The Importance of Culture
What is culture? How it is formed? How it is transmitted? And how does it affects freedom and liberty? First, let me start by defining both “culture” and “society”. Although the terms “culture” and “society” are certainly related and are often used interchangeably, they do not refer to exactly the same thing. Although the terms “culture” and “society” are certainly related and are often used interchangeably, they do not refer to exactly the same thing.
What is Culture?
A “culture” encompasses the general history, customs, art, attitudes and beliefs of a people.
Culture is like the consciousness of a people. What preoccupies them? What themes repeat, what things are held as obviously true? What values do they have? What do they consider “their” history? What works of art or fiction does everyone know or, at least, know about? What phrases can a person from one corner of the land be completed by another unrelated person from the opposite corner? What defines them as a people?
What is Society?
Society is the group of currently living people who reside in the same region or country and run the current social and governmental institutions. Culture informs society, and society in turn influences the culture. And so, it is important to know not only the principles of freedom and liberty, but how culture affects the expression of those principles and how it can encourage or discourage them.
You see, government, laws and our personal beliefs, attitudes and actions don’t exist in isolation from each other. These all exist within, and are affected by, the culture in which they were formed. Culture greatly affects our laws, our educational system and our medical system, just to name a few institutions. This is why culture is key to attaining widespread freedom and liberty within a society.
Let’s briefly look at each one of culture’s components: history, customs, art and beliefs- starting with history.
The history of a people informs them of their past, and the interpretation of that history provides them with their historical identity. Let me explain this by analogy on a personal, rather than collective, level. So, just as on the personal level, you remember something significant that you did in your life and how you interpret that event in your history is part of your identity.
Let’s say you entered a swimming contest as an amateur against professional-level swimmers, and through hard work, you got third place, beating people with a lot more experience and awards. The event is an objective fact, but it’s the interpretation you give it that becomes part of your identity. You could focus on the fact that you lost the contest and think of yourself as a loser, which is technically true. Or you could realize that you achieved something that you and most around you never thought possible, which is also true. How you think of the event affects how you look at yourself and forms part of your identity.
To give another example, maybe you were at the gym one day and somebody left their gym bag in the locker room while they changed clothing in an adjacent room, and you walked in, saw that nobody was watching and opened the bag and saw there was a wallet, which you promptly opened and relieved of all its cash before slyly walking out of the building and getting lost as fast as discretely possible. Now, you may be rather proud of yourself for making a quick buck and rationalize it by convincing yourself that you needed it more, that the other guy had a lot of money, and that he was kind of a jerk and deserved it anyway. Or, you could realize that you did wrong and that this was actually inconsistent with your values and try to right the wrong you did.
So you see, there are the objective facts of history and then there are its interpretations, which depend on another cultural element, that of values, which we will explore in a little bit.
A people can be proud of their culture and history without being perfect, depending on their values. If a people had to have a perfect history to be proud of their culture, no people older than a week or so could be proud, for all people fall short of objective morality and the right values which reflect them. As Romans 3:23 reminds us, “for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God”.
History may recall how a great war broke out which lead to the establishment of a people’s country. The interpretation tells them why it broke out and what it signifies. If injustices were perpetrated by some of the people during wartime, that does not invalidate the bravery and nobility of the cause if it was really just and noble. And certainly, the moral imperfections of those involved cannot and does not invalidate a good cause and just actions towards that cause. A general may have beat his wife, but that does not invalidate the good of helping a people throw off tyranny.
Now, were a culture to celebrate wife beating and never come to the realization that this is a moral evil, then we could safely say that such a culture would not be in line with objective truth and morality, but rather with its own sick and twisted subjective truth. This, incidentally, is what humanism teaches- as it places man at the center of morality, rather than God.
So culture contains history, but history is larger than culture. Just as your mind contains “the world” although the world is larger than your mind. History exists outside of culture as objective fact, and within culture when it is recognized, interpreted and shared.
Culture is what is active in the air right now, as well as what we remember which influences us and others. Since most of our culture is recorded on external mediums- culture that is lost and not currently on anyone’s mind can be rediscovered and re-remembered in our society. An old film that no one living has seen or an ancient writing which was just rediscovered by archaeologists may re-enter our present-day culture at anytime.
Customs include traditions, like an annual celebration of independence as well as social norms, such as what, if anything, to say to someone when they sneeze, the ordinary dress for men and for women as well as customary wedding attire. These are the familiar norms and rituals we perform and observe in our everyday lives. They were practiced by our fathers and our fathers’ fathers’ and their fathers and so on. Although some customs are fairly recent, especially in our society, there is a particular joy in joining in a custom that reaches back in history to our ancestors long ago.
Such customs align the wheels of time for a brief moment, with those of our ancestors, connecting us through time and space with them and our decedents, should they choose to honor us in the same way. It is right to be suspect of any person, government or group who seeks to rid us of time-honored customs in the name of progress, novelty, revolution, or worst of all, utopia. Every people have a right to their customs. That said, some customs are better than others. Whenever a custom is contrary to objective morality or truth or health, it should be rightly revised or abandoned, but a culture must be steeped in divine truth before rightly making such assertions. The words of experts, government officials or revolutionaries ring hollow against the ocean of tradition without the backing of divine truth. In other words, customs mean a lot to a people and they shouldn’t be abandoned on a mere whim or scare.
If two actions are equally moral- for example a hand shake and a new hand gesture, meaning the same thing- the traditional custom has greater value, because it represents tradition. At least, this is how a conservative would view it. Someone without care of tradition might as well go for novelty instead, which would, in time, become old and no longer novel- robbing it of the very value of novelty and having none of the traditional value. That said, customs do change organically over time, to some degree, although there is very little that is organic in our own time.
Customs also include symbols. For example, in our own culture we use a curious symbol to represent the heart- which does not really look like a real heart nor does it really represent a real heart- rather it represents either the act of love or its accompanying emotion, or often times just an expression of fondness for something. Different hand gestures also symbolize different things, from approval to severe disapproval or just play-fullness. Though the sentiment behind them might be universal, these symbols themselves, however, are not universal and carry different significance in different cultures.
All cultures have shared customs. The age of the customs determine how deep such traditions and the culture go, but even a recently-formed culture will eventually settle on some common customs, otherwise it cannot be said to be a culture.
Likewise, a culture must share art. It doesn’t matter where you go, where there are people there is art. Art represents one of the transcendentals: beauty. The Catechism says that:
Created “in the image of God,” man also expresses the truth of his relationship with God the Creator by the beauty of his artistic works…Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 2501, Line 1
The more beautiful the art the more it aligns itself with the divine. There is a saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Though there is some truth to that saying, it does not follow that art is merely subjective.
Though art certainly has subjective elements, its beauty is something objective- something that can be identified by people of any culture. Many people are indifferent or recoil from modern art, because there is very little beauty in it, because our modern societies have lost that connection to the divine and the beautiful. But we can find true beauty in works of art from artists of even thousands of years ago. Indeed, good art requires significant skill and discipline, which is evident in all great works. Of course, art includes music, statues and paintings as well as the newer forms of movies and video games. Art combines objective beauty with the particular emphases and styles unique to a culture.
Art also includes works of writing in fiction and poetry. Such works really reveal a lot about a people, because they combine beauty with story and expressions of core beliefs and values. Like history, these stories reveal the character of a people.
The beliefs of a people include their core and widespread values. It might just be the value a people place on say, family or on learning. Some beliefs reflect eternal principles, such as human rights while others may include divine revelation. Religious beliefs determine a people’s view of man, their relationship to God and the very purpose of life.
The attitudes of a people are determined by their values. An attitude is a response to people, situations or other things based upon a person’s values. A typical attitude towards a large family with eleven children might be one of joy and congratulations in one culture, while it may be one of shock and even disgust in another. This is because one of these cultures greatly values life while the other values comfort and other things above life. The “normal” attitudes in one culture are strange in another.
Some attitudes are neutral- they pertain to cultural preferences with no inherent moral distinction, positive or negative. For example, a preference for spicy over non-spicy food does not, in itself, carry a moral value. Food itself is a good, but neither type of food is morally unacceptable or inferior. However, other values, such as my previous example, do show a moral component, where one is certainly morally inferior to another.
I hope I have given you a good idea of what culture is and what it encompasses, generally speaking. It’s not hard to see how all these elements- history, customs, art, attitudes and beliefs all interact with one another and form the culture of a people. Culture is something that develops within any group of people living in the same geographical area or otherwise continually interacting for sustained periods of time over the long term. We even see subcultures develop within established cultures over a shorter period of time.
And so now that we are done defining culture and its components, we will being exploring the nature and importance of culture through three topics, namely: 1. how cultures are formed and their uniqueness,2. how culture is transmitted, and 3. how culture affects individuals and societies. This is a broad picture of culture and its importance, though there is much more to be said about culture than can be said even in a handful of episodes. Let us begin with our first topic.
1. How Cultures are formed and their Uniqueness
Culture is natural and necessary for human beings. We’ve talked before about how formal governments may have developed from tribal or family moral codes when humanity was much smaller and the chief, your neighbor and your uncle were one in the same person. As society grew in number of people and complexity, formal government took over the tribal or family moral code. (See episode #11 for more on this)
Likewise, it is not difficult to see how the first human societies developed their own culture. No two separate groups of people will develop exactly the same culture. Although the same principles and human nature are present, culture is always unique because the conditions and particular people are always different.
Culture is the result of communal interactions- the sharing and development of ideas, the particular dynamics which a community have, the experiences they go through and stories they retell, the traditions, customs and rituals they develop and the beliefs and values they come to hold. In other words, the development of culture is an organic process, and like all organic processes, no two will result in exactly the same thing. Each is unique, to its time, place and people.
As societies have migrated and separated, each one has developed its own culture in its new home, building upon its old cultural heritage. Although Europeans founded the United States, American culture became its own thing, distinct from its European parents.
But culture sticks around for a long time. In fact, cultures usually stretch back far beyond the current society and civilization. Indeed many civilizations have risen and fallen and yet something of those cultures remain with us, in our own society. Greek philosophy and Roman architecture are still part of our own culture today. As is much of European culture, which forms part of our unique American culture.
It is easy to see how societies branch off and develop their own cultures. It is also fairly evident that most members of a young society identify with one culture which unites them as a group. This is a natural tendency and an important quality for the functioning of a society. It would be very difficult for a society to function well if its members did not share a common culture and instead had very different customs, beliefs, attitudes and values from each other. It would also be unlikely that such a group would come together to form a single society in the first place. It would seem that the natural state of a new society is to share, and be united in, one common culture.
2. How Culture is Transmitted
Culture is actively transmitted from one generation to another, from persons to persons. People transmit their culture through their words, actions and lifestyles. However, man has also found external mediums on which to record and with which to transmit culture. One can imagine one generation of early humans learning from the cave drawing of their ancestors. In cultures with a strong oral tradition, people developed expansive and robust memories in order to pass on that culture.
With the advent of writing and its recent propagation to virtually all members of society, writing has become an integral part of creating, recording and transmitting culture. The invention of photography, audio recording, video and now digital distribution and connectivity, particularly the Internet, has again given rise to new forms of creating, recording and transmitting culture.
Though we still have some oral traditions, such as family stories and some popular ideas, new forms of media from writing onward have supplemented and in some cases nearly supplanted these. Novels, plays, comic books, movies, television series, and now video games, podcasts and Internet memes and videos make up a good amount of our stories and reflect our attitudes, beliefs and values.
If I mention MacBeth, Casablanca and Superman you will probably know what I am referring to, because these works are part of our culture.
Let me pause here to give perspective. Oral tradition is as old as humanity itself. This is one of the primary ways in which we’ve transmitted our culture from generation to generation since time immemorial. And there are still human societies in existence today in which this is the primary means of passing down the culture.
Artistic representations are also ancient in the forms of drawings and other human artifacts. But these were personal items shared within a family or tribe, not works created for mass consumption. And although writing took a while to become a widespread skill in society, it too is ancient, having been in use over 5,000 years ago.
But the first movie theater did not open until 1895. Radio broadcasts did not start until about the 1920s. Television did not become common until the mid-1940s. The Internet started to gain popularity in the mid-1990s. Smartphones began to gain mass adoption in the early 2000s, with the first iPhone and Android OS phones introduced in 2007 and 2008 respectively. Social networking, streaming Internet television and movies and podcasts did not start to become mainstream until roughly 2007 or so.
So even mainstream black and white movies are not yet 150 years old and our society-wide daily usage of the Internet is not even near half a century old.
Please take a moment to reflect on that. Since time immemorial we have transmitted our culture personally, orally and in written form. And yet, in under a century and a half, these forms have been in large part supplanted by new technological forms of transmission. Furthermore, while older forms were relatively slow and impacted only small groups of people at the same time, these new forms of transmission reach incredible numbers of people all at once.
In spite of the recentness of these inventions, most people in our society cannot even fathom life without them, as they form so integral a part of our daily lives and culture. Some even wax nostalgic about the golden age of radio or television. And yet, if we take a broader historical view, we realize that there is nothing old about either. But the accelerated pace of these inventions and their adoption makes even last year’s technological marvel seem ancient.
Art and dramatic works in general have had a great effect on culture since before the modern age. Some plays, for instance, became famous and a staple of our culture. Shakespeare and his works are still famous today. And it appears that electronic media also has a disproportionate influence on culture. However, because of the aforementioned factors, it is even more powerful of an influence than its non-electronic counterpart.
But at the time of this recording, a handful of big corporations control the vast majority of Internet traffic- from search results to social media- thus determining what information the public sees and manipulating their perception of world to what these companies want, utilizing very subtle and sophisticated techniques undetectable by most. In other words, a few corporations have an enourmous control over culture and could effectively decide the direction of our culture and thus our society.
Think of how many of the stories you know and love, and the beliefs, attitudes and values you have adopted come from television, radio and the Internet. And think of how many other people have done the same. We often think that our beliefs, attitudes and values come from within, or that we are very original and independent in our thinking, only to realize later on, if we ever care to study the matter that closely, that these actually came from the culture around us, especially from electronic mediums. In fact, even most of the famous artwork the majority of us have ever seen we have not seen in person in museums or galleries, but via some electronic medium.
Rather than being the result of individual people, families or communities, most of these electronic mediums are dominated by a fairly small group of international corporations or gatekeepers. This is the type of cultural transmission which has supplanted much of the older, more personal mediums. First were the large publishers, then the movie, music and television companies. And now the ever-more sophisticated and invasive Internet companies.
And so, the transmission of culture has shifted more towards being one of massive reach by the few to the many than by the few to the few, as in a more local, family and community-centered culture. Perhaps it is no surprise then, that I have personally noticed a failure of cultural transmission present with the most recent generations.
Skills and knowledge that were taken for granted previously are unknown by many younger people. Things like cursive writing, classic literary works and ancient myths, ordinary understandings about civility, courting and marriage, the religious sense and the sanctity of dinner time seem lost upon most of the young. That is not to say that the young do not have important new knowledge and skills. However, it is clear that the older generation has failed to transmit some important elements of the culture to the younger ones. Perhaps the almost complete delegation of responsibility from parents to schools, both private and public, and the overindulgence in media, is partly to blame.
The advent of “Big Tech” and “Big Government”, both of which support each other, but threaten free speech, is worrisome. However, the advent of much smaller productions like Internet blogs, independent films, and podcasts, all possible due to the increasingly inexpensive but high quality technological production equipment available today, is a positive development for the transmission and creation of more organic and independent culture. Even older mediums, such as print publishing, are now much more accessible for the average person.
And so the mediums with which culture is transmitted have changed significantly in recent times, and appear to be accelerating at unprecedented speed along with the rest of our society. Though we barely have time to consider where we are going, we seem to be going there rather swiftly.
That said, let me not understate the influence of personal relationships and lifestyles. Though electronic media is all around us and very influential, people do influence each other through their personal relationships and the way they live their lives. Parents specifically have a great influence on their children- something not unnoticed by the state and corporations, which often wish to co-opt the young for their own power, profit and other purposes. The family as a unit is the basic unit of society and as such does wield significant cultural influence. This too is not unnoticed by the powerful, some of whom wish to see the family separated and dis-empowered.
We all transmit culture, whether we are aware of it, or not. This we do by how we speak, what we do and how we live. And culture is constantly being transmitted to us, again, whether we take notice of it or not.
3. How Culture affects Individuals and Societies
It is clear that we absorb much of the culture around us. From it we take customs, art, traditions, rituals, stories, beliefs, attitudes and values. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with that. The problem arises when we become completely or mostly passive receptors and transmitters of that culture. For you see, we human beings possess both a capacity for reason and responsibility to morality. And so we must not be simply passive participants, but rather reasoning, moral agents as our human nature demands. The issue at hand, is that while some cultural elements are morally neutral, some of them are not.
It is not just art that is in the culture, but whole philosophies which shape and structure the way we view and interact with the world, others and ourselves. These philosophies inform us of what our purpose is and what we should strive for as individuals and as a society. They tell us what is wrong and right and the culture further conditions our very emotional responses and norms.
The sad thing is that most of us are not well aware of these influences or where they come from and what they ultimately lead us to as individuals and as a society at large. Instead, we simply absorb these ideas, for the most part, and live day to day with our own personal goals without taking the time to analyze the source, rationale and consequences of those goals. And eventually we base our philosophy of life on these uncertain and untested foundations. And the more distractions and novelties there are, the less likely most of us will even seriously question them. And we live in a society full of more dazzling distractions and novelties than any previous one.
Even when people do start to take social or political action for what they believe, they often act more out of emotion, than out of a reasoned and informed concern. While there is nothing wrong with emotion and passion, and indeed it is often needed- as we should not be lukewarm- however, emotion and passion must ultimately be backed up by reason and facts. To be whole human beings, we need both the head and the heart- preferably working in harmony, and not in competition.
As Americans we frequently hear talk of democracy. But how can we be a democratic country, if there is no real democracy in the ideas, philosophies or values that dominate and run our society?
We need to question and understand the cultural influences which we are exposed to and carry within us. Otherwise, we face the consequences of a life, philosophy and culture unanalyzed and steered by only a few interested parties, much to our peril. And we become at best thoughtless practitioners of it, or at worse, useful fools for agendas which we would not consciously agree with if we took the time to inform and follow our consciousness. We may even find such agendas to be self-destructive and wonder how we could have carried them out so efficiently without any question or concern.
And so I urge you to think critically about what you are being exposed to both explicitly and implicitly, whether its from a popular TV show or even from podcast, like The FALFA Project Podcast.