Friday, July 16, 2010

The last hanging thread ...

... is culture. I have definite views here and I'm just going to bang them out. What follows is blunt and probably offensive to some.

Culture limits us. There is no getting around it. To live in a culture—any culture—is to be limited and often to be limited in ways we will find restricting and would do away with if we could.

But before we get too cheeky, we should stop and consider that a culture represents the collective wisdom  of many people. People who were at least bright enough to collectively make a culture and that is nothing to sneeze at. Try breaking the restrictions a culture presents us with and you often, not always but often, end up proving that the restrictions are useful protections for you and the people around you.

Oddly, the cultures that claim to be freest are usually the most restrictive. The most restrictive, and sexist, culture I ever was part of was around a punk rock club in the late 1970s. And the reason for this is simple, any time a small group of people set out to be "really free" they are going to create a situation in which the selfish desires of the most manipulative people rule. Every rebellion, and I mean every rebellion, produces a Stalin.

The paradox is that limits are liberating. The very existence of language is dependent on culture. Meanings have to be shared meanings.

As is the very existence of morality. Any morality at all—good, bad or mediocre—requires culture. I can't make up my own moral rules and principles. Without a culture to give these rules and principles shared meaning, they'd just be random whims of mine. A super genius, which I am not, just might invent a morality that others would willingly go along with but it still wouldn't be a morality until it became part of a shared culture.

Much as we might fantasize otherwise, we want to be restricted. I want you to be restricted and you want me to be restricted and it's just one great big lie to pretend otherwise. And it takes more than laws to stop teenage boys from grabbing teenage girls' breasts. There has to be a real and powerful sense of both shame and guilt following from such action to keep us in line.

If I really don't like the restrictions that come with a culture is there anything I can do about it? I can move to another culture but I can be sure the next culture will come with other restrictions I won't like either. I could also try to convince the rest of the culture to go along with me but they might not agree and being part of the culture means implicitly accepting their verdict if I fail to convince them.

And it is worth repeating, here in the west we have the freest and best culture that ever existed. It's not perfect but we still have to remember that we have the single best culture ever to have existed. That is something to get down on our knees and thank God for.

Finally, and this the part that many people now find hard to accept, when I set out to learn a culture I always set out to learn a culture that isn't mine. You aren't born into a culture, you have to earn your way into it. I remember having a conversation with an Aboriginal man who was seeking to work on a contract with a company I worked with years ago. He said, "Wearing a jacket and tie isn't part of my culture. I don't want to do it." After the interview my boss said, "Hell, I didn't like wearing a jacket and tie either when I was a young man but I learned to do it. I think we should hire someone else." I agreed with him then and I still do. Business culture is business culture and if I want to be part of it I have to accept the restrictions that come with that.

Again, if someone thinks they can create an alternative culture where these rules don't apply they are welcome to try. If they succeed, I might even be grateful but they don't have a right to succeed.


  1. I agree with you, I am appalled at what I consider the lack of professionalism and just plain ignorance of standard business protocols in some of the not-for-profits I work with. This goes from knowing how to dress appropriately (jacket and tie for men, skirt or nice slacks--not jeans or shorts--for women)to how to write a memo or even that memos should be written. Some would argue that's the culture of not-for-profits, maybe that's true but I don't think so. Studies have shown that dressing sloppily or casually in the workplace actually lowers productivity.

  2. This raises the issue of the global community and the global economy. I guess implicit in this is that the West will impose its culture on the rest of the world, and I'm ambivalent about that. I agree that our culture is the freest and best culture in history, but maybe that's because its what we're used to and we take these things for granted. I think some Native-Americans would take issue with that assertion, and the Islamic countries have made it clear in no uncertain terms that they don't agree with it, especially the lack of restrictions in Western culture. And then there's also the issue of "multi-cultural" and where that fits in. I'm curious how your boss would have reacted if an Islamic woman with head, arms, and legs covered but otherwise credentialed had applied for the job you mention. Female reporters respect the culture of Islam when they report in those countries by covering their heads. Should Islamic women not respect our culture by dressing in Western garb when they are here? And what about a Hassidic Jew with full beard and hat? Does an individual's religious belief enter into the equation? I guess these are all questions that we haven't found an answer for yet.