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.
I won’t recap the whole context for this conversation. You can find Part 1 here.
I do want to say again, though, that as we look at the less tangible things we have in common, I’m talking about what I believe to be true about the world. I know most of you reading will share enough cultural context with me that you’ll understand and mostly even agree. But it’s important that we realize that what we take to be “facts” are always based on beliefs. Belief in the validity of the scientific method or the accuracy of certain historical records is still belief, and it isn’t shared by everyone.
The three areas of commonality below are all vital if we’re going to reach true cultural understanding. They are also all based on a set of beliefs not everyone shares. This is why the conversation feels so impossibly difficult.
I know. Hang with me. We’re almost done laying our foundation.
Our brains function in the same ways, producing uniquely human desires and emotions that we all share.
I’m not a neuroscientist, so I won’t attempt to define this too scientifically. As far as I can tell from my research, even neuroscientists have a hard time agreeing about how our brains work. We do know, though, that the human brain is something unique. While there are animals that have similar brain structures, ours operate with a complexity that gives us cognitive function, memory, and emotion not shared by other creatures. We do share it with each other, though. Our brains may look different, but they work in very similar ways.
First, no matter what our physical differences, we share basic instincts and drives. We all want to be safe and to be healthy. We all want the ability to provide for our basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter. We all feel the drive to reproduce and to keep our offspring safe and healthy.
Note that I am saying we desire these things and feel these drives. We don’t all act on our desires or instincts (i.e. we all feel the urge to reproduce on a biological level, but we don’t all have children). We certainly don’t act on them in the same ways. We don’t all define safe and healthy in the same way. We don’t define basic needs isn’t the same way. We don’t have the same belief about our ability to have those things, and we don’t assign the same meaning to having them or not having them. (Whose fault is it that you do or don’t have children? What does it say about you that you do or don’t have children? What does the number of children you have say about you? We answer those questions very differently.)
Beyond instinct, our human brains lead us all to experience certain emotions. Sadness, joy, fear, and anger are common human experiences. Though those emotions are triggered by different things and expressed in different ways, the emotions exist in all of us. When any of us experiences loss, he experiences grief. When we are in danger, we experience fear. How we interpret that experience will vary, but on some level, what is happening in our brains and bodies is the same.
Humans are also wired to be social creatures. We all desire to be loved and accepted and a part of something bigger than ourselves. Perhaps neuroscience doesn’t provide much proof of this, but the scope of human history bears it out. Family, tribe, nation. Humans group together and find great significance in being a member of a group.
We certainly don’t share the same definition of what that something should be or of what it would look like to be loved and accepted. What we’re willing to sacrifice for the group varies, along with the importance we place on its needs over our individual needs.We don’t agree on the purpose of a group or its permanence, but once we are a part of something, our family or tribe, we do all invest ourselves to some degree in the safety, health and provision of that group. In other words, we all “love” our “families”, however we are defining the two words.
Of course, this basic commonality is one that racism has violently and blatantly attacked. Racist systems are built on the belief that one race is superior, actually has higher neurological function, than another. We claim to be capable of better thinking, better decision making, and so we should be in charge. (Sexism is based on a similar belief, of course.) “Science” is used to support this. Look at the differences in brain size or shape. Look at the results of IQ tests or other evaluations. Racist systems have asserted that “inferior” races don’t reason as well as we do, don’t actually feel the same emotions we do, that they don’t feel the same drives we do. Those assertions are the justification for tearing families apart and for taking away the right to self-determination. Slavery throughout history is the most obvious example of this, but even where slavery is outlawed, we find a million variations of the notion that there is no point in giving certain people money or power because they just wouldn’t know what to do with it.
I reject any and all rhetoric that would imply that others don’t feel or don’t need. I reject the belief that because of my race or gender, I am biologically superior or inferior to someone else. I acknowledge that we all have different capabilities (there is infinite variety in brain function), but I reject the ideology that you can detect those capabilities by looking at my gender or the color of my skin. (Beyond that, I reject the ideology that my capabilities are what determine my value. More on this later.)
We all are a mix of good and evil.
Yes, I am asserting that there is such a thing as good and evil. It’s not necessary here to define those terms. Whether you think good is promoting the survival of the human race and evil is detracting from it or whether you think those concepts are defined by God or you have some other moral code, everyone who isn’t a complete nihilist operates on the assumption that good and evil exist. That said, under any definition of the words, there is no person who is completely good at all times in all ways, and there is no person who is always only evil. We all have strengths and we all have weaknesses. We all help sometimes and we all hurt sometimes.
Just as that is true for individuals, it’s true for cultures. There is no innocent people group and no wise people group. None of us holds all of the goodness or all of the truth or all of the genius. To say we do is to be arrogant to the point of absurdity. Equally, though, none of us is utterly evil, without a shred of truth, or incapable of any valuable thought. Perhaps in some cases there is very, very little, but the human mind and experience is too complex to claim that we don’t each at least stumble on some truth at some point.
This is an important common ground. Acknowledging our shared fallibility is what enables us to listen to each other. And agreeing to listen is where this all begins.
We are all of equal value.
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Here is the crux of the issue, the foundation of everything, and it’s precisely here that we run into the most actual disagreement.
Every human being has the same intrinsic worth and value. Each member of the human race is worth exactly what each other member is worth.
This belief is foundational to my culture. As an American, I was taught that all men are created equal. As a Christian, I believe that God is the one who created us and our value comes from him. Because he decided to love us, we are lovable. Because he decided to value us highly, we are valuable. He says we all have equal value. Therefore I believe that we do.
Not everyone believes this, though.
Consider this: the word value is an economic word. How do you measure what someone is worth? How do you measure what anything is worth? The value of something is what someone is willing to pay for it.
So yes, I believe in a God who was willing to pay his own son’s blood for the human race, and it follows that I believe we are extremely valuable. But if you don’t believe in that God? Or in any God?
What gives each human value?
Is it how much they are loved by other humans? Because not everyone is loved equally. Is it how much they contribute the survival of the human race? Because not everyone contributes equally. Is it merely the value of every living thing as a piece of the whole? Then perhaps we all have equal value but also each animal and plant and rock has equal value with each of us.
Each of those beliefs (and many more) are held by real people. When you dig down to the bottom of our beliefs MANY of us don’t believe we’re all truly equal. And our behaviors reflect this belief, even if we don’t want to own it.
I’m sorry, Thomas Jefferson, but this truth is not self-evident. (And even you, slave owner that you were, didn’t really think it was.) We have to find a basis for the truth of our equal value, or it doesn’t exist at all.
All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.
-George Orwell, Animal Farm
That’s some heavy, philosophical stuff. If you’re still reading, thanks for sticking with me. For the next couple of weeks we’ll lighten up and have more fun trying to understand culture on a practical level. But we had to start here. We had to look at what we believe about this conversation before we could have the conversation.
It’s important to build from the ground up.
Or at least, that’s what makes cultural sense to me.