I am a big fan of the television show “Mystery Science Theater 3000” (MST3K), in which the characters watch bad movies and crack jokes. Sometimes the show included short educational films that were shown in schools fifty years ago, with subjects like “body care and grooming,” or “why study industrial arts?”
These films taught children our culture’s basic assumptions. One of my favorites, “A Date With Your Family,” is a classic example. It taught that children should be well-mannered and polite; a woman’s role is to be charming to the men of the family; daughters help with dinner while sons play and do homework; etc.
This film is hilarious (particularly with the MST3K jokes) because, with all the changes that have happened in our society over the last sixty years, the assumptions of 1950’s American culture are obvious.
However, some of the assumptions on display in the film are still taken for granted, and because they are part of our cultural reality they are hard to see. One that jumps out at me is the belief that “family = two parents and children.”
Recently I read an interesting article about cultural assumptions with the wonderful title, “Of Cannibals, Kings, and Culture,” (how can you not click on that headline?!), by Adam Etinson. In 1593 the essayist Michel de Montaigne encountered three Brazilian cannibals at the court of the French king. Montaigne also interviewed some of the sailors who had been in Brazil, and his subsequent essay, “Of Cannibals,” gives a fascinating account of Brazilian society, including their polygamous relationships. Of most interest to Montaigne is that the women liked this arrangement:
And it is one very remarkable feature in their marriages, that the same jealousy our wives have to hinder and divert us from the friendship and familiarity of other women, those employ to promote their husbands' desires, and to procure them many spouses; for being above all things solicitous of their husbands' honor, 'tis their chiefest care to seek out, and to bring in the most companions they can, forasmuch as it is a testimony of the husband's virtue. Most of our ladies will cry out, that 'tis monstrous; whereas in truth, it is not so; but a truly matrimonial virtue, and of the highest form.
Montaigne then cites the Bible as evidence of the virtue of this type of marriage: Jacob not only had two wives but they both “gave the most beautiful of their handmaids to their husbands.”
Of course his fellow countrymen were convinced of their complete moral and intellectual superiority over the barbarians from the Americas, but Montaigne realized that in certain respects Brazilian society was more civilized than that of Europe. For example, the Brazilians were appalled by the extreme inequality in wealth they saw in France. In the Brazilian language, people were called “halves of each other.” From their point of view some Frenchmen were “full and crammed with all manner of commodities, while, in the meantime, their halves were begging at their doors, lean, and half-starved with hunger and poverty.” How could a “civilized” nation allow their own people to suffer, the Brazilians wondered? Montaigne concluded:
We all call barbarous anything that is contrary to our own habits. Indeed we seem to have no other criterion of truth and reason than the type and kind of opinions and customs current in the land where we live. There we always see the perfect religion, the perfect political system, the perfect and most accomplished way of doing everything.
Today in America we are as sure of our culture’s superiority as the Europeans were in Montaigne’s day. Because we have achieved an amazing degree of material well-being, we think that means that every aspect of our culture is the best in the world.
Just recently I saw this photo on Facebook.The documentary “Lost Boys of Sudan” illustrates this same point. Years ago a large group of young boys fled the civil war in Sudan and ended up in refugee camps in Kenya. The film shows them in the camps, where they spent their time together singing and dancing. Clearly their culture’s assumptions include a strong emphasis on human interaction.
Then a few “lucky” boys were selected to come to America. The camera followed them in their first months, living in an apartment in a city, struggling to understand the strange isolated American lifestyle. You could see the boys’ spirits sinking in depression and loneliness as they adjusted to life in our culture. By the end of the film they were acting like Americans, isolated and self-sufficient. But I felt that something beautiful had been lost.
A 19th century sociologist came up with the term “ethnocentrism” to describe the attitude of cultural superiority. I don’t like “ethnocentrism” because it primes us to think this has something to do with an ethnic group. A better term, in my opinion, is “collective reality,” because that indicates that this propensity applies to any social group.
In addition, I think the belief that our culture is superior isn’t the real issue: we believe our culture is superior because we think it represents reality as it is. We don’t think our assumptions are beliefs about reality, we think they are reality itself.
For example, for most us, “marriage consists of two people” is as unquestionable as 2+2 = 4. It’s just self-evident, and people who don’t believe it are inferior because they are deluded about reality.
The difficulty we all have in separating belief from reality, in perceiving that our collective cultural reality is based on assumptions, forms the basis for my forthcoming book, We Are ALL Innocent by Reason of Insanity (read the first chapter here).
Mr. Etinson concludes his article, as I conclude my book, by advising the reader of the wisdom of humility. Some philosophers have concluded that because reality is just a collective construct all truth is relative; nothing is absolute. But, Mr. Etinson brings in the 19th-century English philosopher John Stuart Mill to show an alternative to being skeptical about the possibility of an objective truth:
Mill is quick to acknowledge the “magical influence of custom” on our thought, and the way in which local beliefs and practices inevitably appear to us to be “self-evident and self-justifying,” but he does not see this as a reason to lapse into skepticism. Instead, and quite reasonably, he takes it to be evidence of both our intellectual laziness and our fallibility - the ever-present possibility that our beliefs might be wrong. The fact that our deepest-held beliefs would be different had we been born elsewhere on the planet (or even, sometimes, to different parents farther down the street), should disconcert us, make us more open to the likelihood of our own error, and spur us to rigorously evaluate our beliefs and practices against alternatives, but it need not disillusion.
Instead, Mr. Etinson advises us to “re-examine our beliefs and practices, [and] become alert to weaknesses and inconsistencies in our own thinking.”
In other words, question our reality and be aware of the limitations of our knowledge.