November 24, 2014

ZHA | Cultish Culture

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By DAVID ZHA

Now that I have your attention…

So the other day I came across a picture of neo-czar Vladimir Putin draping a shawl over the wife of CCP’s chief party animal and esteemed excellency Xi Jinping during 2014’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. Many Chinese, outraged by Vladmir’s presumptuousness, took to the blogosphere — a natural habitat for the easily offended and hypersensitive — the magical land where clouds are made of inane text and the rainbows are tinged with self-righteousness. (I guess the bloggers win in the end because here I am writing about it.)

While my discovery that China also has plenty of people with bad taste, free time to burn and an Internet connection strong enough to validate their trivial opinions (the inherent hypocrisy is not lost on me, don’t worry) was encouraging for my dream of East-West mutual understanding, it made me realize a deeper problem about human division and miscommunication. Culture.

Often celebrated as the repository of our collective achievement, culture is the judge of what is right and what is wrong. People make judgments on what is good or bad, what they need or don’t need, what is trendy or lame based on customs they share with others. They then require the validation of that judgment from peers who hold the same culture. It’s an easy way to justify your course of action and get a knee-jerk approval response from your neighbors.

People who juggle multiple cultural backgrounds often find they have to reconcile conflicting values. And while all they get is an earful about how lucky they are to be enriched by another source of inspiration, they’re also subject to a variety of prescriptions for human behavior that oftentimes conflict. Most end up aligning themselves with one exclusively hoping to fit in, while some choose the middle way and feel estranged.

But your particular culture isn’t right. Or wrong. The existence of a multiplicity of human cultures really blurs the line between right and wrong, doesn’t it? What is good and acceptable in one framework doesn’t carry over universally.

Go and educate the Korowai people of New Guinea on how cannibalism is an inhumane form of criminal justice with a law textbook in hand and cardigan fashionably unbuttoned and see how politically correct of a response you’ll receive.

Bring your D.A.R.E. posters and church pamphlets to the Amazon so you can pass them out to local ayahuasca shamans and then glumly watch when they burn your papers in their ritual fire before offering you some liquid enlightenment.

Recite your memorized Quran passage on chastity in your head again before informing Western women that nudity and sexuality aren’t forms of empowerment, but yet another way of playing into the lustful hands of their perverse patriarchal masters and prepare yourself for the optical cancer awaiting you on Tumblr.

Culture is divisive. It literally has the word “cult” in it. It convinces you that you and your own are moral and right while those you meet at an uncompromising impasse must therefore be uncivilized and wrong. It’s so powerful, it might even make you drop your red bean soup in shock before making a long post about Vladmir Putin’s questionable integrity and audacious public womanizing.

Forget nation and religion, this phenomenon pops up in the microcultures we build every day, from town to town, house to house, friend group to friend group. I’d like to see a group of drunks proselytize their lifestyle to astrophysicists without using the word “pussy” or a group of gamers trying to teach Dota to a team of jocks without using the word “dumbass.”

Find out who you really are and craft your own culture to free yourself from the desires and values imposed on you by groupthink. Question everything, especially what you assume to be right. Culture can erode your capacity as an autonomous individual and trap you in a provincial circle.

I am not saying get rid of good values found in your cultural inheritance if they align with your inner kindness, that intuitive altruism I know is buried somewhere deep in your heart of jade. I am saying do not let your internal compass be influenced by external prescriptions on what is right or cool, even if you’re up against an entire country trying to habitualize you to a regimen of binge shopping, binge eating, ageism, celebrity worship, social posturing and televised ball games.

David Zha is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at dzha@cornellsun.com. The Angry Spirit Bear appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.