Cultural Conflict in Global Expansion - Part II
Distraction or Survival Medium?
by Michael Mifsud, Artist, Entrepreneur
The Duke of Edinburgh, the British Queen’s
consort and an international campaigner for wildlife and the environment, was
not very happy about me using the term primitive in terms of some of the
communities we, as part of the press corps, had visited. “Not primitive
- just different!”
Culture, however, not only goes well with
Royalty but provides an instrument of expression that little else can bridge so
skillfully and effectively. Culture, as the force that identifies a people, can
stretch unchanged for as many centuries or millennia as it does its job. It
functions as long as it defines an identity and keeps the bonds between its
members as fresh as the day it first started to unite the individual family
units within the group. It functions for as long as the neighboring family
heads expressed their common interests in play, song and dance. The movement
and the sounds sublimated the forces of the defensive mechanism that enables
nature to protect itself against the designs of others within their species. It
does, of course, not function beyond creating a common defense against an
outsider, but serves as a safety valve which blunts the edges of individual
misfortunes, shared in some way through association. As we shall see, however, provided the
mechanism is respected and responded to, it also enables the outsider to come
in too, if only initially, in the periphery.
Outside forces can only complement – never detract.
International intruders into
the lives of most of the present inhabitants of the world today would
therefore be warned when it comes to altering or influencing change in the very
cultures they are trying to befriend and do business in. Royalty endorses and
achieves. The institution would become apprehensive in changes which broke
those moments of sharing of traditional expressions and common activity. In
fact, if ignored, it could signal the breakdown of years of association.
The ingredients of the cultural force
In the first paper on the subject, I concentrated on the question of the nature of the cultural force with respect to its contribution towards a cohesive, better controlled society. This implies of course, for good or bad, since sincerely or craftily handled cultures use the advantage of the relative inability of the societies to resist its instinctive urges, to keep them firmly in place. In fact, unless the resistance is practically generalized, it would be impossible even for a majority to halt the direction of the manipulative force without facing severe aggression and or dismissal by the rest. Political propaganda is usually geared to underlining the cultural identity, and cynical dictators are often playing with words and gestures to imply wholehearted dedication to the cultural force from a distant balcony and from which they could, and often do, say practically anything and get the same results.
This study is a closer look at the very basics
of cultural adhesion and its formation to determine just how difficult
succeeding generations find the challenge of modern lucrative implantations
within their societies that threaten traditional behavior and beliefs. Some
so-called modern societies with a high degree of peasant life are often wrongly
accused of despotic undemocratic behavior on the part of its leaders, when in fact, the cultural resistance to change divides the country
into distinct groups, each with its own aspirations, that bar every access to
change in their traditional methods of survival.
In a book I purchased by curiosity rather than by my usual line of search, called Origins of the Sacred, I was particularly struck by an interpretation of the origins of human sacrifice. The writer described the likely incident of an anonymous killing in the melee of frenzied ritual dancing as the prototype for sacrificial events. I thought it a possibility, but perhaps I would rather go for the selfish demands of a jealous shaman eager to remove a hapless individual from his territory who stood in his way. He would have invoked the wrath of God in the face of so-called wicked people in their midst and singled out his opponent as a gift for the renewal of the grace. Given the fear syndrome and the likelihood of genuine respect of the magic of the shaman, the surrounding forces would have, without doubt, driven the poor victim to his end and thus gained the support, not of the God, but of the evil priest who was the accepted tribal leader or religious advisor.
The layering effect.
Whilst not wanting to be too dogmatic about it (in view of the complexity of the subject), like all organic things, in both a physical and psychological context, the initial phase of the emerging traditional trait could be as simple as the raising of an arm with a thumbs-up gesture to signify triumph or acceptance. In an evolving society with ever increasing tendencies to fragment when the forces of control lose their original grip, culture starts to evolve within a layering of memorized body behavior as it writes itself into the system in response to the need to consolidate. Old mannerisms are enforced by added gestures and these in turn, often driven by mass hysteria, lead to frenzy and dancing that eventually becomes the commonplace. Watching excited mobs is a revelation all to itself as cries turn to gestures which turn to gyrations and eventual arms linked dancing. I have noticed in modern societies with generally apathetic inhabitants under stress, a movement towards demonstrations which portray evolving characteristics of general significance such as showing and wagging hands (to signify transparency) and in later displays the addition of white paint or gloves to increase the impact.
Governments which shun formal education
encourage bread and circus in an attempt to distract from pressing issues, but
curiously it needs little prompting and organizers begin to emerge and add
further color to displays and inherited formats. This of course is the genuine
thing, as opposed to the bread and circus that arena events attempt to supplant
it with. However it is interesting to note that despite its falseness,
politicians copy the cultural need in this plastic way. In
It is not difficult to capture the warming and enjoyable effect that ritual acts provoke in a festive crowd as songs and youthful associated games come to the surface. Joining in by even the most timid is instinctive and expresses the essentially comforting nature of what in many cases appears to be ridiculously primitive to outsiders. The layering over centuries, and in many cases millennia, would be extremely difficult for any invading culture to penetrate without seeking to closely adapt their own. Finding the key elements of contact that can produce a respected and “followable” hybrid as happens with Christian traditions in touch with native ones, is a task of some magnitude. All ancient countries with their own diehard traditions have met with their own hard, relentless aversion to change and modernization of its attitudes to work and economic progress. Most have failed without central oppression.
The most immediately obvious hybrids of Christianity are the South American and African religious interpretation. Watching these rituals leaves no doubt that the character of the interpretation is as unimportant as the expression of each individual contributing culture. What matters, it would seem, is that the handles of the emerging reorganized, cultural expressions still retain the respect and fear that enables the ruling authorities to exercise control. No amount of education over a narrow period of generations would even remotely change the characteristics of the people in a cultural context. The culture itself, however, can – with patience and rewards – be altered beyond recognition if the same key elements are retained. The Constantinian use of the Christian faith and its formal propagation in an “alien” context is proof itself. In this case, the message remained intact even if the covering was altered. It was done by exalting the founder to new heights to rally the followers, but changing the structure to maintain the allegiance of those of much older religious pursuits within the social platforms of the day, which could be brought into the fold.
Like the brain itself, and indeed the whole of
nature, the underlying layers of cultural development conditions the one above
and so on. The result is the completely indivisible nature of evolved
established tradition which is so often taken for granted and wrongly assumed
easy prey for sublimation, if not annihilation. Traditional conduct may
disappear from view under attack, but without doubt it will emerge in private
and often secret cults. The ever-recurring heretical rituals of ancient faiths
that so aggravated and provoked
Musical instruments produce bands and each group could be as different to others as distance and regional isolation may allow, but they can also be geared to intimidate or merely entertain collectively as in war and peace. The rhythms and mode of expression however, as if by some sort of instinctive recognition deep in all of us, tell the difference and prompt the players. When the playing becomes an important function in the welcoming or ceremonial entertaining process however, it is not just a source of individual entertainment as we see it today, but a demand for respect which could accompany other ritual acts to drag out any unwelcome characteristics of the visitor or guest. Without doubt, someone somewhere is watching studiously for those facial expressions that will determine what the rest of the treatment will be.
Going back to the accidental death of the liana jumpers, it is curious that during the previous week, press attention had been given to the forbidding by British and Maori authorities of the finishing touches being given to a replica of an ancient temple structure which in its day had formed part of ritual killing during religious celebrations. The structure, it was understood, was a call in itself to the God to come to his abode and this in itself was linked to the customary welcome with human blood sacrifice. Perhaps the visit should have been planned before the structure had reached such a late stage of development or the religious context analyzed to ensure that the instinctive responses would not be demanded by association. In my mind however, the death and the situation were directly associated.
Entertainment instead of cultural expression.
Bread and circus however, although classified
as cultural and traditional, is not what it seems and is in reality an attempt
to keep those basic cultural instincts contained within innocuous displays of national
or competitive support. The direct challenge to family security is the
political nightmare and, as can be seen today, death and destruction from
otherwise apathetic people is the profound response by those stripped of their
identity. It is therefore important to differentiate bread and circus, (when it
is an applied distraction with no real need for cultural reference) and that
which is produced by the people themselves, aided and perhaps shaped by the
artistic and visionary elements among them. It is perhaps a point to remember
that, under totalitarian rulers, the creative visionaries are the first to
taste the threatening dungeons and the sharp edge of the executioner’s sword. Anything
that feeds into the cultural force is an enemy of the blanketing powers which
clumsily extract and deprive a society of its basics in pursuit of power and
ultimately (unknowingly) destruction of the people themselves. If however, as
some forces do give in to the cultural forces, as has always happened in places
The meaning of life in cultural deterioration
It is now quite clear, according to those aspects of life which are easy to quantify, that the natural state of all living creatures is found in sleep. It may sound like the most negative evaluation of life that anyone could arrive at, yet it is there for all to see in the context of needs. A recently well-fed, secure person or animal will drift into sleep for as long as nature does not make further demands on them. Toilet needs, if not new hunger pangs, will ensure the mobility required to keep the system in a state of challenge and growth. It is as simple as that. Animals, however, can enter into a form of hibernation at any time, which only a threat to life will cause to break. This brings us to the concept of life as we know it and the realization of its progressive sequence of events. It enables us to understand how the very basic elements of all living units depend on stimulation to take them to the next step of feed, evacuation and needful activity. At cellular level it might just be intake of a chemical substance which creates the move that sparks off the move in another cycle-related unit. In fact – The domino effect. Conversely, at the other end of the macro scale, a composed individual or community of interacting cells will need a similar form of provocation to the survival factor through the sensory centers to harness the idling internal activity. This poses the question of the chicken or the egg. Is the birth and the living process really a product of the need to survive? Or is the need to survive created from the very basic units interacting to create a system for its own feed? Whichever, all living creatures need something more than just mere survival. Some theorists call it design or motivation, but whatever it may be there is no greater builder of illusions and sense of direction than cultural values which take one from stage to stage of initiatory milestones. They, as can be observed, require the stimulation of will, and this comes from the fear of alienation and loss of identity by default. Deprivation of all sensory stimulation the system, as happens with depressed individuals, is as close to shutting down into a permanent sleep as any mechanically malfunctioning living creature. The subject is too broad and complex to enter into now, as any biologist will attest, but what matters is that culture and its almost nonsensical rigmaroles are a very useful source of community stimulation that can and does provide a great zest for living and consequently, the quality of life. Humans, unlike animals caught in a vortex of depression, do not just lie down and die, simply because their family and friends usually take it upon themselves to ensure that will and the spark of challenge and hope are put back in place. It is the cause and effect of a misunderstood society taken from its roots and subjected to organized beliefs (religious or political) that do not strike the right chords,
The more complex the cultural patterns in a society, the more sophisticated the life expressions become. Institutions, like marriage, religious ritual, competitive sport and social calibration with honors and achievement – all play a part to keep the mind or senses from reducing survival to basics where sleep becomes the natural tranquilizer. It goes without saying that this is clearly seen in its different grades throughout the world with attendant prosperity or poverty in direct relation to the quality of access to the cultural expression which individual governments permit or encourage. Weather, particularly heat, may be one of the culprits of lethargy, but only one among many. Loss of interest through cultural alienation, as happened to the American Indians and Aborigines of Australia, is usually the crucial factor. Where this is the case, the lethargy (even in modern highly sophisticated societies) becomes evident as cultural links break down through disuse until they emerge as a survival element in its most primitive forms, and usually under cover of darkness and in the relative safety of secret, organized venues. Unfortunately, they are usually exclusive, but always, an attempt to restore the dynamism of the neglected cultural forces.
The hysterical and overly exaggerated release of nervous energy created by, say football, in some of countries may well be the result of the erosion of the cultural force caused by economic degradation and the resultant search for ritual, undemanding, communal activity. Global expansion therefore has a very important role to play, by fair means, with respect to encouraging, researching and supplementing appropriately where cultural links have faded and communication is both unreliable and possibly ineffective. In other words, preparing and nurturing cultural platforms could save time and introduce a quality of exchange that can only be mutually beneficial. The Japanese know all about these things as culture looms high above the tedious day to day productivity that it sanctifies. Perhaps it is even safe to say that without the organized cultural activity which marks and paces the life of the inhabitants of the different societies, we would be looking at a scale of social disintegration worldwide that would not take long to render democratic government impossible to exercise. This has already happened in areas where outside forces have drastically displaced local expression – via innovations such as television and mobile phones – to the point of the extinction of periodic folkloric events and the eventual isolation of individual family units. Despite what appears to be obvious, crash modernization programs sponsored by ill-conceived socialistic principles often end up causing internal chaos. Mass immigration into highly-developed countries is also starting to show us that the consequent erosion of social values held by the majority can have the same effect. Economically-vested political interests, which reduce cultural expression to the lowest common denominator, play with fire by diluting the force that drives the society forward. A case in point is a recent comment made by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair regarding the student revolt in Spain – “It is all very well to listen to the people, but the Government must govern” This an example of a Socialist leader supporting another kindred governing system while remaining totally oblivious to the fact that one (people’s basic needs) precedes the other in relative importance.
Displacements (and often in the form of death-defying journeys by illegal immigrants) are leaving their painful mark on vulnerable, highly organized but culturally neglected destinations. The social backlashes which are driving normally apathetic citizens to violent nationalistic demonstrations are immediately obvious. If all this is to find the real balance, we might have to ask ourselves whether institutional religion is but a displacement of the cultural base and whether institutional government is not just a manipulation of the cultural force? In fact, would order emerge or indeed exist, we might ask, if there was no cultural base there in the first place? If the answer is no, then we might take it a bit further and wonder whether the life force itself would survive in the darkness of lack of social and family stimulation. The time has come to look critically at the intrinsic value of cultural expression and note that when we talk of culture, we speak of a very powerful and misunderstood set of behavioral patterns. It seems also that without its preservation and encouragement, a community lacks the necessary springboard to go forward to the new and increasingly stimulating challenges that will forge the rudiments of a continuously stimulating future.
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