Cultural Keys

before you read the article – just keep staring at it until you get it

Not long ago, I came across this on my facebook news feed with the caption “First you don’t get it… Then you do… And then you can’t UN-get it!”. The caption describes perfectly the various stages my own mind went through when viewing. It also got me thinking about culture, and the various differences and similarities that we experience as part of our own culture, and also when we are occasionally immersed in a different culture.

One of the startling things about one’s own culture is that you don’t really notice it. It’s a little bit like how you don’t notice your own body odor until someone points it out to you – it’s yours and you’re so used to it, that it doesn’t really register. It’s like an accent. My own accent is a good example of this – it is a curious mix of English, Australian, and even some American (mostly east-coast) influences. In the context of my life, this makes a lot of sense because I grew up in Hong Kong attending a British school, so my teachers were mostly British, and so a lot of my accent comes from that. Then at 14, I moved to Australia and lived there for the next 10 years of my life. Obviously, the Australian part of my accent comes from those years. Strangely enough, when I lived in New York while doing my masters, my accent only experienced a slight americanization. It wasn’t until much later, that small pieces of American english snuck their way into my speech.

This illustrates an important point – that necessity encourages change. In New York, I mixed with a very international and very educated crowd of people. In that context, it didn’t matter what accent I spoke with, people would easily understand me because they were very used to hearing English spoken with different, and often much thicker accents. It wasn’t until I was living in the Netherlands, and travelling around the world as a speed skater did I feel the need to adjust my accent. In the speed skating world, Australia and Britain are not big countries, so nobody is used to hearing our accents. However the USA and Canada are huge in the world of speed skating, so everyone had become used to the way they spoke, and if you wanted to be understood, then having a more american accent would help you.

Of course, what accent people “hear” depends on where you are. In the US, people all thought I had an Australian/British accent, which is mostly true. Only the very observant would notice the slight hints of American. In Australia, everybody thinks I have a strong British accent (some have even gone so far as to locate it in “the north”), while in Britain, everyone thinks I have an Australian accent.

All this talk about accents is really just to illustrate the camouflage that your own accent gives you, and how necessity is the main driver of change. For similar reasons, kids in English-speaking countries are generally terrible when it comes to foreign languages – there’s simply no feeling of necessity, when we live in a world where English is so widely-spoken. Kids in small countries who share borders with many larger countries, by contrast, generally have excellent foreign language skills. To the extent that I would rate the English of some of my Danish friends to be of a higher standard than many of the native-speaking Australians I know.

I would rate the English of some of my Danish friends to be of a higher standard than many of the native-speaking Australians I know

So there – culture – something that you don’t really notice until you encounter a different one, and something you don’t really change unless you’re forced to. Having lived in many “foreign” countries, I have come across this a lot. Public transport is a good example. Large cities all around the world have public transport systems. Some are very good, but they all seem to function in subtly different ways. Locals, particularly locals who have never lived in another city often can’t comprehend that anyone can possibly find their public transport system difficult to use. When you express puzzlement or frustration, they look at you as if you’re retarded. In this respect, multicultural cities, especially ones which also receive large numbers of tourists, perform well because locals are used to answering seemingly obvious questions about how their public transportation works.

Coming back to the image above, it should occur to you that if you haven’t seen The Simpsons, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, South Park, The Smurfs, Asterix and Obelix, Sesame Street, Donald Duck, or Lucky Luke, then some of those seemingly random groups of lego blocks might NEVER make any sense to you. This meme works because there is a strong correlation between people who are familiar with those cartoons, and people who have access to facebook. If you showed this image to some villagers in Bhutan for example, you would just get a lot of blank stares, while you stand there thinking “but it’s SO obvious!”.

And that’s the thing about culture – “it’s so obvious”. But it really isn’t. This is why I generally reject “it’s commonsense” as an explanation for anything. Looking back through history at lists of things which used to be “commonsense”, such as burning witches, stoning (only female) adulterers to death, and keeping slaves, and one soon starts to question whether things we now accept as “commonsense” will someday be viewed in the same light. I sometimes like to think that, if humankind gets over this climate change “hump”, that kids will read history books and say things like “can you believe that? people used to PAY for healthcare!”.

“not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child” – Cicero

But these “obvious” things that are part of our culture also change much more quickly than people realize. This is the main problem I have with conservatism (not to be confused with conservative politics, which in recent times has been run by a bunch of nutcases). Conservatism’s central premise in a nutshell is “because it’s always been like that”. This is not entirely unreasonable. Human society is a vastly complex thing, and something that nobody can truly fully comprehend or predict the behaviour of. Conservatism’s general resistance to change rests in the very reasonable aversion to messing with a complex system, because of the possibility of unintended consequences. This can be plainly seen in many conservative arguments – for example against welfare – “but look at all the freeloaders”. The freeloaders being the unintended consequence of well-intentioned policy.

But there is a flaw in this reasoning. Firstly, and most obviously, things have NOT always been like that. Cicero’s quip that “not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child” could not ring more true here, as any one person’s life experience is insignificant next to the body of human knowledge imbedded in humankind’s (very short) history. Secondly, wanting to keep things the way they were also carries the implication that things are alright, when obviously they aren’t. I’m often accused of being too idealistic in a desire of some kind of utopia, but I’m really not. Dag Hammarskjöld said it well when speaking of the United Nations – “The UN was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell”.

“The UN was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell” – Dag Hammarskjöld

So where am I going with all this? Mankind is currently faced with huge problems; unprecedented problems. For a long time, most of humanity lived in abject poverty, but the industrial revolution brought vast material wealth to the citizens of most of the current crop of “developed” countries. Slowly, but surely, most other countries in the world are following suit. For all of human history, violent conflict has been a persistent feature of the “progress” of nations, but even that has started to steadily decline. Climate change, however, is entirely new, and unprecedented in its current scale.

Interestingly though, climate change isn’t the real problem. It is the Earth’s fever – a symptom of a much bigger problem. That problem is how we interact with our planet. Our economics demands infinite growth, but the only living organisms who share that modus operandi are viruses, and cancerous cells. We take stuff out of the earth, we transform it into something useful, then we use it, then whatever’s left gets thrown away. This waste often doesn’t go away very quickly, or at all. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that we can’t continue like this without consuming the planet to the point where there’s nothing useful to us left, and we’re drowning in our own waste. But how do we change this? After all, hasn’t it always been like that?

This is why it is important to understand culture. We keep looking for technical solutions, but that will never work in the long run. It will buy us some time, and that is very important, but it won’t work until there is a fundamental change in the way we “do business”. The trouble is, our civilization has outgrown our political institutions – the authority we give to our leaders is inadequate for them to solve the problems we give them – we need long term planning but only have short term election cycles – we have global problems but only national governments to solve them.

But politicians, even in the absence of leadership (which sadly seems to be the norm these days), respond to the desires of the electorate. These desires are often willfully manipulated by big business and a complicit media, but people aren’t TOTALLY stupid, there is a certain extent to which we allow ourselves to be manipulated simply because it is convenient. If we want political will to solve these dire problems, and I’m not exaggerating, they are DIRE, then we need a shift in cultural norms. This is already starting to happen to a small extent – huge corporate greenwashing campaigns (such as Dow Chemical’s “Human Element” campaign *gag*) are simply the response to a desire by consumers for greener products.

But how to motivate a shift in cultural norms? Unfortunately that will require leadership, and bold leadership. As consumers we must ask more of corporations (think it’s impossible? go out and find me a can of non-dolphin-safe tuna), and we must ask more of politicians. Democracy only really works if you have an engaged, and educated electorate and our education systems are failing us. They’re doing a half-baked job of teaching some kids how to read, write, and do maths, and really aren’t answering many important questions, like “where does our food come from?”.

if you think consumer pressure on corporations doesn’t work, then I challenge you to find me some non-dolphin-safe tuna

A better education and awareness of our own ecology is needed. That will in turn lead us to ask the right questions of corporations, our governments, and our media. Many say that there is no economic incentive to do this, but that’s ridiculous – saving our planet for an ecological disaster that could wipe out our civilization is a pretty good incentive if you ask me. Cultural anomalies abound – take film censors: why is it acceptable to show people getting shot and killed (which doesn’t happen very often, anywhere), but taboo to show people having sex (which happens all the time, everywhere). I don’t think it’s too much to ask, nay to demand that we change our cultural norms so that is becomes obvious that everything we do must be done in an ecologically sustainable manner.

We are currently consuming the Earth at about 1.5 times the rate at which it can replenish itself. If we take the time and effort to invest in sustainability, then we can truly expect a future of abundance, and a better world for future generations. But the change has to come from within – from our own culture, otherwise we risk that change coming from without – that is to say without enough food we will be forced to change our ways. Preempting this change gives us choice – and taking that choice will do us a world of good.

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