Culture Versus Conscience

Culture has always been the antagonist of conscience.

Once we see ourselves as part of a larger entity… once we identify with it… we feel a necessity to conform to it. If we don’t, we lose the existential crutch that larger entities offer us. And, partly as a result of living with that collective identification, most of us are emotionally unprepared to stand alone before the world.

You’ll notice, however, that more or less all our big steps forward have come from people who stepped out alone. Here’s just a brief listing of such people:

  • Abraham
  • Moses
  • Diogenes
  • Pythagoras
  • Sappho
  • Buddha
  • Jesus
  • Confucius
  • Peter Abelard
  • Thomas Paine

Cultures form naturally among people of similar opinions, but as they grow and continue, those opinions are treated as entities of themselves. And so the collective begins to oppose (and soon enough hate) the free-minded individual.

If we share ideas that we are individually persuaded of, we have a shared culture that does not restrict conscience.

If, however, we begin to see those who deviate from our ideas as opponents (as people who insult our ideas), our culture has become a jealous god: Those who conform are noble; those who don’t are vile traitors.

Thus culture becomes the enemy of conscience, and thus the enemy of human progress and of a free-minded humanity.

The stronger the culture… the tighter the web of expectations it spins around us… the more it becomes the enemy of what’s good and transcendent in us.

You can see a gut-level rage against this in George Carlin’s book, Brain Droppings:

No matter how you care to define it, I do not identify with the local group. Planet, species, race, nation, state, religion, party, union, club, association, neighborhood, improvement committee; I have no interest in any of it. I love and treasure individuals as I meet them, I loathe and despise the groups they identify with and belong to.

You can see it in a more philosophical form in Simone Weil’s The Great Beast:

Conscience is deceived by the social.

You can see if from psychology, as in this passage from Victor Frankl:

Because of social pressure, individualism is rejected by most people in favor of conformity. Thus the individual relies mainly upon the actions of others and neglects the meaning of his own personal life. Hence he sees his own life as meaningless and falls into the “existential vacuum”…

You can see it drawn from hard experience by people like Charlie Chaplin:

Man as an individual is a genius. But men in the mass form a Headless Monster, a great, brutish idiot that goes where prodded.

You can find it from military men like Douglas MacArthur:

It’s the age-old struggle— the roar of the crowd on one side and the voice of your conscience on the other.

We see it from writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.

And certainly there are others. The truth is that as cultures and sub-cultures get thick over time, as the people in them are increasingly enslaved to the culture’s expectations. Soon enough they see their culture-entity as absolutely necessary and all outside of it as inherently dangerous. I think no one has described the effects of such development better than Jesus:

The time will come when whoever kills you will think he is doing God service.

To that we might add that the problem lies not only with the killers, but with those who cheer them on. And we’ve seen this over and over in human affairs, from the killing of Jesus’ followers to those who cheer the lynching of Julian Assange.

Sharing ideas with others is a pleasant thing. But if it turns into an us-versus-them impulse, your conscience is being enslaved, even though it feels like you’re being praised. In other words, it’s a trap. We are individuals and should see ourselves as individuals… fully as individuals.

And beside, reflexively patting ourselves on the back isn’t nearly as rewarding as mutual discoveries.


Paul Rosenberg