The “Other” Culture

There are several definitions of “culture.” One is the development of microorganisms in an artificial media. Another is “the refinement of mind, morals, or taste.” A third is “the cultivation of plants or animals.” But there are two other definitions that tend to get overlooked: (1) the specific period or stage in the development of a civilization and (2) the sum total of the attainment and learned behavior patterns of any specific period or group of people regarded as expressing a way of life. The second of those latter definitions is the one that tends to get overlooked in government and politics, and yet the problems caused by the “learned behavior patterns” of smaller groups within a society represent one of the principal reasons for societal unrest.

That is largely because quite a few nations, including the United States, are in fact composed of various subcultures. In the U.S., those subcultures, especially those disliked by the majority, are often minimized or denigrated in racial or religious terms. An important point, and one consistently ignored by ideologues, businesses, and particularly politicians, is that “culture,” as exemplified by learned patterns of behavior, trumps “race” or religion. By that I mean that the good or bad traits of group or subgroup of people have virtually nothing to do with their religion or their skin color or ethnicity. What determines how people act is their “learned patterns of behavior.”

And while religion is definitely a learned behavior, how people of a certain religion act can and does vary enormously from cultural group to cultural group. It also varies over time. Some 500 years ago, good “Christian” countries in Europe were slaughtering each other in a fashion even more brutal than that in which the Sunni and Shia factions of Islam are now doing. Yes, religion is a critical part of “culture,” but it ranges from being the primary determinant of a culture to being merely one of many factors, and in the history of certain civilizations, the impact of a religion can and has changed the culture drastically.

As I’ve also noted before, likely more than a few times, history is filled with examples of both great and failed societies and nations identified as being predominantly of one race or religion. There have been great empires in all parts of the world – except, so far, Antarctica, and there have been failed societies everywhere in the world, regardless of race or religion.

Certain cultural practices seem to work better than others, one of which is that cultures that allow religion to control society tend to stagnate and become ever more brutal. Cultures with great income inequality tend to be more likely to be oppressive, and a greater percentage seem to have either de jure or de facto polygamy. A good sociologist could likely carry this much farther, but the basic point is that it’s not only morally wrong to claim that a given race or ethnicity or religion is “stupid” or “inferior” (or any other number of pejorative terms), but also such unthinking “type-casting” totally misses the point. Culture – not race, genes, skin color, or religion – determines how people behave. More to the point, one can change a toxic culture [although it takes time] and a beneficial culture is always only a cultural change or two away from becoming toxic.

9 thoughts on “The “Other” Culture”

  1. Joe says:

    For tolerance to work it must be reciprocal. To survive, a tolerant society must be intolerant of intolerance. Otherwise the intolerant minority will win.

    A tolerant society should not be tolerant towards those members of a culture who believe that only people of the Book are fit to live, and that it is proper to tax or otherwise disfavor those that do not submit to a particular variant of the Book.

    Equally, a tolerant society should not tolerate those who let their prejudices or fears affect their work when we empower them to represent us, be it at the border, in the chambers of government, or abroad.

    Tolerance recognizes that any generalization about a set of people will not hold for every person in that set. But it also cannot have an “anything goes” attitude if it wishes to endure. Tolerance is hard work, and most of us shy away from hard work. It is sadly a lot easier to ignore the other, and later blame them and take vengeance, as can be seen repeatedly throughout history.

    1. Dan says:

      Can you really call it tolerance if it is predicated on being intolerant to all and sundry that disagree with oneself?

      1. I suspect it’s the manner of disagreement, not the disagreement.

  2. TOM says:

    Both the ‘manner’ of disagreement and source of ‘culture’ maybe revealed by this article from The NY Times magazine :

    This goes back to the concerns about the education of our future citizens and leaders; expressed in prior posts.

    1. Joe says:

      What an interesting example! Thank you, TOM.

      The students believed Charles Murray to be intolerant because he wrote a book they believe to be racist. Being intolerant of intolerance they disrupted his speech.

      Academics believed the students to be intolerant because they prevented the free debate of ideas. Being intolerant of intolerance they wrote articles denouncing the students (the pen being mightier than the sword and all that).

      The question then becomes one of balance. The students injured people and prevented them from discussing things in private. That is militant intolerance which had large consequences.

      Even if Charles Murray were a bigot (something I cannot comment upon, having not read his book), he was only there to speak. An intelligent debater should have been able to point out his errors, and he would have been unlikely to make many converts. Therefore that single talk would have had very mild repercussions.

      The academics’ argument therefore appears stronger: the intolerance of the students was worse, and therefore should be opposed.

      Nevertheless, for the students to behave in this way, they must believe that the game is rigged, and that the real world is not sufficiently influenced by reasoned arguments. Unfortunately, there is some evidence that they might be right, such as the 2014 Princeton study on who has influence over the law which showed that who you are matters more than the quality of your arguments.

      People only accept to follow civilized behavior if they believe it to be equitable.

      (FWIW, when I mentioned “culture” I meant cultures from different parts of the world, not the difference between the left and the right.)

  3. Daze says:

    Interesting that someone should think that a squabble over a uni meeting is exemplary for this debate, when there are just a few more extreme examples happening most days.

    If you’re interested in how you address intolerance, you could do worse than look at this: why I left westboro baptist church

    1. Frank says:


      Thank you for posting that link to the Ted Talks about “why I left westboro baptist church.” A very basic concept presented very powerfully by an engaging speaker.

      It reminded me to stop trying to score another point during a verbal skirmish…and try to listen and understand. Very simple, very important.


  4. DArcherd says:

    I remember a story my father told me about going to college in the 1940s and there was a speech by the leader of the American Nazi Party. The students listened to the speech in silence and at the end of the speech…dead silence. No applause, no jeers. Silence. And that, my friends, is the most civilized response to hate speech.

    1. Nathaniel says:

      It was also our national response to requests for asylum by European Jews around that time. Very civilized.

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