Culture Flocks Together
One of the premises of my entire Divided series is the idea of division along lines of ethnicity, then the development of different, separate cultures among people who should have similar culture (given they are all ruled by a dictator and live in areas remarkably similar in their economies, education and governance). Yet, in practicality looking at real world examples, similar populations divided and allowed to develop over the course of decades and centuries will end up looking remarkably different.
Take ancient tribes in China, for example. People groups who show common DNA ancestry yet settled on this side or that side of a mountain, for instance, or in a territory ruled by another warlord, over the course of centuries developed distinct language dialects - languages not even similar enough to understand. In this way, the territory occupied by the majority Han ethnicity boasts dozens and dozens of distinct dialects, some of which are as different from one another linguistically as French and English. This is why the Qing Dynasty rulers in the 17th century instituted the use of written language to facilitate communication across the disparate empire.
History lesson aside, how do we know if we are the same “culture” as someone else? Is it just confined to a common language? I think about the difference between the English spoken in Houston, TX and the English spoken in London and know that’s not it. Is it that we listen to the same music? I heard American pop from the 1980’s being blasted in a gym in Japan and know that can’t just be it either. What about art? Some say art transcends different cultures and I would agree to an extent. No, it is much more basic - and unsettling - than that.
Culture, as defined by Oxford, is “the customs, arts, social institutions and achievements of a particular nation people or other social group.” But this definition also misses some of the nuances that make us aware that someone is “like” us. What about shared patterns of behavior, shared attitudes, or in the words of the Center for Advance Research on Language Acquisition, the “cognitive constructs and understanding that are learned by socialization”?
If you grew up in 1980’s America, you were well-acquainted with the images of missing children on milk cartons served at lunch in school. The message we all received was “lock your doors and don’t talk to strangers or you could end up on a milk carton.” But when I tried to explain why I lock the front door to Gen Z teenagers, trust me, they looked at me like I was crazy. They think locking the door is a sign of fear and they would never talk to strangers anyway unless they’re on Discord or Minecraft.
So since socialization seems to the key ingredient to culture, let’s talk about it and it’s impact on how we think and act (that’s the generic translation for the fancy words from the Center for Advance Research above). We can all related to our parent(s) telling us, “don’t do such and so” or make sure you say thank you, for instance. Furthermore, we can all also probably relate to lessons learned in Kindergarten - don’t stand on the table (unless it’s Friday and we all do it), share the toys, take turns on the playground equipment, and so on. These early life lessons shared across other lines that should divide us (economics, education of parents, where we live or what color we are) form the foundation for cognitive constructs and understanding that then shape our attitudes and behaviors. Remember your outrage at that kid who didn’t take turns on the slide? You wouldn’t know to be outraged unless someone told you to expect the behavior.
So, we are born into a culture, raised into it through family and school, then grow older and perpetuate it by how we live and raise our own children.
Now, maybe it’s easier to see how dividing people based on arbitrary characteristics could lead to the development of different cultures, even over the span of several decades (which is a short time when we talk about sociology). Culture is constantly changing - witness the trends of social media and slang, for instance - and that change helps drive division unless we create opportunities to come together across culture or commonalities that unite us.
By recognizing the fact that we all are part of a culture - and recognizing its faults, because every culture has them - we can then appreciate other people’s culture - and their strengths - more. Only by recognizing that our culture isn’t the only / best / optimal one can we then learn things from someone else’s culture and create a better culture for the next generation. Remember, culture is always changing, so that means we can influence it - for the better or for the worse.
Question to ponder and drop answers in the comments below: What unique traits of other cultures would you like to see in your culture?
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash