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Value your culture: For it is the willow that bends to the winds of change

Ray Petersen
Ray Petersen

The word culture is evident in many conversations today, but is often, in its purest sense, used incorrectly. Mostly, people are referring to the traditional identities of their country such as their national dress, art, literature, architecture, and weapons, by which we recognise them.

For example: The American Indians are distinguishable by their magnificent war bonnets, the African Zulu by their uniquely shaped spears, the natives of the South Pacific by their tattooed bodies, and the Egyptians by the pyramids and sphinx. Such things are iconic, and deserve to be part of a nation’s heritage, but while they contribute to the culture, they, in isolation, are not cultural, as much as they are traditional.

Cicero, the great Roman orator and politician, over 2,100 years ago wrote that “cultura animi” embraced the development of the human form to its highest possible level, explaining that cultivation led to growth through many forms, allowing mankind to continually evolve, and which generation does not dare to dream it is getting closer to a perfect, or utopian state?

If we fast forward to the recent history of Oman, it is very evident that the lifestyles of its neighbours have and will continue to affect the Omani way of life, and consequently the culture. Such similarities in culture led the noted Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, in the 1960s and 70s to build a craft named Kon-Tiki, from natural materials, and using age-old techniques in South America, sailing it to the South Pacific Islands, a distance of 5,000 miles, to prove that such diffusion of cultures was probable rather than possible.

The anthropologist Dr Edward Burton Tyler, an advocate of cultural evolutionism, defined culture as the distinct and different ways that people live, and that to consciously contribute to a cultural identity, society must act imaginatively and creatively. He may have been correct, but how can a society create cultural change within, when it is continually affected by greater global issues and the societies, dominant or not, close enough to influence their behaviours.

Cultural norms are established by a societal willingness to display certain attitudes and comply with sets of rules that contribute to a common experience. Have you ever lived next to noisy neighbours with kids who are always fighting or crying, who play loud music at all hours, whose kids ring your doorbell at ridiculous hours of the day and night before running away, and who scratch marks on your car?

Mathew Arnold said, culture is the “antithesis of anarchy”, and where we move closer to the ideal human state, and cease to behave as ‘Philistines’, whose manners, habits, character and thinking all allude to despising art, beauty, spirituality and intellect, thus implying that culture is a positive product of all of these. But, under duress the willow bends whichever way the wind is blowing, and both we, and society change, so culture changes, and not always for the best.

Yes, they are only kids doing childish things, but an ongoing litany of such deeds will change your behaviour, and culture, thus proving that behaviour, the backbone of culture is learned or assimilated.

Change and culture, like rust, never sleep. We are in a global era of accelerated cultural change, and all our cultures continue to change and evolve based on what is happening around us. Changes in social dynamics, technological innovation, and environmental factors, all stimulate change and provide opportunities for change, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau termed it, “creating a unique identity.”

Like the inexorably pounding waves of the sea, the winds of change cannot be denied simply because cannot be denied or changed, by mere words, and no sooner have our cultures been affected by technology, than along came COVID-19, changing and shaping our futures, and our grandchildren’s cultures, maybe not forever, but for a time. Life is like that. It is not always fair or fun. In fact, it rarely is, and as Forrest Gump’s momma said, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”


Ray Petersen

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