Dr. Forbush Thinks

Look at the world through the eyes of Dr. Forbush. He leads you through politics, religion and science asking questions and attempting to answer them....

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009


In order to understand multiculturalism we need to understand culture. Culture is a word that gets thrown about by the common man and has a specific definition by anthropologists. But, culture is a confusing concept to understand from a member of a culture. And, of course, everyone of us is a member of our own personal culture.

Culture is a collection of beliefs, traditions, shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterize a group of people. Sometimes that group of people is an ethnic group. Sometimes that group of people is an organization. Sometimes that group of people is a nation. Culture can be referred to as a positive attribute when it is addressing the finer things of a self proclaimed “advanced culture.” Culture can refer to an attribute of a particular culture. But, no matter how we look at it we are immersed in our own culture and we are bias when we compare our own culture to other cultures.

Since culture is a collection of shared beliefs -- shared by the members of our own culture it is difficult to find members of our culture that disagree with these “shared” beliefs. With this in mind it is quite well understood in abstract how difficult it is to change a culture.

When two cultures come in contact with each other it should be clear to understand how conflicts will arise. Lets look at two cultures -- jocks and nerds. I chose these two cultures because I know that most of my readers are not members of either of these cultures and therefore will not be biased by their personal membership in one class or the other. If you are a member of either of these cultures, then you may need to skip this example. In a typical jock culture we could easily understand that the way to solve a problem is with brawn, muscle or strength. And similarly we could imagine that the credo of the typical nerd is to solve every problem with brainpower. With this in mind we can easily imagine that working together to solve a problem might not work out so well. And in addition we can also imagine that creating a fair way to solve conflicts might also run into trouble. Any measure of strength of culture will be greeted with calls of cheating from the other side. Any member of one of these groups will find difficulty in understanding the values of the other group.

Most of us might actually realize the value of both muscular strength and brainpower. This might be a cultural value shared by many westerners -- the value of power and strength no matter what kind it might be. This might be extended to the power of money, the power of learning skills, the power of knowledge… And now we see the problem with understanding culture. No matter what the issue, when we look at different cultures we are always comparing them with our own culture. Even if we don’t identify ourselves with jocks or nerds we still have our own cultural values. We might have decided our own “best strategy” for dealing with problems. We might have a priority list of ways to deal with problems. We might believe that the best way to deal with a problem is how we feel like dealing with it when we meet it head on. We might have already concluded which culture is superior to the other based on own culture.

Ironically, one cultural attribute is the value that a culture places on cultural beliefs and traditions. Some cultures value these above common sense or scientific studies. Other cultures are willing to adjust these values. And, then there are cultures that see these beliefs and traditions as old and outdated. In the United States currently there is a “culture war” based on the value of cultural values themselves.

In light of the “culture wars” it might be interesting to think about the origin of cultural values themselves. If we think about it, people are always telling stories about their personal experiences. When these experiences offer life lessons, then the stories will be repeated again and again. Life lessons are important ways to learn about the dangers of the world. Repeat the good things and avoid the bad things. But, just because it appeared that a story turned out one way because of an action or inaction does not mean that there really was a connection. And, the stories that proved on repetition to be wrong will eventually be dropped from the list of useful stories. Over time a culture of stories emerges and propagates. But, because the story exists does not mean that the lessons are the right ones. The evolution is always in progress. Jumping up and down on the left foot before battle does not always insure victory. But, the story and tradition might continue “just in case.” However, storing food for winter tends to work more often than it doesn’t.
After the end of the Second World War the world was poised to accept a huge number of scientific breakthroughs and studies. Many traditions were proven false and brought all tradition under scrutiny. Science could be applied to many aspects of our lives. Scientific method was used to break down additional traditional ideas. The zeitgeist suddenly questioned tradition in general. Traditions suddenly needed to defend themselves. The World War II soldiers came home after being exposed to a world of different cultures. The time was ripe for change.

Traditions don’t change quickly. The older people were brought up with the older traditions and the like what they know. Even obvious problems, like segregation, don’t change easily. The act of embarrassing the southern tradition with live broadcasts of civil rights demonstrations might have brought attention to the inequality in this foreign society as seen from around the world. But when one is brought up in this culture biases are still hard to overcome. The spirit of the 1960s was a powerful force, but it was by no means universal. As the traditions of each cultural group came under attack these groups reacted as expected -- to defend the traditions of the group. Society became divided into the traditionalists and the progressives. Traditionalists sought to propagate tradition regardless of the reasons for those traditions. Progressives sought to change traditions. Each group has a different problem. The traditionalists needed to defend their traditions in the light of scientific inquiry. Progressives needed to invent new traditions to replace the old if they could. This is because when a tradition is removed, then something new usually is needed to fill the void.

As time has progressed the situation has become more clouded. In the beginning the traditions like segregation and discrimination were easy targets for progressives. The next obvious target was the tradition of polluting the environment. It turned out that this was much more difficult to fight. Some traditions seem to be stupid and easy to fix, but for every tradition there is a group that the tradition belongs to. And that group will always fight to retain the tradition no matter how stupid it looks to the rest of us. As laws were written to clean up pollution in the 1970s, they also included loopholes intended to preserve the traditions of dumping and destroying as much as the public would tolerate.

Traditions can limit our freedom. But, traditions can also provide a time to go wild and allow chaos in a controlled way as well. Progressives have often been branded as having loose morals, because they have often fought to introduce additional forms of families, including divorced couples, same sex couples and multi-generation families. But, progressives have also fought to reduce drunken driving accidents by questioning the traditional holiday party culture. Some of these activists may not have considered themselves to be progressives, but anyone who fights tradition is a progressive. Ronald Reagan was a progressive when he determined that the tradition of a balanced budget wasn’t as important as borrowing money to pay for military programs even though building the most powerful military possible might be his tradition to trump all others.

Some people do not understand the scope of traditions. Some traditions encompass very small groups of people down to the size of an individual family. Other traditions cover people living on the entire planet. Some traditions cover religious groups while other traditions cover entire nations. Each individual orders the traditions he is exposed to by personal importance. When a person that values traditions differently or has different traditions altogether, then conflicts may arise. When individuals value these differing traditions very highly, then these conflicts may become very serious, resulting in wars and death. When one values their own traditions above all others, then these conflicts may be unavoidable. So, it should be clear that traditions are quite important.

Now, the United States is not one culture. In fact, in reality no country is just one culture no matter how hard people try to create one. The problem is that each individual has a choice in honoring each tradition. The existence of a tradition does not determine its value as a tradition. The observance of a tradition is what gives a tradition value. Just because Martin Luther King Jr. Day is on the calendar doesn’t mean that Martin Luther King Jr. Day is observed by the majority of people in the US. Where are the parties and the celebration?

Tradition is more than its very existence. Tradition can not be forced on anyone. But, when one tradition replaces another it surely scares people, because it signals that thing are changing and they may be left behind.


Don't forget what Stephen Colbert said, "Reality has a well-known liberal bias."

Cross Posted @ Bring It On, tblog, Blogger and BlogSpirit