We have come to understand a great deal about the different cultures that go to make up our human family. We've looked at the past and seen the harm that was done by colonial cultural imperialism. We've seen cultures snuffed out by conquerers who had no conception of the loss they were inflicting on the world at large. The perspective of ‘is’ was buried by that of ‘ought’ - one value system (what ought to be) was forced upon another (what actually is) without regard for those values or the people who held them. That experience should have taught us that we need to understand thoroughly where we currently are before we decide where we want to go or how to get there. It should have taught us this important lesson, but it didn't. Just look at the West's failed attempts at imposing our style of democracy on the Mideast. Cultural imperialism is alive and well in the 21st Century!
All this should not imply that all cultural norms are of equal value. They most certainly are not. We need to understand, as we deal with cultural diversity, that each one exists at a different place in the overall cultural evolution of humanity. We also need to face the fact that some (perhaps even our own cultures) are in the process of devolving rather than evolving. My cultural guru, Geert Hofstede, calls culture the ‘software of the mind': meaning that each culture provides the ‘operating system’ out of which we evaluate others. As such, it remains a subconscious value system until we explicitly examine it from a scientific perspective.
There's the difficulty. How do you assign value to your own cultural experience while you're in the experience? You require a viewpoint outside of your value system. I've often pointed out how necessary (and how rare) this is: how do you evaluate ('assign value to') your own values? That's not an easy task, but it's also not impossible.
You somehow need to find a super-value system - a source for meta-values: values that override personal or even collective self-interest and provide a kind of universality or objectivity to all your other values. People have tried looking outside their human experience (to divine revelations, for example), but there's no commonality of experience - or of value - to be found there.
I believe that the answer lies in discovering the destiny of the universe; but to do that, you have to look inwardly rather than externally. How do you discover your own personal destiny? Don't you look at the range of possibilities that you were born with and that have developed over time? Don't you focus on your inherent potential and the evolution of that potential into the person you have become to give you necessary indications of where you could be - or should be headed? Doesn't that analysis form the basis for your core value system?
You can do the same thing with our human cultures. The universe had a starting point where all its potential burst into existence. It's had a history - an evolution - that's brought it (and us along with it) to where it is today, and where it will be for many tomorrows to come. Looking at the universe, you can see that its evolution takes it in the direction of greater diversity, greater complexity, greater organization and greater awareness. Our human societies, to mirror the growth of the universe, need also to grow in diversity, complexity, order and awareness. Translating that into cultural terms, all cultures need to be growing in these meta-values: acceptance of diversity and uncertainty, shared authority, cooperation, social responsibility, etc.
That's all well and good, but what's that got to do with you? We've learned that cultures can't be changed from outside: authoritarianism and legalism prove not only ineffective, but they subvert the very meta-values we want to introduce. Your culture can only grow from the inside. Decision by decision, cultural change will come when you personally embrace these higher values and put them to work in your every-day life. It all starts when you change your own attitudes and align yourself with higher principles. Things will start to change around you when you come to terms with the fact that you personally are at the leading edge of the evolution of the universe. Where your decisions take you, the entire universe will follow (maybe not in your lifetime, but you never can tell). Keep that in mind when you make your next decision!
H. Les Brown, MA, CFCC
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