It’s the Culture, Stupid!

One of the many ways we might “slice and dice” humanity is to describe the wide gulf between people who understand the importance of systems and those who see the world entirely as a creation of individual actors and actions.

I don’t want to minimize the importance of leadership, because ultimately it is leaders and those they persuade who move the culture, but folklore to the contrary, that kid who stuck his finger in the dyke did not singlehandedly avert the deluge.

I understand the temptation to attribute social ills to personal failures. Saying “that guy is poor because he’s lazy,” is a much more satisfying analysis than one that tries to quantify the role(s) played by an inferior education or economic shifts that made his skills obsolete or bankrupted his employer–let alone public policies with unintended consequences.

There are two possible responses to a recognition of the immense influence of culture and social systems: you can shrug your shoulders, accept the brutal truth that you cannot change the world or even a small portion thereof, and spend your days cultivating your own garden (a la Candide); or you can join with others working for systemic changes, recognizing that life offers no guarantees. If and when change comes, its form will be unpredictable, its trajectory uncertain and its emergence maddeningly slow.

A lot of us struggle with that reality, and that choice, every day.

My garden is pretty appealing….and the magnitude of the cultural change we need is pretty daunting.

Withdrawal is tempting.


  1. “Withdrawal is tempting”. That’s why I resolved long ago not to intervene …..and besides, the devil is in the cultural details.

  2. Well, it is daunting if a person considers the entire problem and the numbers of problems. Maybe it helps to remember that “a journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step,” and just do one small thing to make a situation better. For example, think how clean this country would be if every single person picked up just one piece of street trash every day–instead of trying to figure out how to make people stop leaving trash around.

  3. Is there a world-wide pattern of increasing tribal mentality? It seems like that mindset is driving a lot of the conflicts/problems that are center stage.

  4. Culture in anthropological terms is defined as “the full range of learned human behavior patterns”. It has been said that, because it’s so relative, you don’t know one culture until you know two. In animals we often minimize the learned aspect of it by calling it instinct. It can be compared to evolution and natural selection in that it represents what’s been found to work best in a given environment. It exists at levels and is at least one explanation of tribal difficulties. Often the competition for resources realistically requires nature to choose winners and losers, and the best adapted culture competes best.

    Extremism, as a cultural phenomenon, amplifies differences as well as is caused by differences.

    All interesting things to think about in the context of extreme wealth inequality.

  5. Pete:

    Agree. If we’re not alrady there, we seem to be heading toward a showdown over diminishing resources – energy, water, food, jobs, on and on.

  6. @Sharon
    To follow-up with your first example of one step at a time on a 1000 mile journey; to take a system wide approach means in order to plan a 1000 mile journey, one would looks at what are the best roads to take if walking, what are the best times of the day to travel along certain sections of the journey, when should rest breaks and meal breaks take place, and overnight stays are pre-booked so there is room available. Prepare with the best shoes, the most appropriate gear, sunscreen, and a water bottle with the ability to stay fully hydrated. Maps are essential too. Proper rest is also helpful. Even better if one is fortunate enough to have the resources to bike or drive the 1000 miles instead of walk, one step at a time.

    One hopes that one does not have to take a 1000 mile journey by waking up one morning and having to walk out the door and reach a destination a 1000 miles away on the fly, without any pre-planning, without a clear cut path, or without any resources. Then add the stress of uncertainty of not knowing where one will wind up at in the end, and the emotional burden of being suddenly forced to walk.

    Yes each step may only be one step by itself, and on the surface seem like it is the same small step for everyone, but every step we take in life is really connected to system-wide planning and system-wide polices, so even something as simple as a step, is really not the same step at all for everybody. It makes a huge difference if one is taking a step as part of a planned intended 1000 mile journey versus being suddenly evicted and then having to walk a 1000 miles hoping to reach an uncertain destination with very limited resources. It makes a difference if the step is along a paved road versus trying to make one’s own path through a dense rain forest. It makes a difference if one has to walk in the street or in the middle of a highway because there is no sidewalks to walk on versus a route designed for walkers, etc. In other words, each and every step doesn’t occur in a vacuum.

    The system-wide approach also considers the big picture of how roads are built, are there connective paths that one could walk continuously along for 1000 miles, or all roads really designed as highways for automobiles going at least 55 miles per hour? Is the area safe to walk? Are there rest places and commercial areas available to re-stock supplies as one goes on a 1000 mile journey? Is there insurance in place of one gets injured? Should one travel alone? How can one find a group to walk with? Is there enough money to make it until the destination?

    So one small step may mean one big leap for humankind.

  7. Daleb:

    Now that we have abandoned even the pretense of a classless society, different classes (cultures) are adapting different strategies for a showdown possibility. The current success of the NRA selling guns, of “hip hop” culture, of religious apocalypse visions, of violent entertainment, of gated communities, of conspicuous consumption, of the impossibility of agreeing on an AGW vision that will save our only home, are all preparations for what many (most?) people think is inevitable. I personally believe that President Obama has managed to avoid the trauma on his watch.

    We’ll see what’s next.

  8. I don’t want to monopolize the conversation in any way, but one more thought about culture.

    None of us can take credit for the degree to which culture spreads and takes hold, it’s viral, but with today’s media it can definitely be planted. In fact I would say that today’s crop can be largely traced to economic benefit of the few.

    Tribal chiefs used to be the ones most adept at fostering culture (now called politics) but now it’s business and we call it advertising. Hence our wealth distribution problems. Those that do it are too skilled and those who are led by it are not critical enough.

    Does anyone else think that way?

  9. We are called by the Holy Spirit or by the human spirit (take your pick) to give. We are not called to count what we give or to measure its effect. We are not called to change the world or even change another person’s life. We are not called to distinguish the deserving from the undeserving. And we certainly are not called to withdraw or surrender. We are called to give, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, as all the world’s major religions teach. Beyond that, all that we can expect from ourselves and from each other is faith. We have faith that our giving will help us resist the pull of the culture of selfishness, at the least, and, at most, will lead eventually to a more just, merciful and loving culture.

  10. Mr. Starks; your comments rival quotes from “The Prophet”, an ideal human condition to strive for but not based in reality. It was not the reality when Kahil Gibran authored his beautifully written book in 1923 and is even further from reality today. It is the proverbial carrot being waved in front of the American masses by the current bought-and-paid-for GOP and cloaked in pseudo religious dogma. That carrot is attached to a stick wielded by the GOP which is herding the sheep, in the form of staunch Republicans, into the oblivian of loss of our basic human and civil rights. The saddest part is that these sheep (who continue electing them) do not realize they, too, are victims of the 1% and are sinking along with the rest of us.

    The GOP led SCOTUS is aiding and abetting their each and every move and attempting to divert attention from their actions by accusing any opposition as being unconstitutional. I keep a small copy of the Constitution of the United States (with all Amendments) on my coffee table and next to my computer desk for quick reference. Since 2008 these copies have become well-worn and dog-eared. Since the Constitution was written and enacted, culture has gone through many changes, never more than today. I never before lived in fear of my day-to-day existence, the possible loss of income and medical care which I paid for during the 25 years I worked and pay for today. The class system is becoming more evident almost daily; for decades I understood and accepted that there were many others who had more status, money and opportunities than I could hope to have. I have also been aware of those less fotunate than myself in my barely above Federal poverty level existence; now I fear losing this tentative position in life and fear even more what is ahead for my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. God bless American – where did it go?

  11. JoAnn, you seem to think that Mr. Sparks is divorced from reality, but you aren’t looking hard enough. When I ran for CIty-County Council against a crony-capitalist opponent, a woman remarked to me that I was naive, that the world didn’t work that way. I responded with the Kennedy brothers’ favorite quote from Shaw, “..I dream things that never were and ask why not”. The first rule of succeeding in political change — or anything — is to not believe people who tell you that you can’t do it.

    To amplify Mr. Sparks’ message, I recall a favorite religious teaching from my youth. It is not for us to complete the task (of healing the world), but neither are we free to desist from it.

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