Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Future of Culture III: Think of the Children

This blog is a blog about culture. (I promise I'll get back to the Grassroots/Power thing). It's also about the potential of culture to change.

The potential to change culture was rather excellently tackled by WNYC's incomparable science radio show, Radiolab, in an episode called "New Normal." Obviously, if culture has no potential to be changed--or at least, no potential to be changed deliberately--this blog has absolutely no purpose.

Culture, often, is used as a stand-in for fate, for programming. Think about the phrase "Culture of corruption." The implication of the phrase is that corruption has become a social norm, and is therefore so widespread that penetrating it is difficult. Cultural habits and norms are incredibly deeply ingrained, and very difficult to shift.

I don't like the word "culture" when it is used in the context of cultural habits, the sum of a large group of people's outlooks and views. As discussed a long time ago on this blog, when I use the word culture, I'm talking about the sum of cultural conversation--all of the ads, books, plays, talk radio segments, etc. that add up to form what we are talking about. Not just the zeitgeist (which is this moment in culture) but also the history of culture--the conversation as it has always been.

The reason I don't talk about culture in terms of the sum of a large group of people's outlooks and views (which is the "culture" that sometimes is called upon by bigots when they disparage a group of people en masse) is because I find it to be fluid, in a historical sense, despite how entrenched it in a moment.

For me, culture in terms of that sum of large group of outlooks and views is something that gets ingrained in a young person as they develop. And the reason that a particular group of people develop similar outlooks and views is because they're growing up in a similar place. The phrase "Growing up as a young ______ in ______" comes to mind--my hip-hop teacher uses it to try and get across to us privileged young NYU students what it was like to be a New Yorican in the 1970s. And you have to understand that, he means, to understand the culture.

This idea dawned on me when I was on the subway this morning, and I saw an older lady making baby faces at a child that was not hers. I reflected for a moment about how different that experience was for that baby than in my life--I doubt that I was fawned over by many strangers in the distant, alienated suburbia I grew up in. And then I realized that this child would grow up far more comfortable with strangers than I would, simply by necessity. That's the effect of place on this child.

And that's how culture really gets transmitted. The assumptions a child makes about the world around them are formed by the knowledge carried within parents, and how those adults act and perform. But here's the good news--in this moment of transmission, there is an incredible opportunity for intervention. By structuring the world that those children learn their assumptions in, we can powerfully intervene in culture.

This means, by the way, that the fastest that culture can change--deeply, meaningfully change--is one generation. On the one hand, this is a horrifyingly long amount of time--the idea that if we wanted to change culture in a deep and meaningful way, we would need to work on our children now and it would only bear fruit in a generation.

The reason that we are having the current "Change" and this wave of reformism and cultural renovation right now is because of the new emerging generation, and the withdrawal of the older generation. In a way, the massive cultural battle of the 1960s forged our parent's outlook, and my parent's outlook in the 1980s formed the world that I grew up in. This is why the culture of the 1950s is so incredibly distant from today.

Another example, perhaps a better one, is the end of war in Europe. After all, before 1945, war between European superpowers was as much a cultural norm as it is in the rest of the world. Part of this is a genuine ethnic hatred between, as an example, Germany and France. Today, Germans and Frenchmen have some sort of rivalry, but the concept of Europe is so built into the fabric of Europe that a war between Germany and France is not only impractical, but seems as absurd as a war between New York and New Jersey (which, by the way, used to happen).

The reason is because entire generations have grown up in which the reality, as articulated by society and everywhere, has drastically changed that assumption. In 1950, although Germany and France did not go to war, for the people who had lived through WWI (and the optimism that had run rampant afterwards), it could not be taken for granted. But a child who grew up in 1960s Germany, war with France would seem like a distant, remote, and silly perspective. A child who grew up in 1980s France would not only feel that the option is distant, remote, and silly--the child would be surrounded by adults who feel the same.

So if we want to influence culture, we have to change the world that our children grow up in. This is why what our children perceive has become a battleground in the aptly named culture wars.

A conservative example of attempting to influence the moment of transmission of culture is the gay-marriage debate. Take this article from The Plank, describing the gay-marriage fight in Maine and the main argument against allowing gay-marriage:

"I don't think that parents want their kids as young as kindergarten being taught about same-sex marriage, period, whether the teacher thinks it's appropriate or not," Brown said.

In other words, in the minds of Yes On 1 supporters, teaching gay marriage can mean merely saying that it exists, although, inevitably, gay-loving teachers will go further and tell children it's a good thing. And the Maine law does nothing to prevent this. "I'd like to see that in writing, guys. Show it to me that it's not going to be taught in schools," Marc Mutty, chair of Yes On 1, said this week in a local news segment. "I dare you to guarantee me that this subject will not come up in schools. I don't think they [No On 1] can do that."
Marc Mutty is right on one important level (and none others). The problem for conservatives is that if we create a society in which gays are treated equally, not only will gays have more rights, but more importantly, children will grow up in a world where gays are equal--and therefore less of them will think of gays as unequal. In other words, I don't think Marc Mutty is fighting a war to keep gays from having marriage -- he may not care less -- Marc Mutty is fighting a war to defend his brand of homophobia from leaving the cultural norm. To all of those people who want their children to believe in the same homophobia, his argument will ring true--no matter how irrational it seems on the face of it.

Lest I be accused of being imbalanced, let's take another use of this tactic: namely, the left's campaign against smoking advertised towards kids, culminating in the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act.

Why does it matter if smoking is on the television? Chiefly, the campaign is one to remove cigarettes from the public norm. And the way to change that culture from a smoking culture to a non-smoking culture is to aim towards the children. For children growing up, we want to make smoking not part of the social norm--to remove any representations from their eyes.

Unfortunately, what we've discovered is that although removing smoking from television has had effects, it hasn't removed the social norm of smoking fully. And hence the next wave of the culture war: removing smokers from public space. Some of it, of course, is prompted by the valid second-hand smoke argument, but once we are banning people from smoking in the street, or public property even once outdoors, I think it has gone beyond that: it has come to the attempt to eradicate smoking culture by removing them from the public eye. And although that won't stop most current smokers, it may reduce future smokers--the children.

If you're thinking of culture, think of the children. That moment of transmission of culture is where we can intervene. And as much as we'd like to avoid propagandizing towards children, the way we structure the environment they grow up in creates who they are. There is no such thing as letting them develop "naturally," or "untouched." We need to think about how we communicate to our kids.

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