I would like people to speak more openly about culture as a causal phenomenon. In addition to citing biological and socio-economic factors to help us make sense of the world, we could devise better solutions to complex problems by taking culture into account. Are public schools struggling because they lack funding, or is there a cultural issue within the school system in respect to how we learn and what we teach? Are all economic disparities between ethnic groups the result of either biological inferiority or systemic racism, or are there cultural problems within certain communities that cause disparate outcomes? Is political polarization the healthy result of genuine policy differences, or have opposing cultures developed, such that any attempt to find common ground is seen as a betrayal of one’s identity? The beautiful thing about culture is that no individual is to blame for it—yet it lies well within our ability to change.
But first we must establish what culture is and why it matters.
In practical terms, culture is the values, beliefs, habits, norms and underlying assumptions of a group of people at a certain place and time. It includes the judgments we make about the world around us, the aesthetic used to reinforce our shared identity, the status games we play to establish hierarchy, and the interpersonal struggles we undergo as we try to establish a common understanding of reality. In the words of James Baldwin, culture is the result of the long and painful history of a people.
Culture is about what it means to live in relation to other human beings. How do we reconcile ourselves to our surroundings and cultivate a way of life? Culture offers us a readily accessible toolkit which we can use as we navigate the wild world we encounter. It cloaks our nakedness. Culture matters because of its effects on human behavior and its role in shaping people’s social, moral and political sensibilities. It is the conversation we are collectively taking part in, and it matters because it can be changed.
Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson gives a concise definition of culture in the 1997 book Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress:
By culture I mean a repertoire of socially transmitted and intra-generationally generated ideas about how to live and make judgments. It is an information system with varying levels of specificity: on one level it is as broad as a set of ideas about styles of public presentation; on another level it is the micro-information system prescribing the best way to make bagels, curried chickpeas, or Jamaican jerk pork. The information system is more than what people must learn in order to be able to function acceptably as members of a social group. The culture concept must address not only what is formally appropriate, but also what is ecologically effective. Hence, culture is what one must know in order to act effectively in one’s environment. Although cultural continuities exist, people are not slaves to them. They use them and they can change them if they really want to.
The late ethnobotanist and psilocybin enthusiast Terrence McKenna has observed that culture is not your friend—by which he means that the purpose of culture is to stave off the amorphous chaos of individual experience, in order to allow us to cooperate within the social arena. In other words, human beings are far too raw and disorderly to contend with on an individual, private and personal basis. Cultural norms signal that we exist within the same ecosystem—and these norms often discourage individual difference. “You don’t have to be a victim of your culture,” suggests McKenna, “It’s not like your eye color, your height, or your gender. It’s fragile. It can be remade, if you wish it to be. And then the question is, how does one download a new operating system?”
Culture is a joint operating system that we unconsciously download in order to negotiate our environment effectively. If culture matters, and culture can be changed, then how we change culture also matters—assuming that there are aspects of culture that should be changed. As the culture wars continue to destabilize our collective identity, while we simultaneously endeavor to move towards a multicultural global society, the questions of what culture is and how to change it are becoming increasingly urgent.
Cultures can perpetuate themselves through imitation. Patterson describes cultural models as the sociological counterparts of stem cells. Just as stem cells are characterized by their capacity to differentiate and become a variety of different cells, which then divide to produce more of their kinds, cultural models are remarkably dynamic and self-modifying. Richard Dawkins draws a similar comparison when he suggests the meme as a unit of human cultural evolution analogous to the biological gene. Just like genes, memes can replicate outside their original contexts. Environmental conditions form culture, but culture then spreads through time and space, independent of the conditions that originally shaped it.
Culture is an elusive concept. Social scientists might be inclined to steer clear of cultural explanations for sociological phenomena because of their political implications—but the rest of us refrain from judging the culture of our preferred in-group because of the threat that would pose to our sense of identity. There is little risk in formulating a critique of something as generic as American, western or black culture. It is more challenging to criticize the culture of the social setting in which we feel most at home. The attributes of this culture are often hidden in plain sight, because to identify with something literally means to feel that one is the same as that thing. As Clay Rutledge has argued in a recent Quillette piece called “Meaning Matters,” we champion cultural diversity and travel the world to sample other cultures, all the while imagining that we don’t need a culture ourselves, as if we were gods—when, in fact, we are all cultural animals.
It is rare to find someone capable of reflecting on the pathologies of her own culture, just as it is rare to find someone capable of reflecting on the pathologies of his own mind. We should not expect this of any individual. But one of the few ways to reliably correct harmful aspects of culture—or of our psychology—is to articulate them. “Not everything that is faced can be changed,” writes Baldwin, “but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
To discuss a specific element of culture is not to assign credit or blame to any individual for the effects of that culture. Invoking cultural explanations of social phenomena is the opposite of blaming individuals for undesirable outcomes. Very few people wholly identify with their culture, even if they take the norms of that culture for granted. We don’t choose our culture; our culture chooses us.
To be most oneself is to be free from culture, which is not the same as being free of culture. It involves the imagination and desire to see ourselves outside of our social contexts, so that we no longer need to use culture to define ourselves. We can use culture, rather than letting culture use us—but, first, we must see what culture is and how it operates within us.
In sum, culture is key to understanding the complex interactions between human beings and their environments, and it matters very much indeed.