About the Name of this blog

This blog's title refers to a Dani fable recounted by Robert Gardner. The Dani live in the highlands of New Guinea, and at the the time he studied them, they lived in one of the only remaining areas in the world un-colonized by Europeans.

The Dani, who Gardner identifies only as a "Mountain People," in the film "The Dead Birds," have a myth that states there was once a great race between a bird and a snake to determine the lives of human beings. The question that would be decided in this race was, "Should men shed their skins and live forever like snakes, or die like birds?" According to the mythology, the bird won the race, and therefore man must die.

In the spirit of ethnographic analysis, this blog will examine myth, society, culture and architecture, and hopefully examine issues that make us human. As with any ethnography, some of the analysis may be uncomfortable to read, some of it may challenge your preconceptions about the world, but hopefully, all of it will enlighten and inform.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Culture Wars


In the past few decades there has been a conflation of the terms culture and lifestyle.  More specifically, we have frequently been replacing culture with lifestyle.  This shift has both positive and negative consequences; and we are also conflicted about both.

First, I want to define the differences between culture and lifestyle.  Culture is imposed, or perhaps inherited.  Typically, we get our culture from our families, our community, or our heritage.  Sometimes, in the case of "going native," (technically called acculturation) we adopt another culture as our own, but for the most part, we do not choose our culture, it is something we are given.  This process of giving is called enculturation, and it typically enframes our worldview.  No matter how hard you try, you cannot completely escape the snowglobe.

Lifestyle is how we conduct our lives.  It may be a product of our culture, but most of the time, it is something we choose for ourselves.  Most people, at some point in their lives, decide to be liberal or conservative, devout or secular, engages or passive.  The list goes on and on.  Our worldview typically evolves over our lives, but it is always the product of our experiences and decisions. 

Ad agencies claim that they are not selling a product, they are selling a lifestyle, and this is to a large extent true.  Purchasing a Lexus is not typically done in a vacuum, it is part of a larger lifestyle, that often includes a McMansion, a media room, granite counters in the kitchen, and frequently, voting a straight Republican ticket.  I'm not knocking this, I'm just pointing out typical associations.  Purchasing a Prius, often goes hand in hand with a Democratic voting record, environmentalism, and a backyard compost heap.

We assemble our lifestyle from a kit of parts, and more and more, that kit is mad up of the things we buy.  The ad agencies have done an excellent job of making sure your lifestyle is properly branded.  Being a Mac User tells someone vast amounts of information about who you are.  So does the brand of clothing you wear, where you shop, what you drive.  We build our identity from our possessions.

We are a profoundly material culture, dependant on positional goods.  These are the items that indicate your status in society. At the upper end of this spectrum are Veblen Goods, which are things you want more, just because they are more expensive.  Prada shoes and Viking Stoves are classic examples of Veblen Goods.

Further, in less materialistic societies, positional goods are not branded, they just are.  For example in India, social rank can be determined by whether you have indoor plumbing, electricity, and many other things that we in America take for granted, and consequently no longer consider status symbols.

As a result of this, less materialistic societies and communities tend not to have lifestyles, they retain culture as their main guide to life.  This is not to be construed as the same as countries.  In most countries, there are still segments of the population that still function from a Cultural Worldview, for example, the Amish, the Navajos, the Gypsies.   These people live in every country, just as, in most countries, there is at least a small segment of the population that operates from the Lifestyle Worldview.

Now to the conflicts that are arising from all of this.

We want culture to continue, but only if it meets certain specifications.  In America, we want W.A.S.P. culture to persist, and at least on Saint Patrick's day, we all want to assume a (bastardized) Irish culture.  On the other hand, we have no desire to see Mexican immigrants to live their culture, and we actively are attempting to stamp out Muslim cultures.  (Although on this score, the Europeans are going much further than we are, by banning the veil and other outward cultural tokens.)

But at the same time, we condemn lifestyles, again, especially if we disagree with them.  A perfect example of this is the "Gay Lifestyle."  (There are some who call it the "Gay Culture," but given that it is a part of the larger American Culture, at best it could be considered a sub-culture.  Give it a few decades, and there may be a distinct Gay Culture.)

Both sides of the political spectrum condemn the lifestyles of the opposite end.  Most atheists look down on a lifestyle that includes church two times a week, homeschooling, and large numbers of children.  The right is equally condemnatory of people whose lifestyle includes no church, open attitudes towards sex, or having children outside of marriage.

But at the end of the day, most Americans have abandoned culture for lifestyle.  Very few of us maintain all aspects of our cultural heritage.  This is probably an outgrowth of the melting pot that is the United States.  It is very hard for people to maintain their culture, unless they are insulated from others.  It starts slowly, losing fluency in the native tongue, eating foods outside of the ethnicity, abandoning the native dress.  It progresses into moving out of the ethnic neighborhood, going to a new church that is not the faith of your forbearers, and ultimately, building a patchwork of customs and beliefs that bear little, if any, resemblance to your original culture.

This is a slow process, and occurs over generations, typically at least three.  But by the end of the process, culture is subsumed by lifestyle, and you no longer identify by a cultural definition.  You identify by lifestyle markers, like profession, social status, colleges attended, and other things that are part of the common American experience.

On the whole, this is probably a good thing, because if we were still tied to our cultural heritage, our polycultural nation probably couldn't function.  Imagine, for example, if people during World War Two, rather than identifying themselves as American, still thought of themselves as French or German.  There would have likely been open war between neighborhoods.  (Since, in that scenario, people would have continued to live in ethnic enclaves.)

But still, many, especially on the right, decry this move.  Part of this, I'm sure, is because young people often adopt lifestyles that go against the older peoples value structures.  And without the cultural container, they feel freer to abandon the beliefs of their parents.  They don't understand, and therefore are unwilling to accept, things like arranged marriages, attitudes towards homosexuality, or strict orthodox faith.

These lifestyle choices then further undermine culture, and the process becomes a vicious cycle that pulls people even further away from their cultural roots.  And that, in turn inspires the retaliation to try to force people back into their cultural container.

An example of this is the feminist movement.  For most of Western history, we have been profoundly Patriarchal, up to the point of even asking if women were even human.  For the most part, throughout most of American history, women were property.  (You can see this from the fact that, technically, Statutory Rape is a property crime, not a sexual offense.)  This view of women was embedded deeply into most European cultures, and later into American meta-culture. (The overarching national identity, made up of all the subsidiary cultures.)

Then came suffrage, women's lib, double income households, and women dominating the professions in colleges, which will lead to women dominating the professional workforce.  This obliterated the cultural enframement of the role of women, as women chose lifestyles that put them in direct competition with the roles of men.  At this point, gender based roles have more or less ceased to exist, with women being primary bread winners and men being home-makers.  There are still a few gender barriers, for example, women in direct combat, but for the most part, both sexes can do anything they want with their lives.  The cultural containers that proscribed roles evaporated. 

This has upended traditional culture, and the men, at least the conservative ones, didn't like it.

So suddenly, this year, you have a de facto war against women, to try to stuff them back into their culturally defined roles.  You can't do that with a direct assault; you will never get any legislature to pass laws banning women in the workplace, or revoking the rights to vote and go to college.  Pandora's box cannot be closed.

So what do the culture warriors do to circumscribe the roles of women; attempt to ban contraception.  Without reliable and safe birth control, women will have no control over their reproduction, except with abstention.  It will force women to chose between having a career, or having a man in their lives.  (And as I said before, an unintended consequence of this will likely be a dramatic rise in lesbianism, but that's another story.)

With this action, they re-confine women to a classic cultural role of mother, without directly confronting the issue.  Women's careers become collateral damage, at least on the surface.  Suddenly, lifestyle is subsumed by culture.

This is not the only example of this.  You see it in the drive to keep people from attending college, which is a lifestyle factory.  You see it in the push to make this a Christian nation.  You see it in regressive taxation, that profoundly limits economic opportunities for the poor, while expanding them for the rich.  In fact, you see it in most of the far right doctrines.

They are attempting to return us to a culturally based society.  Through the straight-jacket of rigid, conservative culture, they are attempting to circumscribe lifestyle choices.

But the irony of it all is, being a Culture Warrior, is another Lifestyle Choice. 

No comments:

Post a Comment