Culture is a curious thing.
Ask anyone to describe the ideal human culture and, chances are, the person will describe a culture very similar to his or her own. Some may point to subtle differences between the ideal and their own, but people tend to believe their own culture is not only “good” but “best.”
Can we agree that we all tend to be a tad ethnocentric? Most of us like the culture we were raised in or the culture we have chosen as adults. We tend to assign moral quantities to simple customs and norms of our own culture and look down cultures that do not share these values.
What is culture?
Answering this question is much more difficult than it would seem. I planned to share a few definitions, but I could find one short enough or clear enough to fit. Culture involves all the social aspects of life – language, ethnicity, laws, customs, preferences, and much more. It spreads into the material aspects of life – food, art, craft, and aesthetics—as well as the immaterial aspects such as music, beliefs, philosophy, and worldview.
While I have only lived in the United States, I have lived in six different states with five distinct cultures. Yes, each of these could be grouped in the broad category of “American” culture, but with very specific nuances. The differences were not only social but also material.
I have lived in radically independent places with off-the-charts “guilt-innocence” cultures, and in very interconnected, conformist places which exhibited mild forms of “honor-shame” culture. I’ve lived in an ethnic enclave culture in the Northeast and I currently live in radically non-conformist New Orleans. The divergent influences in these places came from the South, the Southwest, the Midwest, Europe (the continent and the British Isles); Africa, and the Caribbean.
As a writer and artist, I have always been an amateur cultural anthropologist of sorts – observing how people live and relate in each of these nuanced expressions of American culture. It has been interesting to behold moments of beauty, bleakness, and banality in each culture.
Which culture is best?
Oklahoma of course, or is it New Orleans, or maybe Pittsburgh … I really can’t decide because that is the wrong question. At a very basic level, culture is neither good or bad, it just is.
Food is a perfect example of the neutral quality of culture. I personally don’t eat horses, insects, or fermented eggs, but some people really enjoy these things. And I have eaten some things that many in American culture would find offensive – squirrel and sheep heart come to mind. None of these foods are morally reprehensive to anyone who eats meat, but plenty of these are only appetizing to specific cultures.
Another good example is the western obsession with time and punctuality. Americans get testy about time. We think “on-time” means five minutes early. Arriving right at the announced time is almost like being late. If a party is supposed to start at 7 p.m., we expect the food to be served by 7:15. Some Americans assign a moral value to promptness. Not so in many cultures around the world. Other cultures simply aren’t as time-conscious as Americans and they are not morally reprehensible because of this.
Am I denying absolute truth?
Absolutely not! I believe in an absolute uncaused cause of the universe—the God revealed in the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament of the Christian church. And I believe in His Son, Jesus. Because of the Creator, certain behaviors and attitudes that are always wrong and are almost universally acknowledged as wrong throughout the world. God has written these things on our hearts.
The world is populated with fallen people so there are both good and bad things within each cultural expression in the world. Some cultures do a better job than others when it comes to following the moral standards the God has written on our hearts, but it would be difficult to honestly and knowingly argue that one culture is “best.” It is just much easier for us to focus on the bad in another culture and the good in our own. We must be careful not to assign moral values to our cultural preferences or the mundane, neutral aspects of another culture.