Wouldn’t it have been great if, when we were growing up, there had been an audible signal when each of our beliefs achieved the rigidity of concrete? Imagine hearing inspirational music with announcements declaring, “Listen up, this is important. This is going to be your opinion from now on.” Of course, this doesn’t occur. Instead, our respective cultures play a strategic role in shaping our views without notice for most of our lives.
We don’t grow up making up our minds about the world independent of our communities. Quite the contrary: we carry many of our customs, beliefs, prejudices, and aspirations with us to our graves. Each new generation, however, rejects some things learned from their elders while internalizing others wholeheartedly. The pendulum of liberal-versus-conservative politics is always at sway in the wind, but it never ventures so far in one direction that it doesn’t at some point reverse course.
America would benefit tremendously if each and every one of us would routinely take the time and effort to examine our own beliefs genealogically and follow them all of the way back to ideological bedrock. It is incredibly powerful and insightful to discover how and why we view the world as we do. Much of what we come to believe as straight-up reality is the residue of past events and customs that bear little resemblance to the world we live in today.
I grew up in the South, in Texas and Oklahoma, in the 1940s and ’50s. As a teenager, when I went to movies and saw an example of, say, a New York cab driver shouting obscenities at a male passenger or a pedestrian and nothing happened as a result, it didn’t seem real. This didn’t seem possible in my community because you could not shout insults in another man’s face without an obligatory fistfight. Being publicly humiliated required immediate redress.
There was no music or voice-over announcement when I absorbed the notion that an in-your-face insult had to be answered with a physical response. Nevertheless, this ethos is still so much a part of my psyche that no amount of intellectual rigor can rid me of the felt need to respond to an egregious insult in this manner. At my age, though, I imagine the offender might yet go unscathed.
Now, when you take customs like this to their ideological foundations, things get really interesting. In their book Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South, Dov Cohen and Richard E. Nisbett report research showing that when men of the South are insulted, they experience rapidly escalating increases of testosterone and cortisol. And yet, this is not usually the case with men raised in the North. Stated simply: we absorb our culture with congealed emotion that sets up like cerebral cement.
Historically the culture of defending oneself as a matter of principle traces back to the antebellum notion of Southern honor. From there, it goes all the way back to herding cultures and then back further still to the male dominance expressed in sacred religious texts. In other words, this ethos is about pious behavior ensconced in the values of protecting the flock against any and all comers with a posture aggressive enough to ward off all those who might be tempted to trespass or bring harm.
If you are old enough to recall the 1950s and ’60s, you will recognize the residue of herding culture psychology combined with a hybrid notion of Southern honor and the stoic resolve of Native Americans as fundamental to a major theme of Western movies: A rugged, unshakable stranger comes to town and is not to be offended or affronted without grave consequences that, more often than not, result in a gunfight. The core cultural thread that holds this attitude together is the unspoken declaration that it is a man’s world and men are meant to be in charge. Millions of Americans still feel the influence of this cultural pressure on our identity.
This ethos continues to prevail across the country, especially in politically red states, where an established sense of patriarchal authority reigns with regard to how people—especially women—should behave. The gentility of the Old South, in particular, is steeped in a historical connection with the philosophy of herding cultures and the protection and sense of ownership of both women and slaves. Above reproach, ladylike behavior and demonstrated subservience by both women and slaves amplified the resident white gentlemen’s sense of honor. All actions or behaviors to the contrary were, and still are, suspect.
When we hear people say things like, “I have nothing against homosexuals, except when they shove it in my face,” what they are really expressing is the angst of a threatened worldview. Their identity is at risk, and this is a really scary situation for them. If they discover a rip in the fabric of what they consider reality, especially what they revere as moral truth, then the fissure has the potential to grow wider and could ultimately include their religion, their politics, and even their simple prescription for what constitutes a meaningful life. Moreover, the older one is, the greater the threat, since the thought of having lived one’s whole life in existential error is as psychologically devastating as facing the end of the world.
If people are increasingly defying norms and behaving more and more in ways other than are commonly considered acceptable, or if their actions fly in the face of local expectations, such behavior will be experienced as existentially frightening by those who revere custom. An endangered worldview portends mortal peril, and the visceral response is to fight such change as something evil.
In the antebellum South, it’s hard to overestimate the amount of influence men were expected to have over the behavior of women, especially when it comes to being seen as protecting them and their reputation. Thus, every aspect of feminism was and still is a threat to traditional patriarchy, and those who conform and behave as expected resent those who resist.
Take the issue of abortion. What interests me most is that many of the people who are most vocal about being pro-life appear to hold their belief, not so much because of an actual concern for unborn children, but more out of a desire to protect a parochial and patriarchal worldview. Now I’m sure there are exceptions, but regardless of your gender, if you are aggressively pro-life ask yourself this question: If you take this issue clear to its core, do you really care all that much about unborn children, or could this have more to do with the way you were raised and how you were taught women are supposed to behave? How much concern do you show for children, other than your own, when the subject of abortion is set aside? How do you reconcile the deep irony in the scientific admonition that the exponential growth of human population threatens our very existence?
On the other hand, if you believe absolutely in a woman’s right to choose whether or not to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term, where do you think this assumption originates and how did you come to believe it? What sense of a woman’s freedom do you think enables you to readily discount the life of an unborn child? At what point do you think ending the life of a fetus is wrong?
Reflection of this kind takes a formidable amount of soul-searching. Our desire to be honest with ourselves has to be stronger than the concrete in which our foundational beliefs are set, if we are to venture far enough to see the issue from another point of view, let alone change our minds.
This is precisely why learning about our history is so important for deciding who we really are and how we are to behave. We typically use all sorts of expressions that bear little resemblance to their origins. For example, it is not uncommon today for people to refer to someone during an argument as an SOB. But few, I suspect, mean this in the way it was used in the Old South, when the worst possible insult was to literally demean another person’s mother with the term. When we fail to understand how and why we hold our beliefs about the world, we are too easily manipulated politically and the emotional fallout shows itself as a surplus of arrogance and contempt.
Most of the things that we believe constitute our worldview are deeply imbedded in our sense of identity. Very often the main reason we take sides on an issue has much more to do with the fact that our respective identity group has already taken the position and we feel obliged to join in. This, in my view, helps no one because, until we do the kind thinking that gets us beyond the simple notion of identity, we have little hope of achieving the kind of objectivity that would assure a sense of honor for ourselves as individuals and our respective groups.
A genuine sense of moral objectivity becomes possible only when we delve deeply into the genealogy of our beliefs and discover things that, had we known earlier, would likely have caused us to honorably change our viewpoint. But here is the really hard part: Even when we do change our minds, intellectual effort alone is not enough to neutralize the deep-seated emotion in which our beliefs are set.
To truly change our minds, we have to override the old conviction with a passion more powerful than the emotion that enabled it to establish itself as belief in the first place.
To accept one’s culture without question is to spend life as a prisoner of the past.
Wednesday 31 July 2013