At the magnificent moment of our birth we are introduced to the world as members of the human species: homosapiens. However, within minutes, our social conditioning begins.
A specific language is spoken to us. The programming of specific feelings, values, ideas, group preferences, and religious ideologies has begun. Through a process of acculturation, our short-lived undifferentiated humanness has now been replaced by society’s classification system.
As our “acculturation” continues, we are no longer primarily human but rather identify ourselves with more specific groups. I am Irish, I am Dutch, I am French, etc. Eventually our identity will encompass a set of beliefs espoused by a particular religion, a political tradition and a geographic region.
Not every byproduct of this evolution is bad. Our assigned social roles allow society to function in an orderly and efficient fashion. Given the confines of society’s behavioral dictates, we experience immense pressures to stay within the confines of our roles. We become one with our societal, political, ethnic and religious worldview. By our teen years, we have already firmly digested a set of ideas, values, myths, history, customs, traditions, as well as a host of prejudices and sometimes even abhorrence for those not seen as being in our group or groups. Even more alarming, this feeling of hatred is often the strongest bond shared by members of our group.
One may ask: As rational individuals, aren’t we free to take from our culture that which we prefer and discard what we recognize to be undesirable? Don’t we possess inherently human qualities such as generosity, humor, and empathy, which trump any cultural predispositions to the contrary? Perhaps, but it’s not as easy as it sounds.
Brilliant anthropologist Dr. Ruth Benedict, in her fascinating work, “Patterns of Culture,” chronicles how utterly overwhelming acculturation can be. To demonstrate her point, Dr. Benedict examined in great depth two diverse cultures: the Dubuans of Melanesia and the Zunai Indians of New Mexico.
The Dubuans inhabit a volcanic outcropping at the eastern end of New Guinea. Right from birth, its members are taught to value suspicion, distrust, secrecy, deceit, dishonesty, and jealousy. For the Dubuans, existence is cutthroat, dominated by fear and distrust. These negative emotions are so effective and thoroughly indoctrinated into the population that no individualistic deviation from them was observed.
In contrast, the Zuni Indians of New Mexico teach their offspring to be secure, trusting, generous, and cooperative. In stark contrast with the Dubuans existence is viewed as a life affirming opportunity for growth and fulfillment; not a time for conflict.
The inescapable conclusion of this and other similar studies is that who we are is determined largely by our culture. Of course, we perceive ourselves to be autonomous, self determined rational selves, thinking our own thoughts, making our own decisions, developing our own values, behaving as we wish to behave, but the reality is quite different. Consequently, many thinkers now believe that the roles we play are virtual prisons, albeit of our own invention.
The power of acculturation is particularly alarming when you consider the fact that the lifeblood of a democratically pluralistic society, like ours, depends upon a robust acknowledgment of the validity of those who do not share our ethnicity, religion, race, politics or geography.
There is hope. In spite of the enormous influence that our traditions exercise over our world view, we are not powerless if we truly desire to break free of the shackles of our particular cultural system. We have the freedom to change. Although our task is a painful one as we risk the loss of our “roots,” the opportunities offered by the new “freedom” are immense. Our journey begins with the recognition of the cultural patterns, which have shaped our existence. Having done so we can now place ourselves in a larger context, not dissimilar to the one we occupied albeit ever so briefly at birth. While appreciating the fact that people can be acculturated into any set of customs, beliefs and values and made to believe or even worship anything, we now can work toward an assessment of the ways our culture may distort or accurately perceive reality. Once accessed, we can now make an intelligent decision as to the mores and beliefs we wish to embrace or discard.
Western political scientists have long worried about acculturation as it relates to the survival of democracies. These concerns are not misplaced paranoia. A brief review of history reveals the fragility of democratic societies. This becomes evident when we witness skillful tyrants exploiting the divisions among us for personal gain. The roadmap to fascism is not a mystery to anyone who understands the power and seductive allure of hatred. Us versus them is the oldest battle cry humans have ever uttered. Using the yardstick of sheer political clout, love does not trump hate.
Recognizing our natural tendency toward fear and disdain for those different than ourselves, every president, until recently, has observed the need to promote, authentically or not, unifying themes. Our nation, after all, was built on diversity, tolerance, and freedom. Today’s leader of the western world, however, has successfully and exuberantly mined the deep reservoir of hatred and fear of “the other.” Just as we can reject the pull of acculturation in favor of a more pluralistic approach to life, so, too, collectively we have the power as a nation to reject the allure of hatred and divisiveness in favor of our more traditional values of inclusiveness and yes even love.
Which route we will take, only time will tell.