Cultural cringe

Cultural cringe

Cultural cringe, in cultural studies and social anthropology, is an internalized inferiority complex which causes people in a country to dismiss their own culture as inferior to the cultures of other countries. It is closely related, although not identical, to the concept of colonial mentality, and is often linked with the display of anti-intellectual attitudes towards thinkers, scientists and artists who originate from a colonial or post-colonial nation. It can also be manifested in individuals in the form of 'Cultural alienation'. In many cases, cultural cringe, or an equivalent term, is an accusation made by a fellow-national, who decries the inferiority complex and asserts the merits of the national culture.


The term Cultural cringe was coined after the Second World War by the Melbourne critic and social commentator A. A. Phillips, and defined in an influential and highly controversial 1950 essay of the same name. It explored ingrained feelings of inferiority that local intellectuals struggled against, and which were most clearly pronounced in the Australian theatre, music, art and letters. The implications of these insights potentially applied to all former colonial nations, and the essay is now recognised as a cornerstone in the development of post-colonial theory in Australia.

In essence, Phillips pointed out that the public widely assumed that anything produced by local dramatists, actors, musicians, artists and writers was necessarily deficient when compared against the works of the British and European counterparts. In the words of the poet Chris Wallace-Crabbe (quoted by Peter Conrad), Australia was being made to rhyme with failure. The only ways local arts professionals could build themselves up in public esteem was either to follow overseas fashions, or, more often, to spend a period of time working in Britain.

In some professions this ingrained attitude heavily affected employment opportunities. British- or European-born applicants would be given preferential treatment when applying for jobs, with only those Australians who had worked in London being treated as worthy of appointment or promotion. In this way the cultural cringe caused, during the early to mid 20th century, the exodus to Britain of many young talented Australians across a broad range of fields, from the Arts to even the Sciences. They had to spend time working there to advance in their own fields back home. The cultural cringe also was responsible for many former Britons holding senior positions in Australia's public sector.

Much of this could be readily applied to many former colonial nations. Dealing specifically with Australia, Phillips pointed out that sport has been the only field in which ordinary people accepted that their nation was able to perform and excel internationally. Indeed, while they prided themselves on the qualities of locally produced athletes and sportsmen, whom they invariably considered first rate, Australians behaved as if in more intellectual pursuits the nation generated only second-rate talent. The cultural cringe might therefore be seen as contributing to a strong strand of anti-intellectualism that has underpinned public life in Australia.

Cultural alienation

The cultural cringe is tightly connected with "cultural alienation", that is, the process of devaluing or abandoning one's own culture or cultural background. A person who is culturally alienated places little value on their own or host culture, and instead hungers for that of a - sometimes imposed - colonising nation. The post-colonial theorists Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin link alienation with a sense of dislocation or displacement some peoples (especially those from immigrant cultures) will feel when they look to a distant nation for their values. Culturally alienated societies often exhibit a weak sense of cultural self-identity and place little worth on themselves. The most common manifestation of this alienation among peoples from post-colonial nations at present is an appetite for all things American, from television and music, to clothing, slang, even names. Culturally alienated individuals will also exhibit little knowledge or interest in the history of their host society, placing no real value on such matters.

The issue of Cultural alienation has led the Australian sociologists Brian Head and James Walter to interpret the cultural cringe as the belief that one's own country occupies a "subordinate cultural place on the periphery", and that "intellectual standards are set and innovations occur elsewhere". As a consequence, a person who holds this belief is inclined to devalue their own country's cultural, academic and artistic life, and to venerate the "superior" culture of another (colonising) country.

A more sophisticated approach to the issues raised by the cultural cringe, as felt by artistic practitioners in former colonies around the world, was developed and advanced by the Australian art historian Terry Smith in his essay 'The Provincialism Problem'.

Cultural cringe by country


The term cultural cringe is most commonly used in Australia, where it is believed by some to be a fact of Australian cultural life. In Another Look at the cultural cringe, the Australian academic Leonard John Hume examined the idea of cultural cringe as an oversimplification of the complexities of Australian history and culture. His controversial essay argues that "The cultural cringe ... did not exist, but it was needed, and so it was invented." This need is demonstrated by its frequent use to deflect criticism of almost anything, on the grounds that the critic is suffering from the cringe.

Some commentators claim the cultural cringe particularly affects local television programming in Australia, which is heavily influenced by imported shows, mainly of American origin. The Federal government has legislated to keep a quota of Australian content (Australian Content Standard and Television Program Standard 23).

Prominent Australians Germaine Greer and Barry Humphries have have said that they live and work overseas due to the effects of cultural cringe. When Cultural cringe is applied to prominent Australian personalities, it is often mistaken as another Australian cultural phenomenon known as Tall poppy syndrome.

Some argue that a form of reaction against the cultural cringe resulted in anti-heritage attitudes resulting in the demolition of many world class pre-war buildings in Melbourne and Sydney, destroying some of the world's best examples of Victorian architecture. Modernism was promoted to many Australians as casting off imperial Europe to rebuild a new independent identity and the existing pre-war architecture, which were a feature of Australian cities, was denigrated. This resulted in many calls to demolish the Royal Exhibition Building, labelled the derogatory term White Elephant. Ironically, it was not until Queen Elizabeth II granted the building Royal status that Australians began to recognise its value. The building became the first in Australia to be given World Heritage status. This reaction against the cultural cringe continues in some fields such as architecture, where local architects are shunned for using introduced styles.

It has also been claimed that cultural cringe has led to federal government information technology contracts going to large foreign multinationals rather than domestic IT companies.


Many cultural commentators in Canada have also suggested that a similar process operates in that country as well. The specific phrase "cultural cringe" is not widely used to label the phenomenon in Canada, although it has been used in isolated instances; more typically, Canadian cultural commentators speak of a "Canadian inferiority complex, or label specific instances of the phenomenon with satirical terms such as beaver hour.

Prior to the 1970s, Canadian radio stations gave almost no airtime to Canadian music, and apart from CBC Television, Canadian television stations spent very little money on Canadian-produced programming. The CRTC adopted Canadian content regulations to resolve this, although even today such regulation is still criticized by some Canadians as representing inappropriate government interference in the right of Canadians to choose American entertainment.

Similarly, English Canadian film has an extremely difficult time garnering an audience in Canada.

In addition, it has also been claimed that some segments of Quebec society experience cultural cringe in relation both to the rest of Canada and to France. Some have proposed that Quebec sovereignty is a necessary step toward resolving this. (See section in Colonial mentality.)

New Zealand

New Zealand has had a cultural cringe but has been wearing off in recent years. The New Zealand English accent has been subjected to cultural cringe since the 1900s but it too is lessening in recent years.

In other countries

Other examples include the claimed cringes of Scotland (see Scottish cringe) .

South African novelist Deon Meyer explores this theme as it applies to Afrikaners in South Africa in his novel Dead Before Daybreak.

A similar phenomenon can be observed in South Asian nations of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Being ex-colonies, these nations still consider a lot of their local talents or outputs inferior to that of English-speaking world (especially Britain and United States.)

The battle against cultural cringe in Sri Lanka goes far back to the nineteenth century when Anagarika Dhammapala started his nationalist campaign against the British. Most accept Gangodawila Soma Thero as the central figure in the rise of Sinhalese nationalism today. Unlike a few decades ago when English was considered as an elite language, today people who look to the west with servitude are considered as "kalu suddhas" (a derogatory term used for sycophants) and openly censured in the media. Sinhala nationalism is on the upward trend, especially with the chain of defeats of the LTTE by the armed forces of Sri Lanka and the hardline stance of nationalist president Mahinda Rajapaskse against terrorism and terrorist supporters.

See also


  • A.A. Phillips, The Australian Tradition : Studies in Colonial Culture, Melbourne, Cheshire, 1958


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