Cultural democracy is not a complicated idea, though its applications can become very complex. It encompasses several interrelated concepts:
First, it posits that many cultural traditions co-exist in human society, and that none of these should be allowed to dominate and become an "official culture."
Many cultures contain the belief that their traditions are superior and should be forced down people's throats for their own good: the Crusades, the "white man's burden" idea of British imperialism or "manifest destiny" in the States, or the treatment of the Koreans by the Japanese. In cases like these, diversity in cultural life is seen as a problem, something to be eliminated.
In contrast, cultural democracy places great value upon cultural diversity. It proposes that measures should be taken to preserve and promote cultural activities from the full array of traditions present in any community, not from just one of those traditions. In a sense, this is a kind of "democracy of taste" -- a belief that mutual respect is a prerequisite to survival in a multicultural world.
A second component of the idea of cultural democracy is participation. Cultural democracy proposes a cultural life in which everyone is free to participate.
This means several things: At bottom, it means the right to free expression must be protected -- censorship and restriction of freedom are obviously not compatible with a dynamic cultural life. It means that people must have access to the means of expression: paper and pens and stages and musical instruments, as well as help in learning to use them; and in our electronic age, access to the powerful mass media that so profoundly affect our view of the world.
In this age of new technologies, democratic participation in cultural life has become even more important: people all over the world have come to understand that today's mass media actually discourage people from participating in community cultural life. They give us a private alternative to leaving our homes to enjoy music or theater or conversation, thus undercutting opportunities for active participation. By emphasizing events that are considered "good TV" -- conflicts, natural and man-made disasters, spectacles -- they reinforce individual alienation and powerlessness, making the task of building a community of active, democratic participation even more difficult and even more important.
A third component of the idea of cultural democracy is that cultural life itself should be subject to democratic control. We need to participate in determining the directions that cultural development takes.
We should all be able to have a say in the public cultural issues that concern us -- from how we are educated and what we're taught, to what facilities are made available, what kinds of cultural institutions and arts work are supported, how we are housed and transported, how our political system operates.
All these aspects of cultural life result from human agency; they're not built into nature, like rocks or the weather. We can affect them; but what's more, cultural democracy emphasizes that we must somehow be engaged in affecting and sustaining them if culture is to be vital and alive.
Culture, in this sense, is an all-encompassing idea: it contains the arts, politics, the built environment, and the entire array of voluntary activities that are part of human life. If we"re to act effectively in the world, we have to understand the interrelatedness of all aspects of culture, rather than succumbing to the view that each aspect is a specialized enclave, best left to experts. In short, culture must be seen as a public interest.
Arlene Goldbard and Don Adams are writers and consultants in organizational and cultural development. They established their consulting firm, Adams & Goldbard, in 1978, and have been based in Seattle, Washington since 1997.
This essay is adapted from "Cultural Policy and Cultural Democracy," Chapter 11 of Crossroads: Reflections on the Politics of Culture, (Talmage, CA: DNA Press, 1990, pp. 107-109). Crossroads is available from DNA Press, P.O. Box 30061, Seattle, WA 98117-4836 USA for $13.95 (check or money order), postpaid to addresses in the United States.