Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Gen Eds LC2: Culture Classification

This is the second post in a series called, "World Language and Culture." This is the fourth series in an overall project called Gen Eds in a Nutshell. The other series so far include 1) philosophy, 2) world history, and 3) a math and science series, which is a little over half-way.

Thus far in this current series are:
1. Today's goal is to provide a framework for describing the various cultures of the world. The series on world history was primarily "diachronic." That is to say, it looked back in time and focused on cause-effect relationships over time. This series is primarily "synchronic." It aims to look at the current languages and cultures of the world at this present moment. [1]

Meaning is a function of minds. The world knows matter and energy, cause and effect. But significance is for God and humanity.

We share many things in common as humans, which suggests that there will be some matters of common significance among all people across time. Some of these include love, justice, loyalty, ambition, pleasure, and family. Christians believe that God has assigned a significance to these for all the universe.

On the other end of the spectrum is individual personality. Among us are extroverts and introverts. There are those who act more on their intuitions or on what they can see. There are some who act more on what makes sense to them and others who do more what they feel. Finally, there are those who like to leave things open-ended and those who delight in finishing what they start.

There is no right and wrong when it comes to these personality preferences. A person is not better because they prefer to be around other people, versus those who need time along. Each personality has its strengths and weaknesses.

2. Culture is like the personality of a group of people as a whole in a particular place and time. Again, there is no right or wrong culture, although no doubt each has its strengths and weaknesses. To say this is not at all to say that there is no right and wrong. It is to say that there are a lot of variations among cultures that are not a matter of right and wrong. [2]

In this series I propose to use seven categories in order to categorize the different cultures of the world. These categories are:
  1. Language--what are the dominant languages of a particular culture 
  2. Identifying stories, symbols, and rituals, and beliefs. N. T. Wright calls these the four components of a worldview.
  3. Social structure--I am going to pack into this category a number of features, such as ethics and/or racial composition, class systems, and whether a culture tends to be more hierarchical or egalitarian.
  4. Group structure--In this category I will cover family structure, as well as whether a culture tends to be more individualistic or collectivist. Also, how is gender and age treated?
  5. Economic structure--how does a culture handle money and resources
  6. Communication--Is a culture more implicit or explicit in its communication? Does it tend to give principles or the big picture first or the details and concrete specifics?
  7. Operating mode--This gets at some of the hot versus cold culture dynamics. Is a culture more relationship or task oriented? Is it more linear and time-conscious or flexible and laid back? Is it focused more on being or doing?
  8. Moral focus--Here I am applying Jonathan Haidt's six moral categories in The Righteous Mind. These include a) care/harm, b) fairness/injustice, c) loyalty/betrayal, d) authority/subversion, e) sanctity/defilement, and f) liberty/oppression. [3]
3. It is important to recognize that the meaning of many actions and words is completely cultural. To raise a middle finger is quite significant in the United States, and we have exported this action around the world. However, there are still places in the world where this action has no meaning whatsoever.

What is considered modest is extremely cultural and sometimes even subcultural. A woman without a veil would be immodest in a number of Arab countries, while a woman without a top might not be considered immodest in some parts of the world. It is hard for us to imagine that such values could differ because they are so fundamental to our culture, but these are learned values, not innate.

Living in another person's shoes is one path on the road to enlightenment. This is true both of people in our own culture and people in other cultures. Hopefully this series will help us on this journey to see ourselves more clearly because we can see ourselves as we appear to others outside our context.

Next Week: The Languages of the World

[1] See another attempt to present how culture works here.

[2] Most of the rhetoric on absolutism and relativism is very superficial. On the one hand, people often blur epistemological absolutes (which have to do with truth) and moral absolutes (which have to do with ethics). Additionally, a false alternative is typically posed between either believing in truth (absolutes) or not believing in truth (relativism).

Absolutism, properly defined, means no exceptions. By contrast, most moral norms are universal with exceptions, which is neither relativism nor absolutism. All people consider some matters of morality relative (we used to call them "convictions"). Nihilism is the proper term for a disbelief in morality altogether.

All that is to say is that most of the tired rhetoric you hear on this subject is overly simplistic and generally a mess of bad thinking.

[3] This last one actually is distributed among the others, but I thought it was worth singling out.

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