When culture turns tyrant

The voices of authority in many guises, abundant and strident, relentlessly prey upon us.  To be fair, they aren’t always sinister voices, as they sometimes serve as the glue holding a society together, establishing the ground rules by which we all get our turn or fair share.   Often they transmit the legacy of  experience, minimizing the social anarchy that results when people play by their own rules.

But frequently these voices, of tradition or culture, inhibit us from finding our best selves when they assume tyrannical shape, demonizing new ways of thinking and doing, frequently to protect a vested interest.  Often they cloak themselves in religion and demonizing politics.  We don’t hang witches anymore, but we do have Jihad abroad and demogogues at home, who would deprive women of choice and the undocumented from participation in the nation’s agenda.  Culture turns deadly when it becomes ideology, resorting to reductionism, fear and bullying.

On the other hand, healthy societies are always dynamic, open to change, adaptive to new exigencies.  As such, they exhibit similarity to the evolutionary laws that assure biological survival.  Take our bodies, for example, that slough off the old and degenerative: a new skin every month; every six weeks, a new liver; every three months, new bones (David  Agus, The End of Illness, p. 106).   Healthy societies are like that, casting of the ineffectual and regenerating themselves.

Dynamic societies know when it’s time to change their wardrobe.  In this regard, the advanced industrial nations have taken-on some remarkable transitions that, in many instances, transcend those achieved through technological savvy in contributing to well-being.  It’s one thing to have airplanes, cars, television and, now computers.  It’s quite another to abolish slavery, emancipate women, enfranchise minorities, including gays, and promote human dignity.

Material progress never guarantees the latter, anyway.  Take Saudi Arabia, for example, where a woman can’t drive, unless accompanied by a family male.

When I think about it, I sometimes find it hard to believe that American women just got the right to vote less than a hundred years ago.  Swiss women gained that right only a few years ago.

Presently the emancipation of gays is underway and in future years I’m betting our children will look askance at our malice based on custom’s insatiate dislike of divergence.

There remains much to do, both at home and abroad.  Several challenges come to mind, and I think you can add others::

  1. Electing a woman president of the USA.

2.   Abolishing capital punishment.

3.   Equitable taxation

4.   Death with dignity legislation

5.   Immigration reform

6.   Population growth

7.   Resources management

8.   Animal emancipation

9.   Child abuse

10. Single payer healthcare

You may not like some of my priorities.  I’m okay with that, so long as it isn’t custom driving your censure.  Perhaps the insidious threat custom imposes is that it drops upon us like the weather and,  seemingly everywhere and always, it is what it is.  We get used to it, accepting the pattern as the norm.

Unlike the weather, we can do something about culture gone wrong.  It takes vigilance and means asking questions.  Why this and not that?  As Michael Pollan astutely observes, “Ideologies are ways of organizing large swaths of life and experience under a set of shared but unexamined assumptions. This quality makes an ideology particularly hard to see, at least while it’s still exerting its hold on your culture” (In Defense of Food, p. 51).

Because societies can and do evolve, more so in a world of diminishing boundaries,  initial conflict is likely to ensue as universals find themselves confronted  by newly introduced alternatives.   Paradoxically, in this dissonance lie the seeds of healing, as history confirms such exchanges enrich rather than diminish.

In this new world, or global village, we might even “shake hands” as Pete Seeger sings it, and “study war no more.”


Be well,


Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

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