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The Curse of Culture

Part 6: It's not my fault but it is my problem.

Key points

  • Culture is a curse when its rules, morals, customs and goals draw a boundary around and restrict our individual being and becoming.
  • One potent cultural curse that holds most of us in its grip is our gendered belief system, which tells us how men and women should behave.
  • Breaking the curse of culture involves learning to see through the myths, lies and partial truths that control and shape our lives.

It is tempting to believe that culture is something "out there" that we have no influence or control over and this belief can make us feel as if what happens in the world and in our individual lives is not our responsibility. Culture "tells us" — and we come to accept — for example, that women are better at child-rearing than men, that accumulating goods makes us safe, that happiness should be pursued, that being thin is desirable, that passing exams proves we are intelligent and that we need to embrace technology to be modern. For many people, these powerful cultural myths feel like truths.

Yet culture is not something "out there." We, humans, make culture primarily to control and direct our instinctual impulses and desires in the pursuit of a more advanced, "civilised" society. In the end, culture is simply the collective habits of a group of people handed down across the generations.

When culture becomes a curse

Cultural habits are a curse when their rules and dictates create a boundary around our being and becoming, and when we feel we must accept and join these habitual routines regardless of our own inner needs and yearnings.

Of course, cultural habits can create order, security, beauty and innovation. Yet when they curse us, they take away our confidence, individuality, freedom and voice. Racism, sexism and all the other "isms" are some of their manifestations. When we act out an "ism," we are giving voice to implicit cultural ideals: for example, the superiority of white skin, the competence of men, the value of youth, the rights of the individual or the reliability of the intellect over emotion.

There are many cultural curses operating in our lives, and you can start to reveal them by simply contemplating all the "shoulds" and "musts" that control you. It’s tempting to associate these dictates with things our parents or other significant individuals have told or done to us. However, beyond our parents, there is history (our ancestors) and there is culture (the collective habits of generations). Together these have a much more powerful hold on us than the handful of individuals we encountered and learned from in our first few years of life. Thus whilst understanding and working through our personal experiences can help us become more resilient and mature, if we do not account for and question the cultural forces that strongly influence us, we limit our ability to determine our own lives and author our own story.

To understand how culture can curse us, it is useful to look in more detail at one very popular cultural "truth" and set of habits that significantly shapes and constricts our life. This is the gendered belief system.

The cultural curse of gendered beliefs

The cultural curse of a gendered belief system appears in the value judgments about status, competency, capability and validity of experience based on whether you are male or female. And, under this curse, women usually – but not always – suffer more.

Men and women are biologically different and we can refer to this as a "sex" difference. A gender difference, however, is socially constructed, meaning babies learn how to be masculine and feminine from the many cultural cues they start absorbing as soon as they are born. Without these cues and cultural dictates, a child would be freer to express their personal preferences, for example, in how they dress, what they play with, the friends they are attracted to and their attitude to schooling.

Over the centuries many people – mostly men – have tried to "prove" that your biological sex also determines how you will feel, think and act in the world, mostly because (so their research would argue) male and female brains are different. Brain shape, structure and size, the effect of hormones and female reproductive capacity have long been used as vehement justifications for why women should stay at home, should not be trusted in leadership roles and should take responsibility for all the "caring" requirements in society.

However, Gina Rippon, in her book, The Gendered Brain, challenges these assumptions and reviews a substantial and growing body of work that rejects the popular cultural narrative that the female brain is not only different but inferior to the male. Rippon suggests that the most significant factor in creating and sustaining our ideas about and enactment of "sex differences" are social processes, in other words, how we are nurtured (experience) matters more than our biological nature. Newborn babies, says Rippon, are highly motivated to ensure their survival, primarily by focusing and bonding with their primary caregiver. The infant will do whatever is within her means to secure attention and care from this significant person because her survival is dependent on the quality of relationship between them. And so, as Rippon suggests, right from the start, our brains are extraordinarily permeable to cultural and social data.

Supporting the argument for nurture over nature, the psychologist Cordelia Fine argues that there are no essential male or female characteristics. Whilst the genetic and hormonal components of our sex certainly influence our brain development and some behaviours, more important is the fact that they collaborate with other parts of our development system, including gender constructions. Remember, a newborn enters the world ready to join his cultural group, yet he has no idea which cultural group awaits. Thus his biology remains highly adaptive and prepared to respond to whatever the social and historical context deems appropriate in terms of how to survive and thrive. If he is born into a culture where men wear dresses and care for children, he will learn to do the same.

Adaptive behaviour is neither fixed nor "typical" which means that we humans will continue to evolve depending on external conditions. However, if external conditions, such as culture, are slow to change, then so too will we be.

The curse of a gendered belief system constrains us to behave in ways that are culturally appropriate for our sex but may not be at all appropriate for our self. Unfortunately, we have not, in recorded human history, managed to rid ourselves of socially constructed disparities between the sexes, and the consequent battles, cruelties, injustice, disappointments and alienation that play out in this cultural arena.

The historian Mary Beard shows us examples of misogyny and the disempowerment of women that go all the way back to antiquity, some 3,000 years ago. Beard argues that the silencing of women, and their exclusion from power and public life, is a long-standing tradition of "gendered speaking" that continues to influence contemporary culture. Beard also notes the disproportionate number of derogatory or belittling terms used to describe the female voice, such as whining, lisping, barking, screeching, whinging, mooing and squealing.

The solution to such gendered inequality, says Beard, is not for women to become more like men by deepening their voices, wearing trousers and "playing them at their own game," but to go back to first principles and consider how it has come to be this way?

Breaking curses

Curse breaking, as we have seen in this blog series, involves the deepening of perception so that we can start to see through the myths, lies and partial truths that for so long have controlled and shaped our lives. To do this, we have to notice what curses and scares us by paying more attention to our bodies and how they react to experience. Threat brain responses such as anger, anxiety, fear and disgust are indicators that the curses are at work. Next, we need to find a way to soothe our threatened brains and bodies so that we can dive deeper into our own being and discover what exists there beyond all the shoulds, the oughts and musts that rule our life. Soothing practice is important because when we are in threat, we close down exploration and instead live in the sway of our psychological defenses – the "spells" we cast to create the illusion we are OK. Perception practices that begin with noticing and soothing enable us to re-shape who we are and correct the distortions to our being that the socialisation process produces. We become a creating instead of a constructed self.

The outcome of our work and effort is not freedom from our curses for we can never be wholly rid of them and neither, perhaps, would we want to be. Difficulty and suffering are inevitable aspects of being human and can, if we approach them with the right attitude, continue to teach us throughout our lives. However, we can achieve freedom within our curses which we increasingly feel as a calm, centred and compassionate response to the challenges, adversity and pain of life.

References

Wickremasinghe, N. (2021). Being with Others: Curses, Spells and Scintillations. Triarchy Press

Rippon, G (2019). The Gendered Brain: The Neuroscience that shatters the myth of the female brain. Bodley Head.

Fine, C. (2018). Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of our Gendered Minds. Icon Books.

Beard, M. (2017) Women and Power, A Manifesto. Profile

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