Is Culture Far?

Humans are culturally pliable – raise us different, and we become different. But we are not infinitely pliable; there seem to be many human universals. So what sets the limits of how culture can change humans? My guess today: culture mainly changes our far feelings, not our near feelings. Consider:

  1. While we hold laughter as one our highest ideals, our farmer ancestors held it in lower regard. They were not to laugh in public, while we like to hear public laughter. But I’ll bet their experience of laughing was pretty similar to ours.
  2. To our farmer ancestors, romantic love wasn’t required for marriage, but sexual fidelity was extremely important. To us, romance is needed for marriage, but we are much more forgiving about sexual promiscuity. Yet I’ll bet that what sex and love felt like to them was pretty similar to how they feel to us.
  3. Western culture looks down on conformity, and celebrates independence. But more Eastern cultures, and our farmer ancestors, thought well of conformity. Yet I’ll bet we get a similar raw feeling of comfort from knowing that others are doing the same thing we are.
  4. Our ancestors swore allegiance to lords and kings, while we are proud to live in a democracy without formal classes or rulers; we must bow to no one. Yet I’ll bet we feel a similar resentment at having to acknowledge the higher status of someone who was once our equal (such as an old college friend who is now a CEO), and feel a similar ease at showing our submission to someone with far higher status (like a president or movie star).

In all these cases our basic near feelings haven’t changed much, even though we have changed our far opinions on which feelings we respect or feel guilty about, which seem pure or dirty, which are to be public or private, etc.

If culture is far, then in near mode we become more like a common universal human, and in far mode we diverge to become the different “subspecies” according to our different cultures. Culture being mainly far might help explain why schools try hard to promote a far view, to make students more culturally pliable. It might also help explain why we are far more paternalistic toward kids than adults; perhaps we distrust kids as folks from other cultures, since kids have not yet fully diverged to join our subspecies.

Added 3p: In these terms near and far minds resemble Freud’s id and super-ego.

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