History, Culture and Self

Our sense of self is largely a story we have constructed about ourselves which we imagine might help us cope better in the world. Oftimes such a story can prove to be not only unhelpful, but actually inimical to our well-being. When our imagined self is too out of kilter with reality we become dysfunctional, even to the point that the incongruence between the ways we seek to portray ourselves and how we really are will lead us to mental illness. For those who are worried and anxious there is a massive discrepancy between who they are and who they want to be. Most of us tend to admire authentic people whose self-story is accurate and not far removed from how others see them. In common parlance when talking about such people we often say, “What you see is what you get”!

But if the story we want to create about ourselves is to have the desired effect (for the ego) it needs a context. A large part of that context is reflected in the culture in which we are immersed. If the underlying desire of ego is to want to look good then it is obvious that culture will have an impact on how we might want to portray ourselves. It is commonly accepted that different cultures have different values and thus the things we might need to do or how we might want to portray ourselves will vary from culture to culture.

In the many essays I have written on human behaviour, I have emphasised that both our biological history and our culturisation are important in determining how humans behave.

In broad terms we have often mulled over the cultural differences between the East and the West.

Many years ago I went to a huge exhibition of Chinese art. I found it striking how Chinese art differed from classical Western art. One picture was titled The Fisherman. It was a huge landscape but down in the right hand corner was a diminutive picture dangling a line in the water. Another was called A Thousand Mountains and a Thousand Valleys. It again was a landscape, but even huger – perhaps five metres long and two metres tall. Mankind didn’t have a dominant role in this art! If a Western artist had produced a painting called “The Fisherman” you could bet that the figure of the fisherman would have dominated the painting. These are obvious cultural differences between East and West.

It is evident that our cultures are partly produced by our environments, and the behaviours driven by this process over long periods of time become embedded in our genetics.

Carol Travis in her wonderful book Anger – The Misunderstood Emotion relates an intriguing story demonstrating how some human behaviour at least is genetically inherited.

Like many couples in mixed marriages, Daniel G. Freedman, who is Caucasian, and his wife Nina, who is Chinese, were amused by the differences they observed between their respective families: The Chinese babies of her relatives cried less, were calmer and less excitable than the Anglo babies on his side. The Freedmans decided to put their anecdotal observations to the test. By studying newborns, untainted by experience, they hoped to see whether the differences in temperament were a result of inheritance.

With Harvard paediatrician, T. Perry Brazelton, Freedman developed assessment tests of infant reactions that could be given to any newborn. Does the baby quiet easily? Does she settle down by herself or does she need to be picked up and consoled? Does the baby respond to the examiner’s face and voice? Does he respond better to face or voice? Is the baby more interested in voices than in balls or rattles, or vice versa? Is the baby active, or does he lie quietly where he is placed? Does the baby resist being held or does she rest comfortably in an adult’s arms?

The researchers went to great lengths to ensure the circumstances of the babies were similar, from similar socioeconomic backgrounds, with mothers having similar pre-natal experiences etc.

Freedman apologizes for observing that he may have found one origin of what seems to Westerners like Asian inscrutability, but that is exactly what he got. ‘Caucasian babies cried more easily,’ Freedman reported, ‘and once started they were harder to console. Chinese babies adapted to almost any position in which they were placed; for example when placed face down in their cribs they tended to keep their faces buried in the sheets rather than immediately turning to one side, as did the Caucasians.’

The psychologist, Professor Joseph Henrich writes that the ‘cultural learning that comes from those around us ‘reaches directly into our brains and changes the neurological values we place on things and people, it also sets the standards by which we judge ourselves.’

For most people their sense of self is the most important determinant of their feeling of well-being. When we have come to accept who we are, rather than feeling compelled to put up facades and pretend we are someone else, life becomes simpler; we become more psychologically robust and happier. (Remember the good Dr Phil’s prescription to know yourself>accept yourself>forget yourself.) Unfortunately in today’s world of identity politics we are encouraged to exaggerate our separateness and specialness, and to claim victimhood at every opportunity.

Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs is essentially wrong, because he believed that the prime concern of human beings was self-preservation. Well if that was true, nobody would commit suicide! People commit suicide largely because their sense of self has been so eroded they cannot bear to live any longer.

If that is the case we would expect that because culture has a large impact on our sense of self (largely determined by what is accepted as desirable attributes and traits in our particular culture) then we would expect the reasons for suicide would vary from culture to culture. And this seems to be the case.

East Asians (e.g. Chinese, Koreans and Japanese) place a higher value on the collective than do typical Westerners. Consequently their motives for suicide often revolve around their failure to adequately support the collective. Common reasons for suicide are apparent derogation of duty to family, employer or country. Westerners are more obsessed with their own personal well-being.

Journalist and author, Will Storr reports:

Researchers deconstructed stories in the New York Times and the Chinese language, World Journal about two mass murderers. They found the American journalists tended to blame flaws in the killers’ characters – they suffered from a ‘very bad temper’ or were ‘mentally unstable’. The Chinese reporters, meanwhile, emphasised problems in their external lives – one had lost his job, another found himself ‘isolated” from the Chinese community. These finding were supported by interviews that found the Chinese more likely to blame life pressures for the killer’s actions with many believing that had his situation been less stressful, he might not have killed at all. The American’ black-or-white, good-or-bad perspective, meanwhile, led to a greater conviction that the crime was inevitable.

As Anais Nin wrote:

We don’t see things as they are we see things as we are.

Our culture then has a very big impact on the way we think.

Now whilst some of you might accuse me of blasphemy, just indulge me in a little thought experiment involving two historical figures. The two figures I have chosen, maintaining my contrast between Eastern and Western societies are Jesus and Confucius. (I have expressed my doubts in the past that Jesus was in fact a real historical person, but for the purpose of this exercise I will assume that he was.)

One of the highlights of Christian philosophy is the so-called Golden Rule. In the King James Version of the bible, it is recorded thus:

All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you: do ye even so to them.

This is not a uniquely Christian teaching and it occurs in other wisdom traditions, well before it was appropriated by Christianity, including Buddhism and Confucianism.

Confucius was born some five hundred years before the purported birth of Jesus. What Christians know as the Golden Rule, is more generally called by philosophers, for obvious reasons, as the Rule of Reciprocity. Confucius’ version of the Golden Rule is stated negatively and is generally translated as something like:

Whatever you wish might not be done to you, don’t do to others.

I only raise this to demonstrate that both Jesus and Confucius were upright, moral men. And I am going to propose to you that their teachings differed, not so much from their different beliefs but because of the cultures they were born into.

The China of Confucius’ day had long been used to government by a dynastic feudal overlord. As we have seen previously, this slanted philosophical concerns towards the collective rather than the individual. Confucius’ ideal of improving collective governance in this culture is therefore understandable. The well-ordered government of the masses promised to deliver stability, prosperity and moral responsibility. This was a fit and proper objective for the Chinese sage.

In the political and religious melting pot of Judah and Galilee there had been a decided Greek influence. This translated to a great concern for the individual soul and how a person of moral stature might seek to progress its well-being in a secular society. And this was the fit and proper objective for Jesus of Nazareth.

Is it too conjectural to believe that if Jesus might have been born into the China of 500BC cultural influences might have required him to have pursued the collective interests of Confucius? Or if indeed Confucius was born into the Middle Eastern melting pot 500 years later he might have concentrated more on the issues of individual salvation?

Who we are, and more importantly who we would like to portray ourselves as, is greatly influenced by our culture. Consequently, history too has had to accommodate such concerns.