Cultures don’t create us, we create them. Those who maintain otherwise seek to collect our sacrifices and use us as tools.
A culture is simply a group that passes a set of ideas through generations. Without people passing their ideas along, no culture could exist. So, should we pass ideas along blindly, or should we engage our minds and wills to make the next generation a little better than ours?
My opinion is that every adult with ability should labor to improve the people around them, and that will almost always involve a local culture.
So, let’s look at some cultural problems that could be remedied:
Problem #1: Enforcement
One problem with all cultures is that they become self-reinforcing; once you’re inside, other members will become offended if you stray from it. They feel that you’re making them worthless, even negating their existence.
The sad truth, however, is this: The ones who get really mad, not just irritated, are the ones whose weaknesses you are exposing. And that’s a general truism of life. The people who truly hate you will be those whose sins you’ve inadvertently exposed.
I’ll use one of the cultures I’m closest to for an example of this. I don’t want anyone to think that I’m targeting them. I’m really not; I’m targeting all cultures. If this column makes your culture look bad, that will be your problem to fix or evade, not mine.
So, to illustrate the enforcement feature of cultures, let’s take the example of Messianic Judaism. There are probably more Jews who believe Jesus was the Messiah than you’d suppose. And especially when their numbers were smaller, other Jews gave them a very hard time. I’m not personally aware of any violence, but Jewish believers in Jesus were widely treated as damaged, as deranged, as self-hating, as cowards trying to escape persecution, even as traitors. The story goes that in the old days, they sometimes held funerals for them.
And this happens with more or less every culture. Leave it or transgress its norms in any significant way, and you’re likely to be hated, possibly worse. “Thou shalt not step outside of our borders.”
How poorly must we think of our culture if we react so wildly to it being questioned. Don’t we believe its virtues will stand up to inspection? Or have we tied ourselves to something faulty, just because?
If we enforce the borders of our culture, we’re also saying that it’s too fragile to stand on its own. I think this is an issue we ought to address.
Problem #2: Dominance
A questionable idea transmitted by many cultures is dominance: We’re better than all the others. In some cases this dominance will be physical (enslavement being the most overt form), or considering themselves superior in some other way: artistically, intellectually, technically, spiritually, or whatever. In all of these cases, however – even in the rare case that it’s true – this dominance is both a poison and a tremendous waste. It causes us to think of others as adversaries and to compulsively compare positions.
Dominance automatically creates division and conflict. It’s built solely upon our standing relative to others. It can do nothing but put others down, and that’s not only cruel, it lies at the root of hatred, crime, and war.
Self-praise is not a virtue. It may glue a culture together, but that type of glue is toxic.
Problem #3: Grudges
One of the most overt ways that dominance displays its toxicity is in holding grudges, sometimes for centuries.
Let’s begin by pointing out that bitterness is poison; it twists whatever minds carry it. For that reason alone, holding grudges should be purged wherever it is found. Better to let it go and lose some property than to deform your character, the characters of your children, and the characters of their children. And that is what grudges do.
And the truth is that losses can be recovered. If we lose our piece of land in one place, we can find one somewhere else. Yes, there is a serious issue of justice in these cases – plunder and expulsion are despicable always – but putting things back the way they were, especially after any length of time, requires yet more plunder and expulsion.
So, we can either suffer a loss of property and preserve our souls, or we can poison our souls and fight to get some land back. The central factor in all of this is our estimation of our own abilities: Do we believe we have the ability to create what we want?
If we do, we don’t have to cling desperately to whatever we hold; we can gain more by our abilities. If, however, we grasp desperately to our holdings at the expense of our own souls, we judge our abilities as insufficient.
Please bear in mind that I’m not excusing plunder. What I’m saying is that our reaction to loss exposes our deep beliefs regarding ourselves… that those beliefs are what we should cultivate and defend.
Grudges are poison, they corrupt us in deeper ways than we’ve understood, and if we care about ourselves and our posterity – if we wish our posterity to be capable and potent – it behooves us to root them out.
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