Some years ago I was listening to my cultural anthropology professor talk about how there are core elements that must be addressed by people living together in a society. Her contention was 'culture' is how a particular society addresses those issues. This is a simple but profound concept. The manifestations are different and details change over time, but the core elements are fixed to human social behavior. They have to be addressed.
I was trying to frame this in a way that I could grasp and being both a sci-fi geek and a rebellious in nature, something clicked. “So it’s like Sturgeon’s Law,” I said.
“I don’t know what that is,” the professor replied.
“90% of everything is crud.”
“I don’t understand”
“There is 10% of issue that must be addressed and the remaining 90% is how a specific society does it”
She thought about it for a second, before admitting that would work.
Welcome to throwing the baby out with the bathwater of blind rebellion. The mistaking your 90% for the 10% of traditionalists. And the ‘before you tear down a fence know why it was put up in the first place’ of pragmatists. While we’re at it, welcome to a major problem about the new generation gap...oh and poverty... and being raised dysfunctional ... and...and...
Yeah, it’s kind of an issue.
Except it’s like the story of the father who took his 4 year old down to the ocean to see a beached whale. Standing in front of it, the child asked, “Where’s the whale, Daddy?” It was so big, the child literally couldn’t see it. So let me reduce things down a bit.
Think of an annual event where family and friends come together, everyone exchanges gifts, eats, observes rituals and customs. Name that holiday. Obviously, if you’re American I’m talking about Christmas. Unless you’re Jewish, in which case I’m talking about Hanukkah. Unless you’re Vietnamese, then I’m talking about Tet. Unless you’re Muslim in which case I’m talking about Eid. Unless you’re Chinese then ...
See it’s not the ‘holiday.’ It’s the behavior. It’s the group coming together, sharing, bonding, remembering, celebrating and committing to each other on a scheduled basis. A sense of goodwill and celebration that extends beyond just the family and goes out into the community. Oh and creating community and fellowship, yeah, that’s kind of important too. This commitment and goodwill is kind of important for us to function and co-exist. Important to the point of every culture has their own version. In fact, you could say it’s a 10% issue ...because it is.
Bet you never heard of your holidays described like this before. No need to. Because face it, these traditions/customs are just something you were raise with. To the point of you don’t even think about it. It’s just something you do -- and everyone else does -- in your society. In fact, you could call it ‘social reflexes.’
Or putting it another way, you don’t have to understand -- hell even know about -- the need for scheduled reaffirming of commitments. What’s more important is you participate. That’s a 10% issue embedded in the 90% of things that you ‘just do.’ You were raised to do things without question. Things that serve vital purposes. (Even if you think it’s just running around like a chicken with your head cut off in preparation for the damned holiday.)
My point is these customs serve purposes both beyond the surface ‘details’ and any simplistic ‘____ism’ or personal feelings. You may not know it, but by participating in the particular custom you’re doing something much bigger and more important. You are in fact, addressing a 10% issue.
Which brings us to the (this spot intentionally left blank) in the title.
What if you were raised in a dysfunctional/scattered family where you weren’t allowed to bond? For example, if your mom couldn’t keep a relationship going and you changed ‘families’ every few years? Or you’ve decided you’re so smart and superior that you don’t buy into the crass commercialism of the holidays so you refuse to participate? Or that since you don’t believe in the --often -- religious overtones of an event you act as a little raincloud of resentment? Or because of personal trauma and/or resentment you get depressed and angry about being forced to deal with ‘those people’ and go in expecting trouble? In any of these -- and more -- cases the individual’s personal agenda gets in the way of achieving the goals of the underlying 10%.
Okay fine and dandy, you don’t want to play. Modern society has enough safety nets that this can work for an individual. Well, let me rephrase that. You’re not going to die if you don’t have a group to bond with. You’ll be as neurotic as a three-legged troll, but unless you choose to suck a bullet you won’t die because of it. Oh, did I not mention that being social primates if we don’t ‘have a group,’ we go nuts? This is kind of a booger because a big problem we face today is how many people have lost the skills necessary to maintain long term relationships.
And that brings up the problem of how many people were never taught HOW.
See in rejecting customs we’ve often thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Often in railing and condemning the 90% ‘details’ we’ve failed to recognize the embedded 10%. Which hey, as an individual, that’s okay. You can hurt yourself all you want. The problem is when it becomes generational.
In our rampaging quest for independence and emphasis-on-self we’ve kind of created a massive untended consequence. Many in the next generation weren’t given the understanding about the need for the 10%. I’m not talking about rejecting the 90% I’m talking a blank spot in their understanding of what it takes to be a functional human being.
I’m not talking malice. I’m not talking selfishness. I’m talking parts missing.
Now lest people get to hung up on the whole holiday trauma drama idea, let me give you a different example. What does it take to keep a job?
Seriously. Stop and think about it for a second. Bare bones, what standards do you have to meet in order to stay employed? I’ll give you four:
1 - Show up
2- Show up on time
3 - Do your work
4- If appropriate, have an acceptable appearance
There are more, but those are pretty basic right? (Como se de se, “10%”?) To keep a job you need to meet these standards. To do that, you need to ‘assign value’ to them. This influences your decision making. (For example you party all night long on your ‘Friday’ instead of when you have to be at work the next day. That way you don’t call in with the round bottle flu.) People who are interested in keeping their jobs, accept and meet these standards. They do it as well... a given. You don’t even have to think about it, you just do it.
However, did you know one of the challenges of getting people off generational welfare and out of urban poverty is they have to be trained to assign value to these ideas? To understand why, know this: The skills necessary to keep you alive in poverty are not the skills that will get you out of poverty. (These folks are real good at surviving in that environment.) Followed by: In the urban poverty lifestyle those four standards are not relevant. They don’t understand why it’s important. I cannot stress enough, these are missing parts. It’s not just being told these standards (knowing them). Without the assigning of value to them, those four standards are just noise.
And the fastest way to ignore them? “That doesn’t make sense.” True. But a big part of it not making sense is you have important parts missing from your world view. You need to have A and B in order for C to make sense. This is a gap that goes beyond just youth and inexperience and into not being given the resources and framework to develop understanding.
This is where we really have to stop and consider the problem of ‘in rejecting the 90% losing the 10%.’ Core elements -- that used to be passed on as social reflex (you did it because ‘that’s just what you do’) -- are no longer being communicated. A big part of why is the people who are not passing them on -- if not outright rejecting and condemning it all -- don’t understand the difference between the 90% and the 10%.
Remember, the 90% isn’t fixed, it can be changed, adjusted and developed. And quite frankly it happens all the time. But throwing out that 10%, yeeeeeeeah, that’s a problem. It’s also made worse by the fact that there are people who are actively working to trash the current 90% and replace it with their version of how things ‘should be.’ (Take a good hard look at what happened after the French Revolution and the attempts to redesign society... up to and including the Terror.) A big part of that involves tearing down the current 90%, but do they understand that 10% still has to be addressed? Here’s a hint, utopia without the 10% isn’t utopia, it’s hell.
But attempts to create a perfect society isn’t the main problem. The bigger problem is: What we rejected yesterday is going to bite us on the ass tomorrow, and it’s creeping up on us today.