I’m back where I love to be, starting a new book and building the world where the story will grow. Background work for this new project has me digging into the history of conquest and nation building, and my research is intersecting directly with the rest of my life, where I’m an active member of a community focused on valuing diversity. Culture and identity are on my mind, and I find that I live in a place where both things are misunderstood or more often, never considered. That’s why for the next couple of months, I’m using this space to open a discussion of culture: what it is, why it matters, and how we bridge cultural gaps. This whole conversation a bit like trying to move an ocean with a child’s bucket, but being destined to fall short is no reason not to begin. And so we dip our bucket in.
Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
-Shylock, The Merchant of Venice
Every person I’ve ever spoken to after their first trip to another country says some version of the same thing: “It was so amazing to see that under all the differences, those people are just like me.”
This idea comes up again and again in discussions of race and culture. “If only we could understand that at the core, we’re all the same.” “We may have a million little differences, but we have the important things in common.”
It’s a compelling thought, an encouraging thought. It feels like the seed of a solution to our battles over race, gender, nationality. If only we could see past the color of someone’s skin and the way they dress, the food they eat and the language they speak, we’d discover the unity of all mankind.
But is it true?
Is our culture just a layer covering over some essential humanity, so that we could learn to dig past it and get to our true selves?
Are we all essentially the same?
Remember, culture is defined as the values, beliefs, and behaviors that are shared by a group of people.
So, let me ask you a couple of questions. Who are you without your values, beliefs, and behaviors? Do you have an essential self that is separate from what you cherish and what you believe and what you do?
I submit that there is no way to ever actually strip those things away, and that if you could, you would no longer be you.
The notion that we could set aside our cultures and get back to some essential inner self is not rooted in reality. Not only is our culture entwined with our self, our culture informs our very understanding of what is essential. It taught us what “self” means.
And yet, in tension with that is the truth that we are all human beings, and as such, there must be some things in common, and that commonality must matter.
I believe it does. I never argue with those who say that we are all the same (unless they are trying to use that to shut down the discussion). The discovery of our common human traits is the beginning of understanding because it’s the beginning of caring. Like it or not, we find it nearly impossible to take interest in things that have no connection to ourselves. That means I have to see that you and I are alike in some way or I don’t care about you enough for me to want to work to bridge our differences. I have to believe that there is some common ground on which we could learn to stand.
Seeing our sameness is a beautiful first step toward each other. It’s only when we are content for it to be the last step that it becomes a lie.
So in what ways are we truly the same? Where is our common ground?
Let me tell you what I believe we all have in common. I specify that it’s what I believe because it would be dishonest to present this as objective truth. My views of what it means to be human, like everything else, are shaped by my culture. I won’t apologize for that, but I will be sure to be honest about it. There’s a lot to unpack here, so I’m going to start with the most basic, most physical aspects of this question. Then in Part 2, I’ll explore the question of less tangible commonalities.
We have the same home.
The Earth is what we all have in common.
We are all sharing this one planet. I don’t think any sane person would object to listing this as a commonality. For better or worse, we live on this giant ball together.
We look up at the same moon and are warmed by the same sun. We are subject to gravity and depend on the oxygen contained in our atmosphere. We pass through day and night. We have access to a finite number of plants, animals, and minerals. We are born here, we live here, we die here.
It matters. Across cultures, you see that we all have some relationship with the sun, moon, and stars. Across cultures, we interact with the ideas of day and night. Across cultures we create explanations of the same natural phenomena.
Of course, our explanations are wildly different. We don’t all experience our planet the same way. Our days and nights are not the same length or filled with the same darkness and light. Our exposure to variety of plant and animal life is not the same. In the frozen north, fire may be the most valuable substance on earth, while in other places it is water or earth or even suitable air.
We don’t have the same beliefs about our place on this earth or the earth’s place in the universe. We don’t have the same beliefs about where it came from or how long it will last. We may all be here right now, but for some of us, our life on earth is all that there is to existence (and therefore of defining importance), while others believe in an afterlife in which they are not confined here, and still others see a future for humanity in which we physically leave this ball behind. Accordingly, we don’t believe the same things about our responsibility to the earth or its responsibility to us.
For all that we share a home, if you heard us describe it, you’d think we were from different planets. Still, we do have some shared experiences, even if we interpret those experiences differently.
We’re made up of the same stuff.
DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.
— Richard Dawkins
As I understand it, we have 99.9% of our DNA in common with all other humans. The physiological differences you see are all found in that tiny 0.1% of variation. We are made of the same materials and put together in the same way. As a result, we all have certain needs and we all live with certain limitations.
We need air to breathe, water to drink, and food to eat, as well as some way to regulate our body temperature. No matter where you live or in what time, no matter your culture or gender or economic status, your body requires oxygen, hydration, and nutrients. Without them, you won’t survive. Your body can’t do whatever it wants. It can’t fly and it can’t run faster than two legs can carry it. Your body can’t go anywhere it wants. The pressure at the bottom of the ocean is too much for your cells, and the cold of the arctic would end you.
Of course, we’ve developed techniques and technologies to meet those needs and bypass those limitations, and we don’t all have the same access to those. Even more basic, we don’t all define the range of our physical needs in the same way. We don’t all need the same kinds of nutrients, for example. We don’t even differentiate between need and want in the same way. And we don’t all accept the same limits or have the same resources to stretch them.
So yes, if I don’t understand anything else about you, I should at least be able to understand your need to breathe and to drink and to eat. Of course, animals share those same needs, too. As a common ground to stand on, DNA doesn’t help much. Science tells me that I also share 60% of my DNA with a banana, and God knows I don’t have much empathy for fruit.
We all experience pain.
“When we fully understand the brevity of life, its fleeting joys and unavoidable pains; when we accept the facts that all men and women are approaching an inevitable doom: the consciousness of it should make us more kindly and considerate of each other. This feeling should make men and women use their best efforts to help their fellow travelers on the road, to make the path brighter and easier as we journey on. It should bring a closer kinship, a better understanding, and a deeper sympathy for the wayfarers who must live a common life and die a common death.”
We all bleed. We all get diseases. We all die.
If ever there is anything that should make us see ourselves in someone else, it is watching them suffer pain. You sneeze, you vomit, you cut your finger. I have visceral memories of those exact experiences. Empathy, seeing myself in you, is never easier than when you are sick or wounded.
All cultures have had to deal with sickness, with injury, with death. These are common human experiences, and we do see that common influence on our values, beliefs, and behaviors.
The problem, of course, is that in order to deal with the reality of pain and death we’ve constructed a multitude of worldviews and coping mechanisms, and those constructs are intensely important to us.
We don’t all explain pain and death the same way. We don’t agree about where it comes from or why it happens. We don’t agree about the degree to which we control it or are responsible for it. We don’t value the same responses to pain and death. We don’t believe the same things about sickness, and we don’t define health in the same way. We don’t have the same expectations for life or death or what comes after our death.
Perhaps pain is the common language of our bodies, but our minds are translating it into a million dialects, and those translations are vital to our sanity and survival. Right where we should be able to come the closest, we find that we have the hardest time meeting each other because neither of us dares to let go of what has enabled us to cope so far.
So what is my point? Why break this down in so much detail?
I’m trying to lay the foundation for our conversation about culture. Under our language and worldview and systems of belief, there is the physical us. When I look at only that, I come to two conclusions:
1. On the level where we can easily see our similarities, we see little to no unique humanity. Our physicality (us on the meat level) is what we most clearly have in common with other humans, but it’s also what we have in common with other life on Earth. We live on this planet, need the basic building blocks of life, experience physical damage and die. So do puppies and whales and tarantulas. So do ferns and trees and mold, for that matter. If we are coming together on this level, if we are meeting as animals. Perhaps there is some value in that, but it isn’t the goal I’m reaching for.
2. We need each other to survive. If there is one thing we find when we look at our physical selves, it’s that we can’t stay alive for long alone. The planet is big, and it’s dangers are many. Our human bodies are relatively frail and our needs are constant. Sickness and injury come from all sides. We need each other to survive all of that. Even if we set aside all emotional need for society, we need other humans just to keep our bodies alive. As a reason to keep searching for common ground, it’s pretty compelling.
It’s only a start, though. As I said at the very beginning, I’m not just looking to survive. I want to live at peace and find the truth. I want to be more than a pack of animals who work together to stay alive. So in Part 2, I’ll look at some less tangible things we have in common, some uniquely human things, I hope. You can tell me if they’re all in my imagination.