Two Wrongheaded Cultural Assumptions

If the behavior of Western Man is a threat to our survival, as I believe it is, then we need to change it. But, in order to change it, we first need to inquire into why we do the things we do. This inquiry, however, is complicated by two cultural assumptions which operate against both inquiry and change and which need to be dealt with before going any further:

(1) We assume that we “Westerners” are free, rational and objective individuals who choose our behaviors based on “what makes the most sense” — and we believe that “what makes sense” is a rational and objective determination.

(2) At the same time, oddly enough, we assume that much of our behavior is hard-wired because it is necessary to our survival, and therefore cannot and should not be changed: For example, capitalism is frequently explained as an expression of our innate greed — which is viewed as a survival instinct; militarism is explained on the basis that human aggression is a given and must be defended against. Therefore, it is argued by conservatives, it would be unrealistic, impractical, and “against human nature” to work toward a more economically equitable and non-militaristic society.

Although these assumptions clearly contradict each other, no one seems to be bothered, because both of these attitudes work together in a culturally self-serving way to maintain the cultural status quo. The underlying message is that the way we operate in the West is both enlightened and objective, rational and right — and an expression of our innate human nature — which is why it is so successful. If you have a problem with it, take it up with God — in whose image we are, after all, made.

Setting aside the contradictions, each of these assumptions is open to question: for example, if our behaviors are freely and individually chosen, why is it that we find it so difficult to change, even when we want to, even when we think we should, e.g., why are racism and sexism still so prevalent years after we thought we had solved these problems? Why, if we make our decisions on an individual basis, is most behavior not individual but culture-wide? Why, if we are rational and individual, do certain groups of behaviors seem so predictably to go together — even when the relationship between them seems to be illogical. (For example, doesn’t it seem paradoxical that those who are pro-life are usually pro-war, pro- capital punishment, and anti-nature? To further complicate matters, the pro-life proponents, who are militaristic, legalistic, authoritarian, anti-earth and anti-woman, frequently claim to be Christians, i.e., worshippers of the egalitarian carpenter of Galilee.)

Conversely, if our behaviors are hardwired, how could it be that people in other times and places have come up with different social systems which place value on things other than the accumulation of wealth and the buildup of military power?

I would argue that although on the one hand we believe ourselves to be free and rational creatures while on the other we believe ourselves to be ruled by our �human nature,� the truth is that we are neither; we are culturally programmed — which means that we are both less free and more free than we would like to think. We are less free than our egos want to acknowledge and we are more free than our consciences care to admit. To be culturally programmed, rather than biologically programmed, means that our behaviors are not hardwired, and that we are capable of change. But to acknowledge that our behaviors are the result of cultural programming, rather than the product of free will, also means that changes in behavior at the cultural level will not come easily.

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