I'm widening the aperture again in my quest to know thyself. Last week I moved on from items concerning me to look at items concerning other individuals. Now it's time to scale that up even further to take a look at collections of others - to look at society in general, and at culture in particular. So what is culture?
I come at this question having two particularly relevant experiences in my own background. The first was as a Peace Corps volunteer where we were given 3 months of language and culture training upon arrival at our new post so we could see the world through our host country's citizen's eyes, so we could understand norms and expectations for behavior, and so we would be less likely to misunderstand others' actions and responses. I had traveled a bit before I did this. I had moved to San Francisco from rural Pennsylvania. I had lived in Mexican border towns. I had spent a summer with eskimos in Alaska. I'd been to several foreign countries. I thought I had observed cultural differences in the past and knew a thing or two about dealing with them. But nothing showed me my ignorance of culture as much as living in a truly foreign one for two years did. As much as I studied the language, watched old movies, read history books, and talked with locals over beer (and vodka - it was Ukraine after all), there was always something new that baffled me. Some new turn of phrase, a superstition I hadn't been aware of, or...a cultural reference that I had not known. One that I couldn't possibly have known. (This isn't just a difference between first and second- or third-world countries either. Try going to British pub quizzes for two whole years and continually coming in dead last to less educated drunks.) I left Peace Corps with a deep understanding of what a shallow tourist we all are whenever we encounter a new group of people with a strong culture. I thought I had known this already, but after two intense years of trying to bridge the gap and still seeing a chasm before me, I knew it better.
My second deep experience with culture came when I left the Peace Corps and became an internal management consultant with the FBI and the Secret Service. Both of these proud organizations had century-long histories and were filled with employees who rarely left. And although they were THE two "elite federal law enforcement agencies" in the country with all the similarities around crime and punishment that would seem to entail, they possessed two very different cultures. As a new employee in those places whose job it was to try to create change and improve inefficient business practices, I was keenly aware of the need to fit in and learn the norms of behavior if I was going to get anything done. You can't rock the boat if you get thrown overboard. Looking for help, I studied the literature of organizational change management and found MIT professor Edgar Schein - the recognized guru on corporate culture. Schein was clear about what exactly makes up a culture. To him, culture is simply defined as a shared set of experiences. Over the years, successes and failures of everyone from individuals, to groups, to divisions, to the entire organization, who got promoted, what areas were merged, what spies or shooters (in the case of my odd workplaces) slipped through the cracks - all of these are turned into stories that are passed around for everyone to learn from. All of these are stories that outsiders never hear. These water cooler bouts of gossip are what embed norms of behavior among people who work together. This sub-culture of an office - of any group really - is made up of the experiences and stories that are shared within that group.
Now I'm a writer; one that's driven by my philosophy. I'm trying to study cultures across the globe to see what works and what doesn't. But I'm aware of the knowledge gap that exists between any group of "others." I'm looking for the shared experiences from our evolutionary history to find our universal commonalities. But I know how malleable our cultures can be and how strong an influence they are in all of the many individual places we live and work. I'm trying to write stories that will spread legends of successes and failures. But I want them to inspire new actions for new and better shared histories. As for my take on what an evolutionary philosophy can tell us about culture, here is what I wrote that guides me:
As Diogenes of Sinope said in the fourth century BCE, we are citizens of the world. Yet we are ensconced in a variety of local subcultures. Understand your local influences. Visit and live in other cultures to see what elements are changeable. Adopt good practices no matter the source. Recognize systemic influences that underlie seemingly singular differences. Learn by looking at the world from multiple perspectives. Gain understanding from this learning and use it to further the happiness of you and those around you.
Cultures are in competition with each other. Cultures that produce robust progress over the long term are the cultures that succeed. This is what makes one culture “better” than another. Cultures that produce large short-term benefits though, may gain enough of an advantage to extinguish other better cultures. Without knowing what is truly best in the long term, it is unwise to judge harshly and attempt to develop a world monoculture. Species remain adaptable when they contain a mix of abilities and allow trial and error to lead to the future. Cosmopolitan advice is therefore wise: accept others as different but equal, until actually proven otherwise.
Societies rise and fall on the basis of their balance between competition and cooperation, their balance between the short-term and long-term. The dangerous trap that occurs is that as a society becomes wealthier and wealthier, its citizens' long-term safety seems surer and surer. This safety can easily lead to relaxation and giving in to the ease of short-term pleasures. Society must educate its citizens about the greater benefits of long-term happiness. Even if it seems like you don’t need to, work hard. You will be happier. Successful societies that do not encourage this slowly rot from the inside.
What guides you as you navigate the cultures of your life? Is there something about a culture you deal with that you don't like? You can change it. Systems are stable when winners continue to win and actions that have lost continue to lose. You upend the system when you find a new action that wins, or redefine what it means to win at all. Do that, and you can write a new story. And it will be one that others will want to know and incorporate into their own culture.