“Culture is man’s medium; there is not one aspect of human life that is not touched and altered by culture.” — Edward T. Hall, Beyond Culture
According to Ed Hall, American anthropologist and writer, culture is not innate but learned, all of it. Everything in a culture is bound together and culture sets the boundaries that define one tribe or group from another. The odd thing about this is not that we have to learn our culture, but that having learned it we are no longer aware of it. Knowing our context so well we take everything for granted and only pay attention when we stub our toes in the dark because someone moved the furniture. In other words, we only see what we are when we come up against someone who is not like us.
This can be a profoundly disturbing experience, one that sets us back on our heels and causes tempers to flare. Since we learn best through comparison and contrast we should not be surprised when the contrasts between what we think we know about the world, and the way others experience and shape the world, get up in our face. That becomes an ordinance of humility, a teachable moment, an occasion to learn from our mistakes without rubbing out the one who points out our mistakes.
Amartya Sen, Harvard economist and Nobel Prize winner, explores the presumption that we live in an overarching system which categorizes all of us in exactly the same way. This way can be either religious or cultural, but inevitably it sets us against each other. “A solitarist approach,” writes Sen in Identity and Violence, “can be a good way of misunderstanding nearly everyone in the world.” Sen’s reflection on this leads him to the conclusion that when we are assigned one dominant classification —whether it be religion, or community. or culture, or nation, or civilization — which ignores so much that is essential to our personal identity, the many diverse roles that we play and the interlocking communities we move through — violence is almost always the result. Holding hands and singing Kumbaya no longer works in promoting peace, and the wish to see ourselves as really all the same under our skin ignores the recognition that we are, says Sen, “diversely different (italics the author’s).”
Crises can lead to opportunities for us to learn more about our pluralistic human identities and to use those very differences to wake up and hone our sensitivities. Sen and Hall do not exaggerate when they suggest that our very survival as a species may rely on us understanding those diverse differences, not in seeking to conform us all to one identity.
This understanding is hard work, very hard work. In fact, some virulent strains in our own culture inoculate us to these exposures. Religion and politics, the two things most avoided in close relationships, seem to thrive on the us-them dichotomy. Since we tend to grow our own identities in proportion to acceptance by our groups, the easiest way, apparently, to quickly build solidarity in the group is to turn it against other groups. That’s a shortcut we cannot afford these days. This is such a natural law of group formation, in my experience, that we may well expect it sooner rather than later in the life cycle of the groups we belong to or desire to join.
Many years ago, in the wake of the Second World War, Gabriel Marcel, the French Catholic existentialist philosopher and playwright, grappled with parallel issues of individuality and freedom. Writing in Man Against Mass Society, Marcel asked what freedom meant in a society which routinely places us in situations that erode our ethics. We have a choice, of course, but we may not always have the means to live out our convictions. There are others who rely on us and for whom we make compromises just to survive to fight another day. In a materialist culture, says Marcel, everything is reduced to commodities and objects, even human beings.
While he could not have foreseen the reach and scope of the global economy of today, he seemed acutely aware of how entangled our convictions and duties are. If you have a problem with the economic conditions that make affordable clothes, food, and electronics, how far will you go to buy only those goods produced in fair labor conditions?
We don’t know the future, Marcel says, but it is that very ignorance that keeps us hopeful. By way of revolt against the mass society, Marcel argues that “all philosophies of immanence have had their day (italics his).” And we are called to fight against the idolatries of race and class that they foster. Such a fight, he intimates, isn’t just reserved for those with power, assuming of course, that they haven’t already succumbed to the degradations that go with power over others. He puts it in a sentence: “A man cannot be free or remain free, except in the degree to which he remains linked with that which transcends him, whatever the particular form of that link may be. . . .”
Artists have the possibility of creative action against this materialism more readily than most of us, says Marcel. But he’s quick to note that being an artist brings temptations to startle, to innovate at all costs, to sell oneself to the highest bidder or to retreat into the world of the aesthete. All of us are called to be creators of our own freedom. And the way to that freedom lies through remaining open to others. Materialistic societies like ours, says Marcel, sin against this freedom by excluding as forcefully as possible this openness to others. For Marcel the individual could not claim to be free in a culture which callously excludes some and commoditizes almost everything.
It’s not easy to reach for the transcendent in a culture that rewards selfishness nor should we presume that our mere opposition to such a culture means that we are open and unselfish. But on the eve of a bitterly fought election perhaps we can remind ourselves that no matter the outcome we may choose the side of the transcendent by learning to listen and to understand those unlike ourselves.