Quick preface – I really do think like this. All the time. So far, all evidence points to a vast majority of people not only refusing to do so, but actively demeaning those who do. Therefore, when I say “my culture”, I mean *me*. Not because I’m the smartest or the best, but because I know that I’m actually thinking about it. If you think about it as much as I, then you’d probably be included in “my culture” too. Please note that it’s the thought, not the conclusion, that counts here. Okay, on to today’s thought.
“I might sound like a cultural relativist, but ultimately, I think that my culture is best.”
Yeah, that’s an awkward construction, isn’t it? I was attempting to express the distinction between total relativism (“Why, sure, your belief in genocide is as valid as mine of world peace!”) and ethnocentrism while at work today. There’s not an elegant way to do it – at least, not in English. “I respect all traditions as long as they preserve individual choice”? Rather wordy, isn’t it? Probably the closest (and catchiest) is “Do what thou wilt, save that you harm none other.”
Yet even that – and the libertarian variants are even worse on this – ignores that we are all creatures of our cultural upbringing. Take, for example, the standards of beauty and sexual conduct for men and women. They may not be as extreme as foot-binding (though I’d almost argue differently with some of the stilletto heels I’ve seen), but we still ritually modify ourselves and our actions based on an external standard of beauty. “Macho” behaviors are still accepted as the norm for men, though a certain coarseness is thankfully gone. These things are embedded – so our desires are in large part culturally formed. What we want is no longer free will. A student at my workplace kept talking about how she couldn’t learn things – but she’s been a quick learner, and is now as good a worker as anyone else there. Empirically, she is a lot smarter than she gives herself credit for, but her upbringing has still programmed her to not believe in her own ability.
So you can have people of all types and colors *actively choose* the behaviors and societies that serve to repress them. There will be women choosing to bind their feet because it makes them “pretty”. You have people “doing as they wilt”, despite it actively harming themselves… because that’s what they’ve come to learn. And for many of them/us, it may already be too late to change those inbuilt patterns of behaviors.
Our behaviors change our brains in a dialectic conversation. What you do changes your biology which changes what you do. These things we’ve learned, these cultural artifacts are now literally hardwired into every adult and adolescent brain. (There’s a good deal of evidence from women’s studies that there is a real paradigm shift at adolescence.)
This puts us in a dilemma Max Weber would have appreciated. We have the ability to transcend all of these cultural artifacts, to treat each other as humans. We have, through individual psychotherapy, learned the tools of helping ourselves and each other to climb out of the collective Stockholm’s syndrome that we are imprisoned in. But the very cultural traditions we wish to overcome are those that perpetuate the problems. We have *cultural momentum*.
This might be the greatest (and largely unrecognized) promise of the technological Singularity; a chance to become truly posthuman, to truly transcend the cultural baggage of generations of apes struggling to survive.