One of the reasons we have not been able to truly see how much impact these cultural norms have had on us is that we absolutely need them to make sense of our world. We need them so much that we mistake our cultural norms for the reality itself. They are in fact, one small part of the reality. But we don’t see it that way. I will return to that in a moment. But the main point right now is we simply cannot function without agreed upon ways of perceiving reality. I could not communicate with anyone were it not for the conventions of language. I could not know how to structure my daily life if it were not for cultural conventions. I would stare at the strange thing in my driveway, possibly figure out how to operate it, and then drive willy nilly and not heed stops signs. Many others would possibly be doing the same things. I would most likely not agree that certain little pieces of paper (the same ones that most of us chase on a daily basis) have any value and would not trade my time and skills for them. People would spend much of their time arguing over the significance or lack of significance of those certain pieces of paper. Wait, we already do that. Fundamentally, most social interactions would cease. We could not know in advance that calling someone a dinosaur (when we simply meant to convey they were rather large in stature) might be insulting. I would not know how to respond if I didn’t share the same cultural agreements with others that certain jokes start with “3 ____ walk into a bar.”
So again, I want to point out here that the basic building block of cooperation is at the root of ALL of our cultural conventions. We agree to so many conventions on such an ongoing basis that we do not even think about them except possibly in in rare moments such as when the Jeopardy card for the daily double says “Cogito, ergo sum” and the contestant says “Who is René Descartes ?”
Our cultural blinders are necessary for us to function in the world. That bears repeating about 18 times. But I won’t bore you with that repetition here. I will however say that much like the proverbial lightbulb that goes on when people have ideas, that to live without cultural conventions would be like trying to function anywhere, even in your own home, with all the lights out.
It’s the end of summer and I have a fan in my room that I end up still wanting to turn on at night, usually three minutes after I’ve turned out the lights and have gotten into bed. So I have to get up, walk over to the fan, and plug it into the socket (because it’s old and the control knobs don’t work great). Easy peasy, right? Just walk right over there, plug it in, and get back to bed. No problem! Except in the dark it’s amazingly difficult to achieve that one little action. Almost all parts of the reality are the same as they were during the day when I can complete this act in far less than one second, once I am near enough to the fan and the socket. But in the dark it can take me quite a while to figure out how to complete this act.
What has happened is I have lost the main mode of perception that I usually use for completing this task. EVERYTHING ELSE is the same. Except I am without the ability to perceive things in the way I normally perceive them. This is exactly how cultural norms work for us. EXACTLY. We cannot function easily in the dark and we cannot function easily without feeling certain about our cultural norms. That’s just the way humans are built.
So let’s continue to muddle on with this analogy. Everything about reality is the same except for one little thing: that lack of light makes it very difficult for me to see exactly where the outlet is. And it then is pretty much frustrating to damned near impossible for me to plug the fan into the wall safely. Instead, I then need to find the light switch across the room and turn it on. If I do that, then I can go back to the fan, take the cord, and plug the machine into the outlet within a second. Several things are happening here that have parallels with regard to cultural norms:
The light IS a part of reality during the day. It is real. But the light is only a small part of our reality. The room, the electrical outlet, the fan, the heat, the human struggling with the task, all exist outside of the part of reality that is the light.
Similarly, cultural norms and assumptions are parts of reality. But they are only small parts of reality. All other material facts of our worlds are there independent of them. I am still in the same environment.
A tree is a good example perhaps. I’m able to look out my window and see a tree. It would still be there no matter what I thought about it or called it. I could be perceiving it as potential nests for birds or squirrels, shade for me, a mess of dead leaves I will need to clean up in fall, or I can be, like a good capitalist, trying to figure out how profitable it would be to cut down. But it’s still there, no matter how I perceive its being or use. We perceive it as “tree” in English. But it is “arbre” in French,“shajara” in Arabic, and “arbol” in Spanish. If I were to say in English “Look at that shajara.” we might have severe difficulties due to me starting out with one set of cultural assumptions and then stumbling my way through the Arabic word for tree. Saying “shajara” instead of “tree” would be the equivalent of me turning out the light and expecting you to be able to easily plug the fan into the socket. And, to be clear, that would be our problem, not the tree’s. The tree exists independent of our talking about it or our assessment of it. All this to say that cultural assumptions play very large parts in having our days go smoothly.
Going back to the fan, how much we take electricity for granted will be based on our particular cultural norms. That should be easy enough for us to understand. But we do not think of it in the moment at all! Only philosophers do. Because it appears to have little bearing on our overall lives. Much like we don’t generally spend much time thinking about the air we breathe. At our most hubristic, we might think to ourselves “I’ve got far more important things to do!”
No, we’ve got a bunch of OTHER things to do. Big difference.
It is precisely because we have so many other things to do and think about, that we take lots of things for granted. The light during the day is something we take absolutely for granted. It’s just there. Same with cultural assumptions and norms. They are REALLY there, and we rarely consider them as the -elements- they are in any given situation. But these elements can and do change.
Going back to what goes on in my bedroom:
If I were smart, I would learn very quickly to plug the fan in prior to turning out the lights, or if I failed to do that, I would learn to turn the light on prior to trying to plug in the light. Since I’m not all that bright sometimes (ha, get it?), I often forget to do one of those things. When that happens, I typically will have enough unconventionally placed hubris born of being human that I say to myself, “I can do this in the dark.” Then I struggle for a few seconds and will rarely succeed. What I do is I fight the idea that maybe I do need this one thing (light) in order to function easily. I want the light to be available for me where and when I want it. And since it is not, I will do my best to carry on in its absence.
Many other folks would not be so hubristic in this one area, and would instead be hubristic in other areas: These fine folks do more or less the equivalent of AUTOMATICALLY remembering to turn on the light, but (and this is crucial) do not recognize that they have done so. They end up either confusing cultural assumptions for “the natural way of things” or insisting that one set of cultural assumptions is right and others are not relevant or wrong, or that they alone know the one true way. And that’s just silly. But Patriarchal ways of thinking have been built on this silly premise for centuries! And this writing is but one small dose of chemotherapy to try to eradicate its ill effects. Wretched similies are me.
In other words: When is a tree not a tree? When millions of people call it by another name because they happen to speak Arabic. Even then, in the Arabic world, and in any other one on this planet, the tree -of course- exists independently of anything we decide to call it. But our cultural assumptions stop us from seeing these truths all the time. We think “A tree IS a tree, silly!” rather than “In the English speaking world, we agree to call this category of things “tree” as a part of our shared cultural understanding.”
Going on and on about the philosophical aspects of reality has, for millennia, been exceedingly unfruitful and the lost interest of millions of souls is testament to that.1 People learn the very basics of philosophy of reality and then move on. While I don’t necessarily share the loss of interest, I will try and do the same just as quickly as possible. So, the main points for our purposes are:
- cultural assumptions are everywhere,
- they are routinely taken for granted,
- we often have to take them for granted due to other issues we need to focus our energies on,
- we have to have them,
- our assumptions can and do change,
- and they are routinely mistaken for an unchanging reality, not just the small and very changeable elements of reality that they truly are.
1 I remember first being introduced to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in school and recall my classmates being somewhat impatient with that particular lesson. As soon as it the concept became rather difficult to imagine, they decided it wasn’t a practical thing to discuss. I got the impression they’d rather live in the cave, but maybe without the chains.