Notes on Culture and Language

by Mark English

Having written recently about shared narratives and their role in creating a common culture, I thought it might be worthwhile to try to develop a few of the points I have been making and to clarify the foundation – personal and intellectual – upon which my claims rest.

Now, the idea of a common culture – whether that culture is defined in regional, national or supranational terms – is an idealization and necessarily vague and imprecise. This fact needs to be recognized. But it does not entail that clear and definitive claims about culture cannot be made. One way of making claims more precise is to focus on specific cultural elements. My background in comparative literature and linguistics leads me to focus on language.

Language can be seen from a broadly literary perspective on the one hand or from a scientific perspective on the other. The former perspective motivates my views to a large extent and provides a partial conceptual framework (based on certain intellectual and literary-historical traditions). But linguistics extends and strengthens the conceptual framework and provides a bridge to cognitive and evolutionary science.

Language is central because, without language, distinctively human forms of social practice would not have arisen. Take early ritual burials, often seen as markers of emerging human consciousness. Clearly, some kind of shared narrative is at work here; a shared notion of an afterlife for which the deceased is being prepared. Such a sophisticated narrative could not have existed before our ancestors developed a capacity for language.

There is a huge gulf between the linguistic or semiotic capacities of humans and other animals. All known human languages (apart from pidgins) share an equivalent degree of structural and grammatical complexity. Presumably language did not come into existence all at once and fully-formed, but evidence for hypothetical, intermediate forms is unavailable and we can only speculate regarding the communicational powers of pre-modern humans and other hominins.

There is an important distinction between a (natural) language and the more general and abstract concept of human language which parallels the distinction between a culture and human culture in general. All actual linguistic phenomena occur within a specific linguistic context, of course. But languages share common elements and/or structural features with other languages, so the idea of a language is not a simple one and is not without its problems.

In what sense does a language exist as distinct from particular instances of language use? Spoken words and written texts are generally assignable to this language or that, but precise boundaries are impossible to draw. Grammars and dictionaries try to do this but they can never reflect the constantly shifting contours of actual linguistic practice which always depend on the knowledge and behavior of individual speakers. In the final analysis, then, what we have is a set of unique and (to a greater or lesser extent) overlapping idiolects. We find it convenient, however, to group sets of idiolects into what we call dialects or languages. (Noam Chomsky and many other linguists have explicitly endorsed this idea.)

If a language is difficult (or impossible) to define, the notion of “a culture”, being more general, is even more problematic. But something similar to an idiolect-based approach can help us out. Each of us can be seen to represent a unique cultural mix. What we call “a culture” is represented by a set of (potentially communicating) individuals whose cultural knowledge and practices are similar in certain respects.

Though only limited precision is possible when talking about particular cultures, it helps if the primacy of the individual (in the sense explained above) is borne in mind. Consequently, a bit of personal history may help to flesh out what I mean when I talk about the demise of a common culture.

I went to a high school which had a strong classical focus. Latin was considered an important subject. We read Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid, the letters of the Younger Pliny (not recommended) and extracts from Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico (an account of his military campaigns in Gaul).

The older boys had studied classical Greek as well as Latin, but Greek was phased out. We were aware that Latin also was being marginalized in the broader educational culture. Fewer and fewer students were taking up Latin and of those who did, fewer and fewer were taking it through to their final high school years.

Language lies at the heart of culture and knowing Latin gave us a sense of being part of a long tradition of Western cultural life. Being exposed to the actual words of cultural forebears who lived in a world untouched by Christian philosophy and yet which did not seem completely alien challenged us in subtle ways. This is an aspect of classical learning which is not always appreciated. Classical values (despite attempts by later thinkers to Christianize them) are opposed in quite fundamental ways to the moral spirit of the New Testament and by extension, to the underlying values of the many social and political movements that were founded upon and driven by secularized versions of Biblical ethics and eschatology.

Elements of classical culture permeated ordinary life in ways that are difficult to conceive today. The details, taken individually, seem trivial: Latin words and phrases were used in English more than they are now; likewise classical references in English idioms were once more common (like “crossing the Rubicon”). And historical figures were routinely alluded to. I don’t know if “Great Caesar’s ghost!” was ever actually a common exclamation, but it certainly was a successful 20th-century popular culture meme. Significantly, in the 1990s television series, Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, the Perry White character says, “Great shades of Elvis!” instead of “Great Caesar’s ghost!”.

One of the things that characterized European cultures in previous centuries was a fairly widespread knowledge of Greek and Roman myths and legends. You can’t read much literature in English or other modern European languages or appreciate the visual arts without at least a cursory knowledge of these stories.

Strangely, even in the 20th century, the names and images of Greek and Roman (and Scandinavian) gods and heroes were very popular and effective marketing tools for selling consumer products. Or even football teams (e.g. Ajax Amsterdam).

As a love goddess, Venus was always popular.  Some years ago, a local firm, Venus Packaging, got rid of their old, sexist logo which incorporated a shapely silhouette with the tagline: “That’s packaging!” On a more sober note, older readers will remember that STDs used to be called venereal diseases.

Fables (going back to Aesop and beyond) and fairy tales were generally better adapted for children than Greek myths and were woven deep into the fabric of life. I recall getting off a train at London’s North Wembley station, which was near where I then Iived. I was in the back carriage and had a long way to walk down the platform to the exit gate. As I passed through, an elderly white woman was telling the story of “The Tortoise and the Hare” to the young, black ticket collector (an immigrant from the Caribbean). Obviously, she had made an allusion to the fable (with she being the tortoise), which he had not understood. It was a poignant scene, especially given the race-based social and political frictions which were beginning to manifest themselves in parts of London and other English cities.

A sense of regret for the loss of shared stories and traditions has nothing to do with racism. It applies within all ethnic or racial groups and across them. But it also reflects a particular view of culture which my literary education happened to reinforce.

“The term culture,” wrote T.S. Eliot in his Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, “includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a people; Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, 19th-century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar. The reader can make his own list …”

As I see it, without a rich, common culture, not only does a society become less interesting, it becomes less resilient. It fractures. And this is precisely what we are seeing in the United States and many Western countries today.

No doubt there are many causes of and explanations for the social and political problems we are currently witnessing, but the marginalization of shared, traditional stories is undeniably a significant factor. Given the nature of our brains – given that they are narrative-consuming and narrative-generating engines and that our sense of self and meaning and purpose are narrative-dependent – the loss of one set of stories will make space for another. How one characterizes and interprets the current changes will depend on one’s ideology which in turn depends on the stories which one has internalized over a lifetime.

A part of me (my non-scientific, emotional side) sees a toxic mix of manufactured and targeted slogans coupled with a proliferation of ad hoc self-justificatory narratives rushing to fill the vacuum left by the loss of traditional and organic modes of thought and practice.

This judgment is tempered, however, by an awareness of the essential transience of languages and cultures, and a belief that what is truly valuable in what has been lost, culturally speaking, will – for as long as humans continue to exist and thrive – always manage to find new forms of expression.

53 Comments »

  1. Thanks, Mark. Good essay.

    We still use shared narratives. But many of them come from movies, television, youtube and other sources. So there is a greater diversity, but perhaps a shallower depth to the way that they are incorporated into the culture.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I too studied Latin in high school. It was great for vocabulary building, but otherwise, I didn’t get much out of it besides a lifelong distaste for Cicero, who is among the most preachy, sanctimonious people I’ve ever been obliged to read.

    Common culture is not coming back to the U.S. or anywhere else in the age of internet and a time when books by quality Latin American authors such as Mario Vargas Llosa are translated into English in months and books by U.S. philosophers such as Michael Sandel appear in Spanish in an equally short time.

    I celebrate the fact that the common culture is going and soon may be gone. Common cultures tend to be insular and provincial: French culture is supposedly more open than U.S. culture, at least in the 50’s, but if one rereads Sartre these days, one will perceive how insular and provincial he is.

    The problem isn’t a lack of common culture: it’s a lack of tolerance of diversity. Let’s take the SJW’s. I agree with much of what they say: “normal” discourse is full of sexism and racism, and microaggressions exist and surely hurt sensitive individuals.

    However, the SJW have converted a political and ethical program into a religion, which is as intolerant of heresy as any religion. They conduct crusades against sexism and racism instead of trying to convince others or better still, learning to live and let live. Once a culture becomes a religion, we’re in trouble because religions (I exclude groups such as unitarianism and reform judaism which aren’t so much religions as affinity groups) believe that they have a monopoly on truth, that they have a right to preach their “truth” to others and that they those who do not share their “faith” are heretics or sinners.

    On the right there are groups as bad as the SJW’s in their intolerance. So instead of trying to bring back a common culture, let’s learn to live and let live and to rejoice in diversity.

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    • Hmm, I think on this one I have to agree with Mark. And there is social science data that shows that liberalism — of which tolerance is a key pillar — really only works where there is some substantial shared culture. Jonathan Haidt has done a lot of work on this.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Whether we like it or not, I don’t believe that the substantial share culture is coming back in an age of globalization.

        We’re going to have to learn to live with a more diverse and atomized culture and that is difficult, admittedly, with all the Trump’s and SJW’s fomenting conflict.

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    • s. wallerstein

      As Dan pointed out, I am not saying that the common culture I describe is coming back.

      “… the SJW have converted a political and ethical program into a religion, which is as intolerant of heresy as any religion. They conduct crusades against sexism and racism instead of trying to convince others or better still, learning to live and let live. Once a culture becomes a religion, we’re in trouble because religions (I exclude groups such as unitarianism and reform judaism which aren’t so much religions as affinity groups) believe that they have a monopoly on truth, that they have a right to preach their “truth” to others and that they those who do not share their “faith” are heretics or sinners.

      What you describe is a particular kind of religion. Forms of Christianity fit the bill, and of course Islam. And you are right to see many political activists as operating in a similar way. The Greeks and Romans had a very different approach to both religion and politics.

      On Cicero: I never warmed to him as a person and I found his style of writing not particularly attractive.

      Like

  3. As Dan said, a great essay.
    Like you, I lament the loss of a classical education. Depth and erudition have been drained out of our society.

    Let me illustrate. In Bharath’s essay the subject of immigration from the south inevitably came up, as it always does, when Trump is mentioned, with all the predictable reactions.

    This immediately brought to mind Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico, because early on in his account, he mentions, with some frustration, his containment of the Helvetii:

    Among the Helvetii, Orgetorix was by far the most distinguished and wealthy. He, when Marcus Messala and Marcus Piso were consuls, incited by lust of sovereignty, formed a conspiracy among the nobility, and persuaded the people to go forth from their territories with all their possessions, [saying] that it would be very easy, since they excelled all in valour, to acquire the supremacy of the whole of Gaul.

    The key phrase here is “go forth from their territories with all their possessions“. This was to be a large scale migratory movement.

    My point being that anyone with a classical education knows very well that large scale human migrations have been going on since the dawn of history. Just read the Old Testament! And the reader of these accounts will also know that these migratory movements usually had severe adverse consequences for the incumbent peoples. This started 60,000 years ago when we migrated out of Africa and met our cousins, the Neanderthals, in Europe. 10,000 years later not one Neanderthal was left alive. In 1066 King William invaded England and the Norman aristocracy took all the land and possessions of the old Saxon aristocracy. Those that did not die became impoverished. And so it goes. With that background one can understand the unease felt at being the target of yet another migratory movement. Of course these are not rampaging hordes of Helvetii, but even so there are bound to be adverse consequences, unless one can limit the rate of immigration to be below the assimilation capacity of the host culture. Ask Mutti Merkel.

    How we react to immigration goes to the heart of how we feel about our culture. Multiple perspectives are possible:

    1. Preservation.
    We value our culture and want to preserve if against unwelcome changes. Especially we want to preserve that which has made it successful. This is a natural reaction.

    2. Renewal.
    The energy and stimulus of new ideas that come from new people can renew and invigorate our culture. This is an ethos of hope.

    3. Replenishment.
    The demographic collapse of the incumbent peoples fundamentally threatens economic growth. Immigrants become consumers that sustain growth. They thus have great utility.

    4. Exploitation.
    Immigrants are cheap labour that force down labour costs and thus increase profit margins. This has adverse consequences for those in low paying jobs, a large proportion of the population.

    5. Universalism.
    We are all equal before God. This ethos is especially evident in the Catholic Church which is why Pope Francis is a prominent spokesman for the rights of migrants.
    You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” Leviticus 19:34

    6. Compassion.
    Migrants are often fleeing from suffering and deserve our compassion.
    Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” Matthew 25:40

    Any debate about immigration must consider all perspectives but culture tends to imprison us in one perspective.

    At least, not in any society that hasn’t gone mad. Oh … wait…

    Thanks Dan for inspiring a good chuckle.

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    • labnut

      I agree that mass migrations have caused great conflict in the past, but I want to question a couple of details.

      … This started 60,000 years ago when we migrated out of Africa and met our cousins, the Neanderthals, in Europe. 10,000 years later not one Neanderthal was left alive.

      The Neanderthals lasted much longer, I think. And they interbred with modern humans, as did the Denisovans in the East. Europeans have small amounts of Neanderthal DNA.

      Also, I think that 60,000-years-ago figure has been revised. There is evidence of multiple migrations going back at least 200,000 years.

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      • Mark,
        The Neanderthals lasted much longer

        Remnants held out for 20,000 years in Spain. The end result was the same no matter which number we choose.

        And they interbred with modern humans…. Europeans have small amounts of Neanderthal DNA.

        Rape has always followed in the footsteps of violent conflict. We saw this in WWII, we saw this in Syria and we see this still today in Africa. The interbreeding hypothesis cannot possibly explain their disappearance if our DNA contains only 1% of Neanderthal DNA. If you ask yourself what the Neanderthals must have looked like you will understand how unlikely the natural interbreeding hypothesis is.

        The mountains I walk through contain a great many caves and most of them have rock art created by Bushmen. The mountains must have teemed with Bushmen but today the mountains are eerily empty. Where have all the Bushmen gone? Well we know the answer to that question. We, the migrants, shot them, we shot every last one of them. Migrations are often a murderous business.

        Also, I think that 60,000-years-ago figure has been revised.

        Homos erectus migrations out of Africa have been going on for much longer than 200,000 years, but the migrations that matter, in this context, are those of homo sapiens. Here the research is still unclear.

        An interesting thought is this. The Abel and Cain story may be a figurative re-telling of the conflict between Humans and Neanderthals.

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  4. Mark,
    Classical values (despite attempts by later thinkers to Christianize them) are opposed in quite fundamental ways to the moral spirit of the New Testament

    Hah, I can’t resist rising to the bait! I have my own thoughts about this but I would dearly like you to tell me in what fundamental ways they are opposed.

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    • labnut

      I am making some notes on this. There are different possible interpretations but any culture/religion which has the sort of absolute and morally engaged God that the Bible depicts is going to be at odds with the more laid-back approach of classical polytheism.

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      • Mark,
        I am making some notes on this.

        I look forward to reading them. How are classical values opposed, in quite fundamental ways to the moral spirit of the New Testament? We need to be clear about both terms before we contrast them.

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  5. Wallerstein,
    a lifelong distaste for Cicero, who is among the most preachy, sanctimonious people I’ve ever been obliged to read.

    It is interesting that two people can read the same author in such different ways. For example, I thought that De finibus bonorum et malorum made jolly good reading. He was deeply concerned about the merits of different ethical systems. That is a concern which is just as important two thousand years later.

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  6. Dan,
    It’s why I’m so pessimistic about the possibility of retaining a genuinely liberal ethos in our civilization.

    The devil is in the details. What makes a liberal ethos genuine? Who decides?

    Like

  7. Understanding a culture has to be done from the outside, which is why the inhabitants of a culture are so bad at understanding their own culture. I discovered this when I went to live and work in Shanghai. I was eager to understand Chinese culture but then discovered that I could only understand it by contrasting it with my own culture. Only then, from the outside, did I begin to understand my own culture.

    Which is why I recommend Ibn Warraq’s book, Why the West is Best: A Muslim Apostate’s Defense of Liberal Democracy. Here is an outsider who, with penetrating clarity, has discovered the essential elements of our culture. Mind you, this is a book that will mightily inflame the Politically Correct, provoking
    paroxysms of horror among liberal extremists.

    He says this

    The great ideas of the West—rationalism, self-criticism, the disinterested search for truth, the separation of church and state, the rule of law, equality before the law, freedom of conscience and expression, human rights, liberal democracy—together constitute quite an achievement, surely, for any civilization. This set of principles remains the best and perhaps the only means for all people, no matter what race or creed, to live in freedom and reach their full potential.1 Western values—the basis of the West’s self-evident economic, social, political, scientific, and cultural success—are clearly superior to any other set of values devised by mankind.

    In answer to the question, ‘Why did the West become successful?’, he gives the following answers:

    1. Greek reason.
    2. Roman law.
    3. Jerusalem, the ethics of the Bible.
    4. Church and state, the legal revolution.
    5. The enlightened Middle Ages.
    6. Science and intellectual freedom.
    7. Consent of the governed.
    8. The enlightenment.
    9. Economic liberalism.
    10. Exploitation theory(he refutes this)
    11. Bourgeois virtues.

    I think he left out the strong influence of Roman concern for orderly government coupled with a deep concern for the development of lasting infrastructure.

    I also think he left out our discovery of the Adversary Principle, whereby we settle conflicting interests in a non-violent way, in a symbolic arena, according to well defined rules, before an impartial arbiter.

    Read this book to understand how we are seen from the context of another, very alien culture.
    I would love Bharath to comment on this(Bharath, where are you in our hour of need?)

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  8. To the above I must add two things:
    1. Audi alteram partem – let the other side be heard
    2. Due process of law – we do not deprive or limit another person’s rights without going through the process of law.

    The liberal extremist’s de-platforming/silencing movement is in flagrant breach of the above principles.

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      • Is this not a consequence of “the radical partisanship of truth?

        With the scientific revolution truth has acquired a new meaning. It is clear, definite, ascertainable, defining and mandatory. From this perspective falsity cannot be entertained. Therefore it must be suppressed. And certain people have defined themselves as the arbiters of the truth. And if you do not agree you are propagating ‘Fake News’.

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        • What in liberal principles leads the idea that falsity must be suppressed? Mill in On Liberty certainly does not say that.

          If my neighbor has false ideas about the world, what’s that to me? If my doctor has false ideas about medicine, I switch doctors.

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          • Thank you.

            People have to think their way to their own conclusions. I can’t do it for them, and so forcing one’s ideas on others, as the SJW’s do, make may them conform to politically correct norms, but unless one comes to those norms through one’s own reasoning, those norms are not interiorized, but are followed out of rote conformity.

            For example, according to the British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who cannot be accused of anti-communism, after the end of the Soviet Union they asked Russians exactly who Marx was and very few could give a good answer. For 70 years the Soviet system tried to force Marx (a philosopher for whom I have the greatest respect by the way) down people’s throats and no one paid attention, just as I didn’t pay attention to my forced religious education as Jew when I was a child.

            Given the internet, it’s easy to research any imaginable topic and so if people are interested in something, they can learn it without my forcing it on them and if they are not interested, my forcing it on them is just pointless.

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  9. Excellent again, Mark, and I believe we see things very similarly. However, you say:

    “As I see it, without a rich, common culture, not only does a society become less interesting, it becomes less resilient. It fractures. And this is precisely what we are seeing in the United States and many Western countries today.”

    Isn’t it rather obvious, objectively speaking, that our ‘culture’ has become incredibly complex and ‘rich’? Documented information doubles about every 2 years or so. Music, art, literature, science, international relations, etc. What is fracturing are our old, out of date narratives. Now these incomplete explanations can be seen to be crumbling all around, and many of them are not that old. Hopefully we will retain the good stuff.

    I remain optimistic because, like you, I believe in the “the primacy of the individual”. We are the sole agents in this ineffable whole, we preserve, destroy, discover and build, one mind at a time. ‘Everything’ that matters to you exists in your mind. The political implications are pretty straightforward: protect and empower individuals through education and social arrangements – only delegate to the Central Authorities what the periphery cannot manage. Liberty tempered by responsibility!

    Liam. Johannes

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  10. > let’s learn to live and let live and to rejoice in diversity.

    I think that’s a fine statement when you live in a relatively homogeneous culture.

    In others, I don’t know.

    NW-Europe went through a period of great diversity in the Middle Ages. Citizens of one town would have different rights from citizens in other towns. They had their own town privileges (Stadtrecht, stadsrechten, privilège urbain). If the place happened to have a university, the students had other rights than the citizens. The nobility had its own rights, of course. And if you happened to live in the countryside, you had the rights the territorial lord happened to give you.

    And what if diversity leads to a Balkanization of society? A huge number of groups that actually don’t rejoice in diversity within their own group, but jealously guard their own cultural norms?

    There’s a great paradox: one can only rejoice in diversity in a culture that’s relatively homogeneous.

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    • There’s a great paradox: one can only rejoice in diversity in a culture that’s relatively homogeneous.

      It all depends on what one means by diversity. One can have cosmetic diversity but a deep down commonality in societal goals and values.

      Or one can have diversity in the way we express ourselves but still preserve this deep down commonality in societal goals and values.

      In both cases we can have an effective society. The problems start when the diversity reaches down to the deeper layers. Think of it like cracks in the plaster on a wall. We can easily tolerate that. But when the cracks go down into the structure of the wall itself we have serious problems with the stability of the wall.

      Liked by 2 people

      • > It all depends on what one means by diversity.

        On a deeper level, it also depends on the meaning of “rejoice”.

        Luckily, where I live the anti-vaccination crowd is vanishingly small. But I can’t rejoice in that sort of diversity. At best I can be indifferent. But rejoicing in a “culture” that puts its children at risk? No way.

        “Celebrating diversity”, “rejoicing in diversity” etc. … In a truly diverse society, without a relatively homogeneous culture, they just will be other expressions for indifference.

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          • > Diversity is value neutral.

            I share your dislike for the “mantra-like way it is invoked”. Multi-cultural is another example. Every decent student of cultures will tell you that societies have always been multi-cultural. It’s an objective, value-neutral description. And then, for a strange reason, it acquired a positive connotation (or negative, depending on the group you belong to).

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        • I believe that I was the first in this thread to use the phrase “rejoice in diversity”.

          I’m not saying that all the effects of diversity are positive. You mention the anti-vaccination people and I certainly don’t rejoice at their presence nor that of neo-nazis.

          However, in general a diverse society seems positive to me. I grew up in the U.S. in the 1950’s where there was little diversity, at least in New Jersey where I lived, and the conformity and fearful sameness was stifling. Diverse society brings lots of things and lots of kinds of people out of the closet: I don’t believe that we can have a diverse society where
          only the people who have a positive contribution to make come out of the closet. But all in all a more diversity society seem preferible to a less diverse one, even though as well as people who are no longer afraid to try positive “experiments in living” the worst kind of idiots and fascists also surface.

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  11. What role does culture serve?

    Our species could have been like intelligent ants, working in close harmony and little variation. But this would have been a static species, lacking inventiveness and therefore progress. The future is undefined and therefore always surprising. To respond to this future we cannot only draw on the repertoire of the past. That is the route to extinction. Instead we must be capable of inventive thinking so that we can devise new strategies to cope with unexpected futures.

    On the other hand, we are a deeply collaborative species and that requires close harmonisation of goals and activities. Walk through a large automotive company, as I have done so very many times, and you will understand this. You all drive autos so I hope you are grateful for this fact 🙂

    The problem we face is how to preserve our capacity for inventive responses to unexpected futures when we are deeply conditioned to collaboration and harmonisation. We do this by practising inventive responses in the way we express and practice our culture.

    Thus the deep down function of culture is that first it enables close collaboration and harmonisation. And second it allows us to practice inventive responses in ways that do not threaten our fundamental collaboration and harmonisation. We find practising these inventive responses to be pleasurable and rewarding, therefore we are motivated to continue them. In this way we are both an effective species and an immensely adaptive species.

    But, and this is a big but, merely consuming culture, as is becoming so normal, is not practising inventive responses. For that we must be creating and that is becoming rare. I saw this every year as we took on new batches of programmers straight out of ‘varsity. They proudly wore cosmetic diversity, feeling immensely superior, but they were dismally unoriginal and unimaginative in they way they created computer systems. I despaired of them.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I should also have mentioned the very important subject of stimulus. Culture exposes us to many modes of thinking and this is a vital stimulus to inventive responses.

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  13. Here is an interesting example of what I mean about the poorer ability of new students, lacking creative skills.
    Surgery students ‘losing dexterity to stitch patients’
    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/amp/education-46019429

    A professor of surgery says students have spent so much time in front of screens and so little time using their hands that they have lost the dexterity for stitching or sewing up patients.

    Roger Kneebone, professor of surgical education at Imperial College, London, says young people have so little experience of craft skills that they struggle with anything practical.

    “It is important and an increasingly urgent issue,” says Prof Kneebone, who warns medical students might have high academic grades but cannot cut or sew.

    “It is a concern of mine and my scientific colleagues that whereas in the past you could make the assumption that students would leave school able to do certain practical things – cutting things out, making things – that is no longer the case,” says Prof Kneebone.

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  14. A very good essay; I agree with some of it, perhaps most. But America stopped being a homogenous culture quite early, and the Constitution is intended to address, in part, how negotiations could be resolved between distinct regional cultures (which were still largely determined religiously, albeit economics became a greater distinguishing determinant as time went on). The aftermath of the Civil War led to further cultural differentiation, with the recognition of the cultures in the West (including whatever could survive of the Native Americans), the finally admitted need to find someplace for the Irish in the Northeast, the arrival of a new post-slavery African American culture to the South. Admittedly there was considerable tension, and even violence, as, for instance, the whites of the South developed their own post-war culture in opposition to the new African American culture, as well as against the culture of the triumphant industrial north.

    By the early 20th Century, America was inundated with immigrants from Mediterranean, Eastern Europe, and China. These immigrants were all made to feel most unwelcome, but they worked in dirty difficult jobs for much less than their American born peers – as did the first wave of Mexican immigrants, coming to escape the dreadful violence of the Revolutions.

    How did we survive these disruptions? It’s a real question we need to ask when topics such as that addressed in the essay are raised. Although ‘assimilation’ may be suggested, whereby the various sub-cultures accepted the central culture as part of their own inheritance, this is not entirely the case. For one thing, assimilation is a two way street; African Americans have never yet been fully assimilated into American business culture, but there isn’t a pop-song produced since the late 1920s that doesn’t evidence influence of African American music to some extent, however slight.

    Certain cultures have remained rigidly distinctive in their practices. I don’t know if very conservative Orthodox Jews allow their children to read Shakespeare, I suppose so. But I know most Amish do not. (No point talking with them about Greek gods – or, as they might say, pagan hell-spawn.)

    Even cultures that are not hermetically sealed have long lived in separate universes. The Fundamentalist creationist is literally in a different reality from those who accept the Big Bang and evolution. What is remarkable here – and yet only recently remarked – is that the well-educated, media-savvy, financially fairly well off utterly ignored that for a couple decades, in the ’60s and ’70s, until the Republican party made their deals with the Religious Right, and began financing them and bringing them out to public rallies, and promoting their Evangelical TV sermons.

    This may make some laugh, but please don’t: Remember that for the Mormons Kolob is the planet nearest to the throne of god. It was a neighbor planet to Earth, until god moved Earth into its present orbit, so that its destiny could be fulfilled.

    I say, don’t laugh, because the issue is living with people whose cultural references are extremely different from one’s own, and possibly extremely different from what might be called the mainstream.

    I don’t have a full answer is to this problem. But I don’t think it can be found, at least not solely, in achieving a ‘common culture.’ I think it’s more important to have a common law to which all differing parties acquiesce, and a common education in civic duty and good manners.

    A community of refugee Muslims who settle in a neighborhood, who are sincerely committed to living here, and thus accept our laws and abide by them, pose no threat – even should they proselytize, as long as they respect the law and other people’s rights under the law, Recently I’ve been reading up on the Sovereign Citizen movement (there are different appositional strains: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sovereign_citizen_movement) They don’t believe the laws apply to them – now that’s you’re scary potential threat.

    This dependence on law to keep a heterogeneous society together has it’s own problematics, of course. Primarily, it depends on the sincere desire of elected and appointed officials to follow the law, to find ways to transition from bad laws to good laws smoothly. to seek equitable laws that respect the rights of differing interests groups. Corruption is it’s death rattle. The hold of the rule of law has been weakened over the years – with the arrival of the Trump Party, it has become endemic. The Democrats have their own flaws in this regard to account for, but right now they are riding a reformist wave of opinion – we’ll see how committed to reform they really are.

    But certainly most Western and Western style representative democracies are currently suffering from decades of ‘looking the other way’ from the creeping corruption among civil servants, and this exacerbates the problems considerably. If different potentially conflicting cultures lose trust in the law, and if the rule of law is not upheld among those elected or appointed to do so, that’s when the problem of cultural differences grows like a cancer, threatening to burst through the skin in open violence.

    Finally (sorry for the long-winded comment, but the essay was good partly because intellectually challenging) – I did want to remark an elephant in the room; actually two: The legacy of slavery in the US, the legacy of European colonization world-wide. Neither of these elephants have been faced and addressed properly; neither is going away anytime soon. In the US, racial tensions will likely be the main spark of violence. Europe’s struggles to accommodate a sudden increase in destabilizing heterogeneity is a direct result of colonization – as is the attempt to ameliorate certain economic harms in the post-colonial world through a globalization that oft appears to be just as harmful. We reap what we sow. Or, rather, to be fair to ourselves – we try to harvest the good out of the evil our precursors sowed for us. If only they had known. Looking toward the future – have we learned the right lessons?

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    • Interesting aside re: the Mormons and Kolob. Even this has been integrated into our culture, specifically via the tv show Battlestar Galactica (both the original and the reboot) which is based on the Mormon ethos.

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  15. Mark, You conclude that “No doubt there are many causes of and explanations for the social and political problems we are currently witnessing, but the marginalization of shared, traditional stories is undeniably a significant factor.”

    Yes, but I suspect that the loss of a unifying cultural narrative is not so much a cause as a symptom of what is ‘really’ going on: exponential population growth is creating new pressures; large-scale migrations due not only to wars and other dislocations, but also due to the ease of travel; high volume real time global communications; the disastrous behavior of the ‘advanced’ nations in the 20th century; scientific support for a postmodern narrative of deconstruction. (As I have said before, I think postmodernism has been taken way too far.)

    There is ample reason to believe that cultural narratives are not driving the changes we see around us. Technological innovation might be where we want to look. A more universally shared coherent narrative certainly might help us deal with the situation better?

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  16. EJ,
    the legacy of European colonization world-wide. Neither of these elephants have been faced and addressed properly;

    And how would you suggest we go about doing this? How have we failed to address it properly? Just what was this legacy?

    Remember I have direct, ongoing experience of this legacy. I see and experience it every day, so this is not some theoretical construct for me.

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  17. Johannes,
    There is ample reason to believe that cultural narratives are not driving the changes we see around us

    Cultural narratives are two things.
    First, they are the means by which we make sense of life. We are ‘meaning making machines’, to quote my favourite friend, a narrative psychologist.
    Second, they are the resources we draw upon when dealing with the challenges of uncertain futures.

    Technological innovation might be where we want to look.

    I agree. But why might that be? We are tool using animals and every new tool has been bent to our use, multiplying our capacity. Until now that is, because something strange is happening, we are being subsumed by our tools.

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  18. Hi Mark

    I’m worried that, with all the praise above, you will be getting a bit complacent. Allow me to argue that this is not your best work. The problem lies with the absence of anything approaching a definition of culture. The passage from TS Eliot is plainly ridiculous. Quote:

    “The term culture,” wrote T.S. Eliot in his Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, “includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a people; Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, 19th-century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar. The reader can make his own list …”

    That is, culture equals games, sports, food, one type of building and one type of music, plus whatever the reader wishes to add to the list. You’d expect a first-year student to do better than that. The examples are too specific and the general rule underlying them, if there is one, is quite obscure.

    Notice too his smuggling in of the phrase “a people”. He seems to assume every “people” has its own “culture”. That is an interesting claim, but an implausible one, I would think. “Buddhist culture”, for example, crosses many very different peoples.

    Beetroot in vinegar!

    Alan

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