Dominant Cultures

Image from — two cultures co-existing.

I recently listened to a podcast that Viv McWaters and Geoff Brown had with Patti Digh. It made mention of the issue of privilege, diversity and dominant cultures, the prevailing worldviews, not of nations, but of communities — neighbourhoods, organizations, and communities of interest (at the level where our culture really shows itself, in what people tend to believe, do, like, and support). While much has been made in the US of ‘red states’ and ‘blue states’, the reality is that ‘red culture’ and ‘blue culture’ can be found in every state, and wherever either is found, there are a series of counter-cultures. The stronger the dominant culture in a community, at any level of aggregation, the more determined, dug in and vehement the counter-cultures seem to be.

So in a predominantly red* state we might see cities that are blue, and within them we might see universities and other communities that are predominantly green, except for the counter-culture Alex Keaton types in that university, who are uber-conservative. In Canada, this instinct to resist dominant culture has kept the Quebec separatist movement alive despite its increasing economic irrelevance and the incompetence and incoherence of its leaders. In their book Rebel Sell, Heath & Potter argue that  you can’t jam the culture — that any counter-culture that develops enough of a voice will quickly be co-opted into the dominant culture with Borg-like assimilation efficiency. But as long as it’s unthreatening, these counter-cultures actually help the dominant culture to define itself, and to portray non-believers as extremists, so these counter-cultures are tolerated as “terrible examples”. And likewise the counter-cultures need a dominant culture as their foil. Such is the dichotomous nature of the body politic.

In Canada, for example, the Western separatists thrived for decades on the basis of their collective feeling of being hard done by by “the Eastern establishment”. When the conservative wing of that establishment collapsed in the Mulroney years, the Western radicals filled the void, taking over the Conservative party and replacing its social and economic moderates with Bush-style neocons. But the only way it could win politically was to rebrand itself as a national non-extremist party. It’s now the largest bloc in the Canadian government, but the right-wing core led by minority PM Harper knows that it relies on the handful of Eastern conservatives in Parliament for its existence. It has been co-opted by its own moderate-conservative counter-culture (one that cares about winning, and about economic conservatism, more than grassroots Bush/Palin right-wing social conservatism). They lost their only chance to win a majority last month, and are destined to return to Western oblivion once the Liberals, who have occupied the centre-left position that has represented the dominant Canadian culture for a half-century or more, find a competent leader.
Meanwhile, the Green Party in Canada has spent all its energy and money trying to win seats in a first-past-the-post system, and until they are able to persuade enough people to support proportional representation, they, too, are doomed to remain a fringe party.

There are a variety of dominant cultures in effect in various communities in North America. Although it’s an over-simplification, here’s my list of the main ones:

Anti-government Libertarian: People-are-inherently-bad ethos. Cult of the individual. Paranoid. Gun lovers. Government haters. Conspiracy theorists. Neo-survivalists.

Social Neocons: People-are-inherently-bad ethos. Fear-and-hate driven. Uneducated and uninformed. Born-agains. Want government to regulate morality but not economy. Family is most important socio-political unit. Anti-choice. Believers in Rapture and church’s role in all human activity.

Economic Neocons: People-are-inherently-stupid ethos. Paternalistic. Believers in laissez-faire and globalization. Believe social issues are a personal matter. Like the idea of hands-off benevolent dictatorship. Nationalists. Melting-pot, cultural homogenization advocates.

Classic Conservatives: Work ethos. Distrustful of any change. Nationalists.

Nihilists: Ethos of anomie. Overwhelmed, fearful and stressed-out. Drop-outs from the political process. Uneducated and uninformed. Conspicuous consumers. Malleable. Thrill-seekers.

Neoliberals: People-are-inherently-good ethos. Believe in One World and centralization. Melting-pot, cultural homogenization advocates. Patient diplomats. Believers in mixed economy. Socially liberal and tolerant. Idealistic.

Classic Liberals: People-are-inherently-good ethos. Rabid moderates. Believers in balance, compromise and the virtues of measured progress. Socially liberal and tolerant.

Labour Socialists: People-are-inherently-corrupt ethos. Class-conscious. Politically active but suspicious of power. Believers in government as the vehicle for balance and redistribution of wealth. Anti-hierarchy. May be socially conservative or liberal.

Socialist Idealists: Power-to-the-people ethos. Class-conscious. Politically active. Believers in government as the vehicle for balance and redistribution of wealth. Anti-hierarchy. Believe in One World. Socially very liberal.

Communitarian Green Anarchist: People-are-inherently-good ethos. Community-based-society advocates. Gun haters. Central/big government haters. Environmentalists. May also be conspiracy theorists and neo-survivalists. Mainstream-media haters.

This is complex systems stuff. Individuals tend to be a mix of these cultural archetypes, and to change their views as they age and as their social and economic situation changes. Each individual tends to adopt the cultural archetypes of friends and family, dependent largely on their economic status, class background, exposure to other worldviews, personal experiences and (formal and especially informal) education.

Add up the worldviews of all the people in a community, and one or perhaps more of these cultures will generally show up as dominant. You can see this reflected in the work the majority do, where they choose to live, what they buy, what they read, who they associate with, and what they do with their leisure time.

And then the people in that community who feel threatened or isolated by that dominant culture establish their counter-cultures, which tend to gravitate around different cultural archetypes (either those in the list above, or other archetypes, or micro-cultures based on more specific or one-issue worldviews). The media like it this way, since it allows them to brand and oversimplify complex issues and reduce every issue to an A-or-B dichotomy, with each of A and B aligned with either the dominant culture or a counter-culture.

The list above refers to the political dimension of culture. In the podcast mentioned above, Patti makes the point that the dominant culture has a huge impact not only on one’s political beliefs, but on acceptance in the community, on opportunities for success (or lack thereof), on the way we relate to others and so on. The social dimension of culture relates to philosophical, religious and behavioural norms — how we think, how we communicate, how we behave, how we accommodate others’ ideas and actions. Where the dominant political culture is relatively overt (those in power, and out of power, are quite clear) the dominant social culture may be less obvious, especially for those (often male, white, relatively affluent) who are part of that culture.

It requires a lot of sensitivity to recognize the degree to which the dominant social culture can tyrannize, inhibit and undervalue those who are not a part of it. And it requires a lot of strength to appreciate that the dominant social culture is emergent and not deliberately subjugating, to force that dominant culture to accommodate ideas, knowledge, practices and perspectives from another culture, and not to capitulate to the dominant culture.

In this light, it is not hard to see culture for what it really is — a set of behaviours designed, at one level, to reduce friction and enable communication, but, at a deeper level, as a mechanism to enforce conformity, obedience, and continuation of the status quo. Culture is what enables us to know each other better and work together more effectively than we could without its trappings — codes of behaviour, shared language, signals and other shorthands of meaning, shared beliefs and understandings.

But the dark side of culture is that it can be imperialistic, tyrannical, homogenizing and relentless. It tends to make us everybody-else, when our essential humanity, and our hope for the future, rests on our ability to each be nobody-but-ourselves, a culture of one.

Category: Our Culture

* It is a strange historical accident that in the US, the Republicans (and hence conservatives) use the colour red, while Democrats (and hence liberals) use the colour blue. Virtually everywhere else in the world the colour symbols for conservative and liberal are the reverse. Hence ‘better dead than Red (communist)’ and ‘Tory blue’. Confusing, isn’t it?

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4 Responses to Dominant Cultures

  1. Dave Pollard says:

    Apologies for the formatting. I’m trying to post to my Radio Userland blog from my Mac, but the formatting is getting messed up in the posting. Lawrence Lee at Userland is working on it, and I hope to get it cleaned up soon. Imagine a photo at the top of a cat and dog curled up together — two cultures co-existing well despite their differences.

  2. Paxus says:

    i dont like these divisions. it puts us in a place of all struggling against each other and so many factions that progress and consensus is impossible. i prefer the Cultural Creatives demographic identification which is a huge fraction of people with general progressive attitudes. We can find common ground, if we ask the right questions and do the right group mind exercises.

  3. David Parkinson says:

    Paxus, that’s a good one. You don’t like Dave’s fine-grained taxonomy of political orientations (which he admits are oversimplified and all mixed together)… and then you want to replace it with a politico-psychological space of zero dimensions. Well, it’ll make Christmas shopping easier, that much is for sure. :-)Dave, this is good stuff. It has the merit of being hard to push much further without it breaking apart into craziness; like we’re hunting for the atoms of political orientation whose combination yields molecules which we name: anarchist, (classic) conservative, etc. And these molecules combine according to socio-chemical principles… it could get pretty hermetic in here pretty quickly.I’m making fun, but it feels as though something like that is going on under the hood; only it’s so goddamn multidimensional and ever-shifting that it can never be the object of an empirical science. So what can you do with it? Maybe the only important take-away is the reminder that these identities are provisional and may be more subject to change than we realize, once the whole system passes some threshold (and our social and political systems are in full-on pitch-roll-yaw these days, so if this mid-flight turbulence doesn’t dislodge some baggage, nothing will). There must be hysteretical points in there, where the ‘chemical’ equilibrium does a sudden phase-change and the chemical composition changes to a new steady state.Or am I just indulging in vulgar analogizing from the empirical sciences to the world of human affairs? I think maybe I am.And so good night.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    I think your analogy is valid, David. Cultures emerge, and are in constant change. I think they’re mostly dangerous, now, in our overcrowded world, where they can be so easily exploited by tyrants and thieves. But then I’m an incorrigible idealist. :-)

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