Saturday, July 8, 2017

Cultural Hypocrisy

I have often thought that, whenever a culture seems to abhor and revile certain personal defects, you will find that that culture displays those exact faults. Perhaps not everyone in the culture does, but the culture as a whole falls prey to those exact sins that it claims to hate.

Take ancient Persia. Ancient Persian culture idolizes, or at least, seems to idolize, the truth. A common prefix for Persian kings was “arta,” meaning “the true” or “the legitimate.” So there was a ruler named Xerxes, and another ruler named Artaxerxes. Herodotus said of the Persians, “Persians educate their boys to ride well, shoot straight, and speak the truth.” And yet, the ancient Persians were no stranger to bribery and deception in warfare. Indeed, the Corinthian war in ancient Greece was initiated at the behest of a Persian satrap and his coin. And historically, internecine conflict was not unknown there.

Or, for that matter, take the ancient Roman culture and its valuation of discipline. Roman culture viewed self-indulgence as “womanish” and weak. And yet, when Roman satirists wanted to skewer Roman culture, they did so by pointing out its hedonism and amorality. The idea of decadent Romans gorging themselves to excess is not a modern invention - even contemporary writers commented on it, for example in Satyricon.

Roman culture despised self-indulgence, particularly in sexual matters.

Speaking of which, one can learn quite a bit about the sins of a culture from satirical and critical writers. For example, Germanic cultures, from Germany up to the Scandinavian countries and even England, seem to have a thoroughgoing regard for humility and not thinking of oneself too much or praising oneself too much. And yet, Schopenhauer, writing in 19th century Germany, had no qualms about writing a lot of spiteful invective toward his countrymen and their apparent over-concern for other people’s opinions of them. You see this during the British Empire as well, where it was taken as common wisdom that one ought not to take oneself too seriously - and we all know about the pomp and grandiosity of Imperial Britain. William Golding, a British novelist, notes this dryly in Lord of the Flies, where he has one of his characters say something like, “We’re English, and the English are best at everything.” And contemporary Sweden has something of the same issue - a cultural ideal of individual humility, together with an unshakable conviction that Swedish culture is superior and best for everyone. For that matter, look at Russian culture, where absorption in one’s own minutiae is considered to be weakness and selfishness. And yet, every great Russian novel seems to mostly consist of the main character brooding.

And my own country?

American culture values, or claims to value, humanity, fair play, and civilized behavior. And to see how this works out, we can look to Frank Zappa, one of the cultural satirists of the 20th century:

I got a cheerleader here wants to help with my paper
Let her do all the work 'n' maybe later I'll rape her
Oh God I am the American dream
I do not think I'm too extreme
An' I'm a handsome sonofabitch
I'm gonna get a good job 'n' be real rich
And I’ll do anything to get ahead…

I tend to accept this as simply how the world works. Might doesn’t make right, but it does let you make the rules. And I’d rather be the rule-maker than the rule-follower. Perhaps it’s symptomatic of this phenomenon that, in addition to having this mindset myself, I don’t see any problem with it. Then again, that doesn’t make me wrong.

No comments:

Post a Comment