Cultures and Lightbulbs – Alma Boykin
There’s a joke that asks, “How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?” Answer: “Only one, but the light bulb really has to want to change.” The same is true of cultures, fictional and actual. It is possible to change culture, but it takes time, and if the majority of members of that culture prefer the old ways, things are going to remain static, especially in the deep-rooted, “90 percent of the iceberg” aspects of culture. So what does make a culture change, for good or for ill?
I ask because I’ve been reading Thomas Sowell’s latest book, Wealth, Poverty, and Politics, the one he said he wasn’t going to write (back two books ago. I hope he keeps deciding to stop writing.) It is a very nice synopsis of some of his earlier works about cultural differences and economic outcomes, with a great deal of additional material, all looking at the question of why do some groups seem to do well economically and others don’t do as well, no matter what advantages they might initially have? He looks in the very long term, and includes geography, although there are ways to overcome the disadvantages of geography (see Switzerland for a sterling example). I’ve also been reading a German book about the pre-Indo-European cultures of the Danube River Basin from Hungary downstream. Aside from being a bit too enamored of Marija Gimbutas’s theories about religion and matriarchy at times, it’s a very useful book that fills in some holes in my knowledge of the area. As with Sowell’s volume, one of the ideas in the book is that of cultural change and adoption, looking at the Greek language for pre-Indo-European language traces, as well as using archaeology for clues.*
In the case of the people who migrated into the Peloponnesian Peninsula, the need to find words for new-to-them plants and animals, as well as adopting certain local religious practices, seems to have encouraged cultural shifts and adaptations. If you come from a place without large bodies of water, and find yourself surrounded by a sea and needing to fish for food, you are probably going to start trying to placate whoever is in charge of the ocean and storms. You may absorb the locals’ deity, assuming there are locals, or you may discover a new-to-your-people god or goddess. (How that happens I leave to our anthropologists and theologians).
The Comanche Indians are another example of voluntary culture change. They originated as Great Basin Shoshone, with cultural practices that reflected the relatively impoverished environment of their home region. When they reached the Great Plains and acquired horses, their collective response was something along the lines of, “Dump that junk! Adapt, Improvise, and Overcome! Wheeee!” and they borrowed where useful, improvised where necessary, and adapted supremely well to the High Plains. A few beliefs lingered, or so anthropologists and later observers believe, but in terms of visible behavior, the Comanche became the archetypical plains horse nomads. After 1876, when forcibly confined to reservations in Oklahoma, the Comanche once more said, “Dump the old stuff, we need to adapt in order to survive,” much to the frustration of future generations of ethnographers and Comanches. They kept certain beliefs, tossed the mechanics of certain crafts and skills, and adapted once more. But this change was, to an extent, voluntary as their earlier cultural shift had been. One can argue that being stuck at Ft. Sill was not voluntary, but the decision by the apparent majority of Comanches to not pass on traditions and skills to later generations, even as crafts, and to tell their children to learn from the white men was a deliberate choice. A choice modern Comanche are trying to undo in part by working with museums and archives to back-engineer certain skills and practices.
These cases are voluntary, of cultural groups moving to new environments and opting to change their practices (and beliefs?) to varying degrees to take better advantage of their surroundings. Did some Comanches and others object to major changes? I presume they did, since they are humans, and change is not easy, especially the deep cultural ideas and beliefs that got you through hard times in the past. It’s like some families from certain long-persecuted religious groups insisting on having portable wealth, even though they’ve been in the US for multiple generations without experiencing difficulties. You never know, after all. It’s safer to plan for the worst and buy lots of gold wedding jewelry so the women can bribe people if necessary, or use it to pay off debts to money lenders during starvation-hard times.
But like the joke about the Dalai Lama and the hotdog vendor says, “Change must come from within.” The US occupation forces would have had a very hard time undoing the effects of Japanese militarism if a whole lot of Japanese had not said to themselves, “That didn’t work and it’s not worth the pain of trying to keep that tradition alive.”
What about groups that don’t adapt as quickly, or who apparently do not assimilate? People who moved to the US from other cultures and continents in the 19th and early 20th centuries faced rough times until they 1) assimilated to a degree acceptable by the surrounding society or 2) found ways to appear sufficiently assimilated, or 3) made a niche and held out until they were perceived as interesting, “quaint,” and harmless oddities (like Old Order Amish and Mennonites, certain American Indian groups, and others). The Amish, being Protestant Christians involved in agriculture, fit in relatively well when they came to the Colonies because they were surrounded by Protestant Christians who, for the most part, practiced agriculture. Yes, their pacifism and language caused difficulties, especially during WWI, but their basic beliefs continued to fit into the accepted varieties of US culture, at least until the late 20th century. Later arriving Mennonites fleeing the Russian Revolution and associated wars found ways to adapt as well, with varying degrees of assimilation.
But those changes came from within. Can cultural change be forced by outsiders? Yes, but usually it requires armed force or overwhelming numbers, more rarely through persuasion at least until the rise of cultural-equivalency and the idea that non-Western cultural practices must be better simply by virtue of being non-Western. Although the visiting professor from India I had drew the line at condemning the British for trying to abolish suttee. She was a widow of the Brahmin caste and apparently her in-laws still wanted her dead. So even for her, a little “cultural Imperialism” wasn’t entirely bad.
I tinkered with forced cultural change in the novel Hubris and its eventual sequel Renaissance. The Azdhagi had begun shifting from within, to a less pack-centered and more democratic (herpetocratic? Sauriacratic?) style of government in a meritocratic society when a series of disasters struck. In response, caused some of those changes flipped back to the way they’d been many generations before and flipped hard. Other shifts occurred over the next few generations, including a major change in Azdhagi religion. The religion kept the old forms of group ritual and the use of incense and chanted “hymns,” but the object of worship changed considerably, from a monotheistic belief to ancestor worship with additional deified spirits. Some of the stories’ characters adapted, others didn’t, and a few realized that things had never quite been what they assumed.
History, at least the history I’ve studied, suggests that the most lasting changes within a culture come from inside that culture, unless overwhelming force is applied and there is no way to revert, even after the force is (mostly) removed. This poses some interesting ideas for fiction writers, and greater challenges for policy makers.
*Why Greek and not the modern Danube Basin languages? Too many other groups have moved into the area since the pre-Indo-Europeans were there and far fewer pre-IE words remain in the Slavic and Magyar languages.