target.
This is precisely the objective of an “Internet Ombudsman” - a state-based institution providing non-binding guidance to social media on local cultural values. The Council of Europe adopted the recommendation to create such ombudsmen in September 2020.
In addition to protecting cultural differences, it provides legal certainty to social media when confronted with the difficult judgment calls pitting free speech against hurtful content.
Cultural hegemony canonized by human rights could be contained by such a regional or “civilizational” ap-proach. The consequences of the unbridled export of Western norms are destructive to traditions, intergen- erational harmony, social fabric and cohesion as well as national identity, local languages, artistic expres¬sion and creeds.
Dan Shefet is a Paris-based lawyer specializing in European and human rights law, and information technology law in particular. This article was first published in the Greek newspaper “Real News,” in collaboration with the Greek Representation to the European Commission and the Democracy & Culture Foundation.