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Interrogating Culture: For life or for death? Anita Cheria and Edwin

The debate about which is better—nature or nurture—has been an ongoing debate for millennia. Whatever the result, the fact is that ‘nature’ is a given. Humankind has never been at peace with nature—the environment that has been inherited. Therefore, the species has always attempted to change the external world through dominance or through retreating into a mythical world. To cope with the vagrancies of nature—over which there is little control such as birth, death and suffering—humans invent elaborate myths, ritual and pseudo-reality sometimes camouflaged as ‘heaven’, ‘golden ages’ and other utopias of the unremembered past.

The roots of a culture…
‘Culture’ is that part of the environment created by humans. The building blocks of this ‘culture’ are memes. Every meme is a unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another. Meme is to culture what bits—binary digits 0 and 1—are for computers. Though seemingly simple, the entire superstructure is built from them.

The most powerful meme across all cultures is the ‘mother’ and then child. This results in all religions having the cult of the ‘mother and child’. In modern communication, another power meme—fear—is used along with these two power memes. Advertisements invariably invoke these images—of mother, child and fear—to sell goods of little utility to people with little discernment.

Socialising the paradigm
Terrified of everything beyond his control, man built a superstructure based on domination, exploitation and control of nature. The feminine was identified with nature, and the female became the chosen carrier of this dominant (patriarchal) superstructure of ideas expressed in religion, ideology and social ordering, structures and institutions. She was to be the socialising agent to transmit this ideology till such time that the ‘ordered’ system (order and system being the sine qua non of the male ‘rational and scientific’ and therefore ‘controllable’ universe) of ‘formal schooling could finish the job.

We have forgotten the basic purpose of schooling: to impart education to make life better. We now equate schooling with education, and certification of our writing skills as the only yardstick for knowledge and wisdom. This modern fallacy of certified institutional knowledge being the only source of wisdom is as equally devastating as the olden method of equating age and wisdom. The old practice of shaving one’s head to show wisdom [as in a bald head, a signifier of age] now gives way to the new practice of forging certificates. No matter how skilled the practitioner, there is more respect accorded to the certified theorist.

The malaise in our schooling goes much deeper than the mere forging of certification—of the written or shaved variety. It is, at the very least, structural. It makes the person believe that knowledge can be acquired only on classrooms, with the token ‘study tour’ and ‘practicals’ thrown in. But the true roots of the malaise go much deeper. The present system of schooling was invented in the industrial age to create an army of clerks for book-keeping. It was a worthy successor to the monasteries which trained men to copy religious texts from long extinct languages. Little wonder then that the paradigm of death permeates schooling.

Measuring the paradigm
It is important to know that our way of life, our education and our measurement systems all come from the industrial world. This has several implications on our cultural, since it determines the way that we think. Industrial society measured not the happiness but the ‘efficiency of production’. This led to absurdities that still haunt us. We measure, and our sense of wellbeing depends on the results of this flawed measurement.

We forget that the tools developed by industrial society are essentially to measure the ‘dead value’. One of the devastating consequences of applying it to life is that a live tree has no value. A dead tree can be bought and sold for its timber. A healthy population has no value. But an unhealthy one would buy a lot of medicines and therefore increase the GDP. A harmonious society would be bad for the economy, since there would be no war, therefore no armaments… no production so a low GDP and little or no ‘growth’. It also leads to absurdities of having car loans at 7% or less [often 0% or negative if inflation is factored in], and agricultural loans at a ‘concessional rate’ of 9% when it is guaranteed by the government!

This paradigm of death results in a serious backlash against life itself. Irrespective of geography, highly literate societies have fewer children. This is not because of women’s liberation as is frequently taught, but because of the internalising of the paradigm of death. If it were really so, graduates from Malaysia to Russia wouldn’t need incentives to marry and have children. The higher the number of years of schooling, the less the love of life and children. Post graduates have less children than graduates, and doctorates less than both. It is little wonder that the most cruel atrocities against children come not from the unlettered but from the expensively schooled and highly civilised sections of society. To no ones surprise, most of the cases of child abuse are perpetrated by ‘white collar workers’ and PhDs.

The disease industry
Today we measure well-being by the country's GDP and the stock market. But the stock market can be made to go up only by unhealthy populations. One of the best ways of making a country's GDP go up is to poison the water supply. It would contribute to the economy by

  1. The purchase of the poison.
  2. The treatment of the poisoned people by the disease industry (the hospitals, doctors and the drug companies).
  3. Burial of the dead.
  4. Cleaning of the water supply.

It is not coincidence that the same conglomerates manufacture fertilizers and pesticides (poison) and medicines! On the other hand, a healthy population, living in harmony with itself literally hurts the economy. Healthy economies need unhealthy populations. Harmony literally harms money. The massive 'profits' that come to the US due to its military industrial complex. Killing is big business. As of now, there are more than two bullets for every person living on this earth, not to mention enough nuclear weapons to destroy the planet many times over.

The state of our health is determined by economic factors, but the very classification of ‘health’ is determined by market forces. These market forces classify certain bodily functions and natural states as ‘unhealthy’ and needing hospitalisation. In one absurd case, one indicator of a country’s progress is the number of births in a hospital! The implication of more births in a hospital is actually that more women are unhealthy. Giving birth is a natural body function of a woman, and healthy women do not need ‘medical attention’. By declaring it a ‘medical condition’ and then tracking it as a ‘development indicator’ entire populations are brainwashed into an appropriation of knowledge and external determination of what is ‘healthy’ and what is not. A generation ago, we had the infamous campaign that resulted in children not getting mothers’ milk. A costly campaign was needed to take back traditional practice and reclaim the traditional wisdom. In its extreme form, this focus on the disease and never-mind the side effects is the American way of collateral damage: kill half a million Iraqi children to save Iraq, or saving Vietnam by killing entire villages of Vietnamese men, women and children!

The actual consequence of having births in institutions is that the knowledge of giving birth is not embedded within the family or community, but taken away to an institution and made ‘ex situ’. Even if the doctors are from the community, their tools are such that they cannot be individually owned or operated. In heart surgeries for instance, an entire team needs to work in concert with specialist instruments. But the solution to heart disease—as the doctors themselves admit in their moments of lucidity—is not in surgery or in treating the disease, but in healthy food, healthy habits and a healthy lifestyle—all of which are not ‘money spinners’ and therefore fall outside the purview of the present ‘medical industry’. Not surprisingly, ‘workouts’ are prescribed that require costly gyms and equipments, since that can be measured.

The best exercise is walking… but since no certified experts are required for it, those who maintain good health through it are considered backward—such as the Adivasi. The Adivasi may not know what is COD or BOD—and even less on how to manipulate the standards and measurements to benefit big business—but they are able to know that the water is polluted when they see sick and dead fish. The expensively schooled scientist, sponsored by capitalists goes into denial or sophistry often saying that the Chemical/ Biological Oxygen Demand is well within ‘acceptable limits’. The difference in world views is exemplified by the fundamental characteristics of the key inventions of the agrarian era and the industrial era: the lamp and the electric bulb. Though the electric bulbs can turn night into day, but it is only the humble candle and lamp that can light another.

A language of voyeurism
Language is a good indicator of how we think, and how we define the physical, and psychosocial universe around us. Languages of peoples in tropical lands seldom have words for snow, but the Eskimo have more than a dozen words for it. Similarly, warlike peoples, feudal societies have no words for democracy and consensual decision-making or polity. When we look at how work has taken over our life, it becomes interesting. The world agriculture has 'culture' within it. Then we talk about 'industrial culture'—where the culture is an external world. Outside of work, the work that claims the best part of the working day and the most productive part of a person’s life.

As we move towards the tertiary sector—that of services—one no longer even talks of culture: it becomes the service industry, and people are not machines but cogs in a machine. We no longer determine the time of work, but the work determines our relationships and our very life. There cannot be health breaks since that will ‘disrupt the assembly line’. Samantha becomes Sam and Krishnakumar become Chris at the BPO, greeting people ‘good afternoon’ when it is 2am in the morning local time. They leave home before their children get up, and return after their children go to bed. Family 'functions' are the only time when they are together, in a ritually controlled atmosphere. Work has become life. It is only the time when we can negotiate with work that we can give to our families. This is rather ironic, since we say that we are doing it 'all for our children', but then deprive the children of what they need most: us, their parents.

Technology not only controls our work-life, but increasingly our whole life. Since we expect ‘precision’ tools, we expect precision in our relationships and language, intolerant of diversity and ‘mistakes’, expecting one shot painless remedies for everything from relationships to growing up. Sports has become an industry, and ‘amateurism’ a bad word… and television has made voyeurs of us all. We have even become spectators of life itself, postponing enjoying life to a future golden age when we will retire and have financial security.

In this rush, we spend more and more time at work, reserving just a few token ritual moments for our loved ones. The present culture takes away meaningful interaction with life, only to replace it with ritual tokenism and glorification. Children travel to different continents to work… and then send an e-card for mothers day. At every point the promise is that more time would be freed up to spend with the family… but it is technology that dominates our life rather than life dominating technology. We are literally ‘observers’ of life, rather than living life.

Towards a paradigm of life
Given the increasing complexity of modern life, it is necessary that we specialise. However, it is equally necessary to ensure that all human endeavour is to promote human wellbeing and at no time should it compromise the human dignity of anyone. The present paradigm sees knowledge creation and use as ‘outsiders’, which in its extreme form is voyeurism. What is required is a new paradigm where we measure not in terms of money, but use common sense to have different indicators of human wellbeing. This would show that expenses on disease actually take away from GDP and not enhance it as is the common perception. We would need a paradigm of life, rather than a paradigm measuring death; a paradigm that affirms that life is to live, not to prepare to live; and certainly not to promote the wellbeing of the market at the cost of human dignity and wellbeing.

At one stage in the evolution of the human race, it was perhaps necessary to postpone consumption to create a surplus for greater security. But that time is long gone. We do have sufficient surplus. It is time to move away from a paradigm of dominance, control and exploitation to a paradigm that can ensure equity, justice and peace. We need to set priorities in life, and then live life according to our values. The power of memes—now called neuro-linguistic programming—should be harnessed to ensure this movement towards a life affirming paradigm.

A culture of life…
Work is important, as is science, precision, excellence and money. But all these are to support life. What gives meaning to life is the quality time that we can spend with our family, and make a better quality of life for everyone. All our time cannot, and should not, be spent on creating a mythical ‘perfect future’. It is in the pursuit of such a future that we create cultures that promise heaven after we die, like the golden age in the distant past. We need to slow down, take control over our life, and live according to our priorities.

We are in control of our life to the extent we control our time. If we can honestly say that we spend the best time with our family and friends—not the time ‘left over’ from ‘work’ and all others, not late evenings when we are tired—then we have progressed. To the extent we are not in control, and others have the first call on our time, we are that much slaves of the system: whether win or lose in the rat race, we are still the rat!

We have moved from a belief of our rewards being in the ‘next life’—the ‘karma’ theory or the pie in the sky when you die—to acknowledging ‘golden years’ after retirement. But life cannot be after retirement only. We need to move from permanently ‘preparing’, ‘planning’ or ‘saving’ for ‘life’ towards a culture of life: where life is lived every moment. Culture is always evolving. We need to build it, meme by meme, to promote a life with dignity for all at all times. That is the paradigm, the culture, of life.