Culture As Agent of Social Change

I’ve become aware of a particular conflict that hides a deeper issue.

There are the partisans who often promote the view of voting for the lesser of two evils or else they promote the personality cult of a particular politician, the idea being that the right party or the right politician can save us from the problems or at least save us from these problems getting worse. The critics of this are often the right-wingers and left-wingers who instead propose particular ideologies or direct action tactics in the hope that change has to be forced from a more outside perspective.

I’m thinking both are wrong. What keeps things the way they are has to do with cultural factors that go much deeper than either party politics or ideological systems. So, what can change these problems must go deeper. I don’t know what that means, but what I sense is that parties and ideologies only barely touch the surface. Culture is hard to talk about and that is probably why it is often misunderstood and even more often ignored.

I’m not even sure what I’m trying to communicate by my use of the term ‘culture’. I’ve been studying the cultures of immigrants and regions in the US. It’s clear that it is fundamentally culture that has defined this country and it’s clear that it is fundamentally culture that has determined the events of history. But all of this is easier to see in hindsight. What is happening now in American culture? Where is it heading? How can it be shifted from within toward more positve ends?

 * * * *

I can imagine what some political activists would think of my thoughts here. There is a certain kind of political activist who would see this discussion of ‘culture’ as basically metaphysical speculation. For them, politics is about action, about making things happen, about results.

I don’t exactly disagree, but I was just wondering if intelligent and effective action might be possible. Political activists have been trying the same basic tactics for a long time and they keep getting the same lackluster results. Simply getting attention for a protest doesn’t accomplish a whole lot and neither does getting your favorite politician elected.

It seems to me that something is being missed in all these political maneuverings and manipulations. I wish I could explain this better. I sense this ‘cultural’ issue is the most centrally important aspect to politics and society in general, but I don’t know if most people would understand what I’m trying to get at.

Culture is like the air we breath. It can seem intangible for the reason we are almost incapable of lookiing at it objectively. We are in it and so we take it for granted.

Anytime there is a massive shift in a society, especially in terms of politics, there is always a shift of culture that precedes it, sometimes preceding it for decades or longer. Cutlure usually shifts slowly and imperceptibly, but occasionally like a fault line a massive earthquake can occur when there are major realignments.

Here is the core question: Are we merely victims of such over-arching cultural shifts or can we control them to a certain extent? If we are victims to these underlying cultural factors, then we are victims to all of society and any political action becomes mere blind fumbling. But how to convince people to take culture seriously? Everyone on some level probably knows culture matters and yet few people ever give it much thought. Unless this changes, we will continue to be victims.

 * * * *

Most people think of culture in terms of the groups we identify with because of similarities. Politicians are always playing off of our cultural prejudices, conservative politicians seeming to be particularly talented at this.

This is culture as ideological identity, as groupthink. This is culture as race (whites vs blacks, whites vs minorities), as origins (native-born vs foreigh-born), as ethnicity (European vs Asian), as religion (Christian vs Muslim, Protestant vs Catgholic), as region (North vs South, East Coast vs WEst Coast), etc. Or else added all together such as WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant).

But this isn’t primarily what I’m talking about. This barely scratches the surface and oversimplifies even these superficial factors.

It’s true, as this view portrays, that culture relates to how we perceive ourselves and others in context of how we perceive our society. However, this just points to what we are aware of and only the elements that are obvious enough to be made into stereotypes. On the other hand, there is a more complex level of culture that underlies and shapes our perceptions, including our perceptions of cultural stereotypes.

As such, to change perception is to change everything. Our perceived choices and perceived actions would change. Our perceived relationships and perceived realities would change. We are all trapped in a reality tunnel or else many overlapping reality tunnels. We can’t see outside of a reality tunnel until we’ve shifted to a new rality tunnel and maybe not even then. To consider a shift of culture on this fundamental level is in a sense a metaphysical speculation, but it is metaphysical speculation that points toward metaphysical action, the shifting of our very sense of shared reality.

I’m speaking of cultural paradigms. What is the cultural paradigm that makes some particular social/political/economic system or lifestyle seem possible and desirable?

Socialism used to seem both possible and desirable to average Midwesterners earlier last century. In fact, it seemed so possible and desirable that a successful socialist government was created and maintained for decades in Milwaukee. But now average Midwesterners no longer think according to that cultural paradigm.

What changed and how? There was political oppression from the Cold War that destroyed that cultural paradigm and caused many of the defenders of it to become less vocal or less radical or else flee the country. However, the fundamental Northern European culture that made this cultural paradigm possible still exists and still functions to some degree. The social democracy of the Midwest is the remnant of this cultural paradigm. It is a seed that could again manifest as effective socialism once again. What is stopping it from doing so? There are people alive right now in Milwaukee who were alive when the socialists governed the city, some of these having been socialists themselves or somehow involved with the socialist government. What has become of this still living memory?

In desiring and seeking change, what are we missing or misunderstanding?

10 thoughts on “Culture As Agent of Social Change

    • You were one of the people I had in mind when I pondered the difficulty of communication. You are trying to use logic to analyze that which precedes logic. A noble effort that I often attempt myself, but I’d emphasize it’s particular limitation and difficulty in this case.

      We are coming from different worldviews and so different assumptions. If you’re curious about where I’m coming from, I’d recommend looking into (beyond just the issues of the imaginal and reality tunnels) phenomenology, ethnomethodology, sociology of scientific knowledge, enactivism and integral theory, in particular Ken Wilber’s use of holons and holarchy; also, I’d recommend checking out such related concepts as umwelt, lifeworld and mazeway which give examples of this kind of thinking. I developed some of my thinking in a particular post which I also shared to postings of my notes along with it:

      What you consider real is based on particular cultural assumptions. So, you are trying to analyze all cultures by the culture you’ve come to adopt. That is problematic. My own cultural assumptions are equally problematic. That is why I was struggling so much in my questioning and speculations. I was wondering if there is a common language that could cut across cultural assumptions, a meta-model of cultures better yet.

      Judgment of what is hypostatization is a very fraught subject, mired in endless unconscious assumptions and subjective biases. Depending on which premises you start with will determine what gets judged as real and what as merely ephemeral. Even the freewill prized by modernity is hard to pin down as objectively real; trying to prove or analyze mind and consciousness presents similar problems to that of culture; for example, research points to the possibility that some cognitive processing happens at the atomic and subatomic levels, i.e., at the level of the substratum of the universe. This cultural issue (and other issues related to subjectivity/intersubjectivity) is where the imaginal is most obviously involved and where we become prone to over-certainty and self-deception. All of culture plays out in this imaginal territory where what is real and not is uncertain. That is partly what makes it so powerful in its influence over us and over all of society. This is most clearly seen in religion and myth (that touches upon the archetypal and the unconscious), but it plays out in many more subtle ways as well. Based on our cultural reality tunnel (and our larger lifeworld), we will differ on our views about the reality or unreality of culture… along with the reality or unreality of everything else.

      This is where I sometimes conflict with certain kinds of politically-oriented people who often take a more materialistic worldview, a material perspective particularly being emphasized in Marxism. It’s hard to speak in such terms about psychological, sociological and imaginal realities. The challenge we face as humans is that our subjective experience precedes objective analysis and abstract thought, the latter not being able to take the place of the former no matter how well developed.

      To put it another way, you are both right and wrong. Looking at culture objectively and materialistically, it isn’t fundamentally real. Looking at culture from within the experience of being a part of that culture, there are few things more fundamentally real. It’s sort of like the notion of only other people’s religion being a myth. Likewise, your own culture based in materialism is real, but you see my less materialistic view of culture as not real. So, your perspective is useful for one specific viewpoint… yet it is only one understanding among many other potential understandings. The crux of the issue isn’t about which view is right and which wrong. Attempting to look at multiple cultures requires us to loosen our grip on our own preferred biases and assumptions, but in some ways that can seem an impossible task. Once again, I consider whether or not we are stuck in our respective blind fumblings.

      • I think one of the keys to multiculturalism is perspective taking. How do we encourage people to imagine what is like to be in someone else’s shoes. It seems important to share two types of stories: personal stories and collective. Among other things, studying history, both local and broader scale, would appear an important means of demonstrating the fluidity of ideas as well as the degree to which culture informs our thinking. Once ideas are seen as more fluid and culturally influenced, maybe people will begin to take a closer look at their own ideas. Once people start unpacking their own worldviews, whether individually or interpersonally, change is bound to occur. I think conversations about politics and religion are of equal importance, since for many people, the two seem so intertwined (even if implicitly) that they cannot really be separated. Are there any lessons to be gleaned from Europe? In The Third Industrial Revolution, Jeremy Rifkin speaks to the way in which Europe has taken important steps in resolving the energy crisis. What is about Europe that has allowed them to move forward in ways the US currently seems incapable of? Is it a diminishment of religious fervor? A greater sense of shared humanity?

        • The unpacking part is where I’m focused. We can from our respective postions state what we think is right or wrong, real or not; but I don’t feel merely making such statements is helpful. What is needed is insight into our own biases, questioning the very foundation of our sense of self and our place in the world. That is a hard thing to do and few are willing to attempt it. This self-questioning has to be the starting point if we are to get any where beneficial.

    • Here is a good analysis of the issue of culture along with an analysis of the Marxist role in this discussion. This is from the the introductory section of the article “The Sociology of Culture” by Lakshmi Kant Bharadwaj from Twenty First Century Sociology, Volume One Traditional and Core Values (pp 130-1):

      The word culture is derived from the Latin cultura
      (from the root colere: to cultivate, to dwell, to take
      care, to tend and preserve), which shows its affinity
      to “agriculture” and also to religious worship. Throughout
      most of history, culture has been virtually synonymous
      with religion. Prior to modern times, culture was not one
      arena of life but was a whole way of life inextricably
      bound up with religion. Weber has traced the roots of
      Western capitalism to the ascetic impulse of Calvinism and
      the idea of work as a calling. As capitalism came into its
      own, the religious impulse got detached from the work
      ethic, and religious asceticism gave way to the reign of
      unbridled hedonism. With the phrase “the disenchantment
      of the world,” Weber tried to capture the radical changes
      that attended the rise of Western capitalism. By the time of
      Henry Ford, work itself had become religion, and now for
      the “modern, cosmopolitan man, culture has replaced both
      religion and work as a means of self-fulfillment or as a
      justification—an aesthetic justification—of life” (Bell
      1976:156). With the separation of the church and state and
      the secularization of culture, religion lost its public character
      and became instead a matter of personal belief and the
      private affair of each individual. Modernity thus marked a
      radical break with the past. It is precisely at the point when
      culture became detached from religion that both religion
      and culture became the subject matter for social scientific
      study. In short, culture has become a theoretical problem
      for the West only because it has already become socially
      problematic (Milner 1994:4).

      Culture has been the master concept of anthropology
      since its very inception. But within the last hundred years,
      the sociological study of culture has also come into its
      own. A basic problem has been the lack of a common
      definition of “culture.” A half-century ago, Kroeber and
      Kluckhohn ([1952] 1963:149) enumerated almost 300 definitions
      of culture in their critical review of this most significant
      concept in cultural anthropology. Radcliffe-Brown
      (1957) went farther and denied the very possibility of a
      science of culture, insisting that “you can study culture
      only as a characteristic of a social system. Therefore, if
      you are going to have a science, it must be a science of
      social systems” (p. 106). After noting the bewildering variety
      of definitions, and Radcliffe-Brown’s (1957) lament
      that “the word culture has undergone a number of degradations
      which have rendered it unfortunate as a scientific
      term,” Leslie White ([1954] 1968) settled for a nominalistic
      definition: “Culture, like bug, is a word that we may use
      to label a class of phenomena—things and events—in the
      external world. We may apply this label as we please; its
      use is determined by ourselves, not by the external world”
      (pp. 15–16). As against Kroeber and Kluckhohn’s conception
      of culture as “intangible abstractions,” White ([1954]
      1968) insisted on drawing a distinction between the conception
      of culture and what it stands for: “Culture as the
      name of a class of things and events in the external world”
      that are objective and observable, and “the conception of
      culture [that is] in the mind of the culturologist. Let us not
      mistake the one for the other” (p. 20). Anthropologists,
      however, have continued to be exercised by questions such
      as the following:

      “Is culture real or just an abstraction from reality? If real, then
      what is the nature of this reality, and where does this reality
      have its locus? If an abstraction, then how can we speak of it
      as influencing the behavior of individuals?” (Kaplan [1965]

      The long-standing opposition between Culture and
      Nature in the West was played out in the split between two
      divergent methodological approaches for studying sociocultural
      phenomena. While sociologists have continued to
      be of one mind that the discipline ought to be “scientific,”
      the question of methodology has divided the practitioners
      into two camps. On the one side were those such as
      Auguste Comte who treated man himself as a natural
      object and believed that the natural scientific method alone
      was appropriate for the study of social reality. On the other
      side were sociologists, such as Wilhelm Dilthey (1976)
      and Max Weber ([1904] 1949), who argued that the subject
      matter of sociological investigations is not nature but man
      himself—with his plans and projects, motives and intentions,
      culture and institutions—and therefore a method
      other than that of the natural sciences was needed to study
      and apprehend social reality. The sociological study of
      culture owes much to the great methodological contribution
      made by Dilthey through his contrast between the
      empirical-observational methods of the natural sciences
      (Naturwissenschaften) and the hermeneutic method of
      understanding of the cultural sciences (Geisteswissenschaften).
      As such, those who took the latter course
      claimed that “understanding” should be the central category
      of sociological analysis. They argued, in short, that
      sociology should be an interpretive science rather than a
      science in the manner of the natural sciences. Weber’s
      method of subjective understanding (Verstehen) and the
      symbolic interactionists’ and the ethnomethodologists’
      “definition of the situation” focus attention on the crucial
      importance of understanding meaning structures and the
      meanings the actors attach to their own actions. The basic
      problem with this approach has been that having found it
      well nigh impossible for one reason or another to understand
      what people do in terms of the meaning they themselves
      attach to their action or the way they define their
      own situation, the sociologist has been forced to “impute”
      a meaning to their action in terms of his or her own model
      of “rationally” acting subjects or homunculi. This has led
      to strenuous attempts to vouch for the validity of this operation
      (see, e.g., Schutz [1953] 1963:342–43).

      One of the reasons for the relative neglect of the study
      of culture by sociologists is the generally accepted division
      of labor between sociologists and anthropologists,
      whereby the former have focused their attention on society
      and the social, and the latter have carved out culture and
      cultural practices as their special field of interest.
      Durkheim’s ([1895] 1938) insistence that all social facts
      must be explained by other social facts also kept sociologists
      focused on the social to the neglect of the individual
      and cultural. Thus, in trying to explain suicide as a social
      fact, Durkheim’s emphasis fell on explaining differences
      in suicide rates by other social factors while neglecting the
      part played by individual meanings, motives, and intentions
      in explaining why, under the same social conditions,
      certain individuals end up committing suicide while others
      do not. Since culture is above all symbolic, the positivist
      strain in sociology that abjured any concern with
      consciousness and meaning also militated against the
      study of culture. And functionalists such as Talcott Parsons
      (1951) looked at culture primarily as a source of norms and
      values that regulated society and kept it together and
      helped it adapt to the challenges and contingencies of the
      environment. Their focus on consensus and equilibrium
      made the functionalists neglect sociocultural contradictions
      and conflicts that mark the other face of society.

      Finally, and no less important, the study of culture
      also got a short shrift from Marxist sociologists who were
      wedded to Marx’s base/superstructure dichotomy that relegated
      all things cultural and subjective to the superstructural
      aspects of society. Whereas his study of religion and
      charisma had led Max Weber to emphasize the role of
      ideas and the individual in history, Marx subordinated both
      to the primary role played by productive forces and production
      relations within each historical period. As a dialectical
      materialist, Marx borrowed the dialectical method
      from Hegel but claimed that Hegel was wrong in giving
      primacy to the Spirit over matter. As Marx put it, Hegel
      was as a result standing on his head, and it was he (Marx)
      who put him back on his feet. Objective factors determine
      subjective ones, for, as Marx ([1904] 1959) declares in the
      oft-quoted passage from his A Contribution to the Critique
      of Political Economy, “It is not the consciousness of men
      that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their
      social existence determines their consciousness” (p. 43).
      Marx thus asserts the primacy of the objective, material
      factors over ideas, consciousness, culture, and institutions,
      which are all treated by him as part of the superstructure.
      Culture here is reduced to economic factors and is again
      denied an independent role in Marxian theory. Much controversy
      still surrounds the exact nature of the relationship
      between the base and the superstructure: Does the base
      “determine” the superstructure, or is the superstructure a
      mere reflection of the base? In either case, does the superstructure
      react back on the base at all? The overall result
      has been that in Marxian theory, cultural factors have seldom
      been given their due or treated as central variables in
      their own right but have been included among other variables
      to round out or further specify the relationships being

    • More from “The Sociology of Culture”:

      The problematic of a sociological study of culture derives
      from the very crisis of the social sciences, occasioned by
      the mounting critique and a failure of nerve regarding
      the Western “enlightenment project”—which promised
      peace, prosperity, progress, and the perfectibility of the
      individual—as well as the failure of Auguste Comte’s positivistic
      sociology to provide adequate explanations, much
      less uncover the “scientificlaws of society and social living.
      As a result, the “epistemological, disciplinary, political,
      and even moral foundations of the social sciences are
      [now] very much at issue(Bonnell and Hunt 1999:1).
      This critical state of affairs has brought about a marked
      shift in emphasis from the social to the cultural in the
      social sciences and has resulted in a “cultural turn,which
      has taken us back to the interpretive/hermeneutical tradition
      of a Wilhelm Dilthey, Max Weber, or Alfred Schultz.

      The history and the future direction of the cultural turn in
      the social sciences have been addressed in a series of essays
      included in the volume titled Beyond the Cultural Turn: New
      Directions in the Study of Society and Culture (Bonnell andHunt 1999),
      a central text in the new and emerging fields of
      cultural sociology and cultural history. The book was to be
      a part of a series of related publications that defined the concept
      of culture “in the broadest sense to encompass the study
      of mentalities, ideology, symbols and rituals, and high and
      popular culture(Bonnell and Hunt 1999:ix). The cultural
      turn thus marked the ascendance of “cultureto a preeminent
      position, both as a central focus of academic interest
      and as an explanatory variable in its own right. Briefly, the
      intention behind the cultural turn, as expressed by Bonnell
      and Hunt (1999:1–27), was as follows:

      1. To insist that culture was not just an appendage of the
      social structure or merely a reflection of more basic
      socioeconomic processes (such as industrialization or
      modernization) but that it made an independent contribution
      of its own to the sociohistorical process, and as a
      result, the “sociallost some of its privileged explanatory

      2. To recognize that the natural scientific approach was inadequate,
      even inapplicable to the study of culture and society
      and therefore to abandon the quest for positivistic explanations
      and objective laws in favor of interpretive understanding
      and the hermeneutic search for meaning; culture should
      be viewed as linguistic and representational.

      3. To acknowledge the bankruptcy of all metanarratives or
      master paradigms and to insist that there is no exclusive
      methodology or preferred paradigms for studying cultural

      4. To acknowledge the dissolution of disciplinary boundaries
      and recognize that the study of culture would have to draw
      from diverse disciplines and be truly interdisciplinary in

      5. To recognize that under present realities, the scope of
      such studies would have to range from the local to the

      Bonnell and Hunt (1999:8) divide the historical period
      leading to the cultural turn broadly into three periods:

      1. The 1950s and 1960s: The 1950s were marked by the
      “semiotic revolutionushered in by the structuralism of
      Claude Lévi-Strauss, “which traced all meaning to the
      functioning of signs or symbolsand insisted that “culture
      itself could be analyzed much like a language, and
      all behavior got its meaning from often unconscious or
      implicit structural codes embedded in it.The turbulent
      1960s, however, ended up placing both agency and
      history back again at the center of the intellectual

      2. The 1970s: Hayden White’s (1973) argument that all
      historicaltexts are basically constructed by the author as a
      “poetic actand Clifford Geertz’s (1973) conception of
      culture as text to be studied by the semiotic approach are
      singled out by Bonnell and Hunt as having had a radical
      impact on both theory and method in the social sciences.
      Roland Barthes, Pierre Bordieu, Jacques Derrida, Marshall
      Sahlins, Raymond Williams, and Michel Foucault are
      mentioned as the other theorists who made a deep impact
      during the 1970s on how culture was to be approached and

      3. The 1980s and 1990s: The postmodernists and the
      poststructuralists,who dominated the field during this period,
      reduced all scientific explanations to “simply an exercise
      in collective fictionalization or mythmaking,and undermined
      any remaining faith in objectivity and objective

      Geertz’s (1973) work has inspired an outpouring of
      interest in ethnographic field work after the cultural
      turn. His injunction that the anthropologist should
      “strain to readculture as an “ensemble of textsover
      the shoulders of those to whom they properly belong”
      (p. 452), however, points to the serious methodological
      and epistemological dilemmas created by the cultural
      turn itself:

      “If analysis of culture, as Geertz insisted, depended on the
      interpretation of meaning rather than a scientific discovery of
      social explanations, then what served as the standard for
      judging interpretations? If culture or language permeated
      meaning, then how could any individual or social agency be
      identified? . . . Could “culturebe regarded as a causal variable
      and did it operate independently of other factors, including
      the social or institutional? [In short,] the cultural turn
      threatened to efface all references to social context or causes
      and offered no particular standard of judgment to replace the
      seemingly more rigorous and systematic approaches that had
      predominated during the 1960s and 1970s. (Bonnell and
      Hunt 1999:9)”

    • Here is another article from the same anthology linked above:

      “Sociological Theory in the 21st Century” by Jonathan H. Turner:

      Outside the Frankfurt School proper, critical theory also
      took a cultural turn. For example, in Italy, Antonio
      Gramsci [1928] (1971) returned to the early Marx, where
      the importance of ideology was emphasized in the critique
      of the Young Hegelians. For Gramsci, the power of the
      state is used to manipulate workers and others through the
      propagation of ideologies about civic culture that are
      seemingly inoffensive but that nonetheless become the
      dominant views of even those who are oppressed. Thus,
      workers come to believe in the appropriateness of markets,
      the commodification of objects and symbols, the buying
      and selling of labor as a commodity, the rule of law to
      enforce contracts unfavorable to workers, the encouragement
      of private charities (rather than structural reform) to
      eliminate suffering, the curriculum in schools, the state’s
      definition of a “good citizen,and many other taken-forgranted
      beliefs of the oppressed population. Thus, the state
      controls a population not so much by a “steel cageof
      repression and rational-legal domination as by a “soft”
      world of symbols that the oppressed accept as “natural and
      appropriate”⎯a more sophisticated version of Marx’sarguments
      about “false consciousness.In France, Louis
      Althusser (1965) adopted a structuralist metaphor, seeing
      the individual as trapped in a “deeperstructural order
      dominated by the state, capitalist economic relations, and
      capitalist ideologies; and because people see this order as
      the way things must be, they do not perceive that they can
      escape from this structure. By failing to see the state and
      ideology as crude tools of power and by seeing self as subordinate
      to deep structures directing all social life, individuals
      come to believe that resistance to these oppressive
      structures is futile.

      The tradition of the Frankfurt School has been carried
      forth by a number of scholars, the most notable being
      Jurgen Habermas (1981/1984), who begins by seeing
      science as one form of domination as the state propagatesan
      ideology revolving around “technocratic consciousness.”
      Habermas develops a broad evolutionary view of human
      history, incorporating theoretical elements from many contemporary
      theoretical traditions, but the basic argument is
      that the “lifeworld(an idea borrowed from phenomenology)
      is being “colonizedby the state and economy; as this
      process proceeds, people’s capacity for “communicative
      actionis reduced. For Habermas, communicative action is
      the process whereby meanings are formed, creating the
      lifeworld that is the principal means of integration for
      societies. As the lifeworld is colonized, the reproduction of
      the lifeworld is interrupted; and societal integration is
      maintained only by “delinguistified mediasuch as money
      and power. Habermas develops a larger philosophical
      scheme, but his arguments carry forth the legacy of the
      Frankfurt School.

  1. Hey Ben, Great post. I agree that culture is rather abstract and slippery, albeit incredibly important. I think of it as a sea of ideas, meanings, perceptions, and assumptions, many of which, as you suggest, are implicit. In order for culture to shift, I think we need to begin by making the implicit explciit. Both individually and collectively, we need to become more aware of the reasons we think and behave as we do. This can occur through personal introspection as well as through interpersonal dialogue. The value of effective dialogue is it seems to promote empathy. If we can begin sharing our stories with each other, such as what happened in my life that has led me to embrace x, y, and z, then maybe we can get away from ideological divisiveness and move toward our shared humanity. Perhaps grassroots human engagement is a better catalyst for change than everyone watching their favored news programs. What if we could rediscover the humanity of both sides, including those things on which we can agree or compromise? What if change started with the people rather than expecting it to come from the top down? Have we been wise to funnel so much time, money, and energy into politics rather than thinking of ways to get people in our local communities talking to each other?

    • You seem to be getting at what I was trying to explain.

      The only way to escape the trap of abstractions is to look at the specific. In the case of culture, this often means focusing on the local or regional, finding the boundaries that define a people, a place, a community. For liberals, this also means remembering the religious/mythic level of culture that has typically been forgotten in discussions of politics. You mention the importance of personal stories, and I would add that other larger narratives are important as well: religious stories, anecdotes (real or apocryphal) that ground our beliefs and values, etc.

      I appreciate that you bring up the issue of divisiveness and how sharing could help us get beyond this. The Populist Era was interesting in that people from diverse cultures in diverse regions of the country began to communicate with each other and seek ways to work together toward shared goals and common visions. The Populist Era was as much about a cultural reawakening as it was about a political movement. With the beginning of Industrialization, people became highly conscious that a sense of culture was being lost and so were seeking what it might mean to save certain cultural values amidst the political and economic changes.

      “What if we could rediscover the humanity of both sides, including those things on which we can agree or compromise?”

      Like many people, this is something I’ve struggled with for a long time. It’s easy to be righteous and judgmental. To understand and empathize takes great effort, especially during such divisive times. I’ve been lately trying to do this in my own way. Studying the history of the US (ethnicities, cultures, regions, etc), I’ve become aware of how complex a single country can be. I’ve also come to learn how stereotypes have come about, sometimes with grains of truth but maybe more often as dangerous generalizations and caricatures.

      In particular, I was looking at info on Appalachia which represented the second wave of settlers and the land through which most later pioneers traveled. It’s easy to just think of Appalachia as hillbillies. It’s true that there are hillbillies in Appalachia, but such a label hardly lends any insight into Appalachian culture. I was fortunate enough to spend time in North Carolina where I got to know some locals and so developed a sympathetic feel for the place. There are many ways I could judge some of the people I met there, but knowing some of them personally has softened my heart. People are just people. People become the way they are largely because of the people they’ve lived around. That is how culture gets passed on, the good and the bad. Most of us are just trying to get by.

      This is one of the struggles we deal with as a society. Research shows that people who grow up in multicultural environments tend to become socially liberal as adults. I’m an example of this. I grew up in multicultural college towns and went to high school in a multicultural metropolitan capital city. I always went to public schools where I met diverse people. My experience of going to South Carolina public schools after living in the Midwest until 7th grade was a culture shock and a learning experience that has shaped me ever since. My parents moved the family around several times while I was growing up which led me to move around several times in the decade following high school. As such, my conservative parents unintentionally raised me in a way that predisposed me to social liberalism.

      So, that is the challenge. Multiculturalism and tolerance are essentially liberal values. My take on culture is obviously biased by my liberalism. I don’t know where that leaves us. Making distinctions between cultures and respecting those differences is important, but to my liberal attitude multiculturalism and tolerance is also important. Not all cultures, however, promote multiculturalism and tolerance. With the idea of refocusing on local communities, I think it wise to point out that this isn’t about cultural isolationism. As parties can be turned into team sports, cultures and regional identities also can be turned into team sports.

      I don’t have an answer here, just lots of questions and ponderings. One consideration is just the sharing part you spoke of. To share means to communicate. In order to communicate, we need a shared language by which we can intelligently and respectfully speak of culture. As you say, “making the implicit explicit.” That is essentially what I’m concerned about.

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