For weeks during 1572, a brutal mass hysteria led French Catholics to murder any Protestant they would run into. Perhaps up to 30.000 people were killed. This event, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, would not be the last of France’s religious wars, but it was a shocking peak of its barbarity. The news of the slaughter did not move the people very much, except for Protestant countries. Both Pope Gregory XIII and Philip II of Spain celebrated the event.
Our current times are not devoid of brutal horrors, and yet, relatively few people are personally familiar with anything remotely comparable in violence to the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Current day French protestants even less so. How does a country shift from the violent ethnic slaughter of thousands of some of its own unarmed citizens with indifference or even praise from the other ones to the development of both (relative) internal peace and a collective sensibility making this type of bloodbath unimaginable?
There are no inherent differences between the 1572 French citizens who killed Huguenots at sight and modern-day French people — no differences except their culture. More than colorful outfits, exotic dishes, and foreign customs, culture is the total of everything a human being interacts with. Biological evolution exerts its influence on humans so slowly that it appears nearly static to our scale. Culture is the dynamic element of human existence allowing our societies to change over time. People tend to think of it mostly as a geographical phenomenon, but its main axis is time. Only when one considers the chronological aspect of culture could they truly realize how much of who we are we owe to the culture surrounding us.
There is something both humbling and uncomfortable in this idea and it is worth exploring to reveal some insight on current hot topics like the ideas of “political correctness” or “free speech”.
Thinking as a social activity
Culture is an emergent phenomenon whose base unit is the individual. The very meaning of emergence indicates that culture has properties beyond those of a simple aggregate of individuals. Culture generates patterns, under the guise of music, pictographic elements, laws, language, etc. These patterns are dynamic, and survive several generations, mutating, merging and splitting. They constitute a framework through which innate human nature can express itself. At an individual level, the fixed, biological component of human behavior is called temperament. Human nature (which is not fixed either) is the total of similar facets of temperament shared between human beings. The scope of this area is slightly blurry, blending in with culture.
Personality is the meeting of temperament and culture. Whether born in a rich 13th century China’s household or from a homeless mother in current day Buenos Aires, an individual’s temperament will be the same, but his personality, thus his actual behavior, will not. He may be susceptible to anger in both cases, for example, but this tendency will be mediated by his cultural surroundings to a certain degree. If the consequences of being angry are costly in a setting and the particular cultural framework in which he evolves look down on it, he will be less likely to exhibit and will seek to control this behavior.
Because of its filiation with culture, personality is an inherently social concept, and so are its emanations, like thinking.
Famous anthropologist Clifford Geertz’ introduced his essay Person Time and Conduct in Bali on the nature of human thoughts and their relation to social mechanisms by this quote:
Human thought is consummately social: social in its origins, social in its functions, social in its forms, social in its applications. At base, thinking is a public activity — its natural habitat is the houseyard, the marketplace, and the town square.
The collective root of individual thinking makes it susceptible to social trends. A societal shift in opinion, like the increasing acceptance of gay rights, for example (whose tolerance for went up and down in history), is the singular change in thinking of numerous individuals. Individual differences in political opinions are also based on temperament, that is, biology, but the social framework is a greater force. More than their genetic makeup, the best predictor of an individual’s opinion on gay rights, in the entire history of mankind, is the epoch in which they lived. Again, time is the best axis to have a sense of the power of culture.
All of this may seem blatantly obvious, but the idea that one’s intimate inner thoughts are mostly owed to the context in which they evolve is hard to swallow for those who pride themselves on the precision and righteousness of their thinking and constitutes a good argument for empathy (not sympathy ) for ideological zealots.
Thinking is a social activity, and societal attitudes on different issues are malleable, to a certain extent, by the ebb and flow of cultural evolution. Very few people living today in France could imagine themselves taking part in a gruesome massacre like some of their very ancestors did, and culture is the only thing preventing this.
Fear of the slip back
Mistreatment of some demographic segments is largely condemned and the history of those mistreatments is, despite some pushback, usually recognized and sacralized because the reproducibility of these atrocities is acknowledged and understood. Slavery in the USA, the Holocaust in Europe, and The Rwandan civil war are all examples of these historical wounds and one of their current day consequences are a significant stiffness and sensibility around their evocation and debates. The Rwandan government outlawed official mention of ethnicities in the country, 16 European nations, and Israel forbid holocaust denial and while no official laws against insensitive slavery comments are effective in the USA, expressing them will invariably result in a hefty social cost. These measures and quasi-institutional social unease are amply criticized for various reasons, but they are firmly anchored, not so much by paternalism and the will to control than quiet but sharp anxiety.
The pushback against offensive speech finds its roots in the collective memory that there once was a time when such discourse was the norm and abuse toward the people it appears to target was widespread and accepted. It might seem alarmist, but as we previously formulated, the only difference between then and now is culture. Tightness around the evolution of said culture is thus to be expected.
Calls for rational debate and liberty to offend are light in comparison to the dread of culture slipping back into finding atrocities acceptable. A debate is, after all, a verbal confrontation — what happens if the most skilled debaters are on the “wrong” side?
Nonetheless, in the age of social media, offensive speech simply is. There is no workaround, ideas circulate fast and reach many. What is aptly dubbed the “Culture War” is not to be dismissed as silly heated online banter, but as an actual fight to determine the direction culture will take, with important consequences.
With less control over what is allowed to be said, defendant cultural warriors (the “worried”) aim to infuse culture with “ideological antibodies”, symbolic tokens whose function is to make certain cultural evolutions harder. The yearning for diverse representation in media can be understood through this angle (there is more to it, however).
There is tremendous power in the idea of normalcy. The impact the presence on screens of Sidney Poitier or the Huxtable family had on America’s collective imagination is to solidify the normality of free, complex, and successful black people. Growing up with this idea as part of one’s cultural landscape result in a disinclination to barbarous treatment, but also senseless discrimination of black people. The more diversity in mass media, the less likely the slip back into mistreatment is to ever happen. A transparent, large-scale empathy and sympathy sensitizing. Akin to how tap water is artificially fluoridated to prevent tooth decay, popular culture is filled with ideological antibodies to maintain the cohesion of potentially conflicting factions.
The atomization of media consumption renders this process more arduous. Today’s youth each consume very different YouTube or TikTok videos, Instagram posts, tweets, Netflix shows, or subreddits from each other. This heterogenization of content makes it possible for an individual to avoid ‘fluor’ altogether and spiral into a ‘pathogenic’ prejudiced environment, outside of the sanitized and controlled popular culture landscape. And the transgressive aspect of this ‘toxic’ media consumption is not lost on its enjoyers, it actually constitutes a large part of its appeal.
The mimetic dynamic of populations, amplified by the scaling capacities of social technologies can be weaponized to push culture, its gargantuan force, and titanic momentum, in any direction.
Culture is to equal measure a sword and a shield, but the equal potency of these two functions is all but guaranteed and fixed.