Human vs. Cultural Identity

Human vs Cultural Identity

The less you pretend to be, the more you are...

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The human mind is a mysterious place…seemingly reliable and consistent in many ways, but also crowded with unseen, unsorted, undigested and deeply conflicted content.

Humans naturally become acculturated by the society in which they are raised. The core of that process is an imprinting of a belief system and a complex layering of often conflicting “truisms” derived therefrom.

The end result is not unlike that which is demonstrated at its simplest level by a classic Gestalt example: An instructor holds up a dinner plate, rotates it 45 degrees, and asks students to describe the shape they see. Invariably, the response is “round.” Of course their eyes see an oval shape, but the mind “sees” a plate. And, since plates are round, the mind instinctively translates (reshapes) its visual reality into a “virtually” conditioned response.

That same dynamic defines a similar contrast (and/or conflict) between one’s human (core) identity, and one’s socially assimilated, multi-layered cultural identity. The former is simple, direct, hardwired, and empirically honed to achieve human biological success in the natural world. While the latter is a transient, generational phenomenon that evolves somewhat capriciously from sustained social interaction that increasingly defines personal success or failure in terms of a virtual societal reality; one that inherently obscures, constricts, and otherwise marginalizes one’s core sense of self.

If you were stripped of your culturally conditioned persona, would you no longer recognize who you are? If the measures, standards and judgments that have culturally defined (or limited) your self image were removed, who do you think would remain? Would it be similar to the difference between your sense of self when taking a shower in the privacy of your bathroom, and the amplified sense of self-awareness you feel when interacting (fully clothed) with others in a public place?

Imagine what it might be like to carry no cultural weight; to never judge or appraise anyone or anything (much less yourself) by culturally defined standards. Then…would you be tall enough? Slim enough? Would your breast size matter? Would your hair be the right color? Would your tattoos or piercings (if any) still have meaning? Would your educational level or occupation continue to make sense? Would there be any change in your acceptance of current relationships, romantic and otherwise, if cultural conditioning were removed from the equation?

If you erased all the conflicting cultural ‘rights and wrongs’ from your perception of who you are, and then looked in a mirror…who would you see? Would you be unrecognizable? Would you feel human in form only? Would you no longer have familiar feelings, or react to suffering, meanness, or kindness in others in the same way? Or would you still have those same feelings, only with a much clearer understanding of the realities that evoke them?

These are just a few of the things you might ask if you can recall the wonder of your (very) early childhood, and retain a lingering awareness of the difference between who you were then, and how you have become since. Has that child been fully assimilated in the process of acculturation? Or has that child become an adult with two distinct identities–one that is superficial and ‘consciously’ dominant, and another that’s foundational and largely sublimated? If the latter, is there any way to clearly distinguish between the two? Can the layers of one be stripped away enough to disclose “the real you” underneath? And, if so, how might your vision of life (and self) change when no longer seen through a cultural prism?

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The clip below (opening segment of the film “The Gods Must Be Crazy“) is a light-hearted, yet eye-opening illustration of how an identity schism begins to evolve in direct proportion to a culture’s complexity.  Also, anyone who is interested in assaying the relative maturity (and/or wisdom) of indigenous vs. ‘evolved’ cultures should definitely see this film in its entirety. It is, in that regard, a masterpiece.  

[Also take a look at Dynamics Of Human Identity (by Vladimir Dimitrov) for a very provocative view of the identity issue.]

The following videos underscore both the physical and cultural forces that effectively reshape our sense of self.



7 comments on “Human vs. Cultural Identity

  1. I think humanity and culture can be likened to mirrors within mirrors. One can never know for sure where the reflection of the self is manifested in culture or where culture manifests itself in the mind. It’s difficult if not impossible to determine exactly because it simply goes back and forth into oblivion. I think this is why people also often either fear other cultures, or immerse themselves in them.I find that often people who crave other cultures are often more able to strip down their own, which inevitably leaves them more able to learn about themselves. Those who would rather turn a blind eye to other cultures are also often the ones who prescribe to the idea of ignorance is bliss and fear both the reasons for their own identities as well as those of others.

    There’s lots to think about here, it’s a candy store of thought. Thank you for directing me over here. :)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Michelle…your example of mirrors, and layered reflections is quite apt, as well as coincidental. This piece is an unfinished draft of the introductory chapter of the book I’m currently writing. The tentative title of the book: “Life Without Mirrors.”

    And, yes, there is a lot to think about. But there are two fundamental principles that can help keep one’s thoughts focused:

    First, the principle of “circumstance.” The culture one grows up in and assimilates is a circumstance of birth. Yet contrast, for example, a child that is born in China and raised by its Chinese parents, to that same child if adopted by an American couple, and raised in the U.S. Same child–same core identity–yet circumstantially capable of developing two quite distinct “cultural” identities. With this in mind, it makes it easier to concentrate on just what in that child would remain the same (if anything) regardless of any significant change of cultural circumstance.

    Second, the principle of “identifiable characteristics.” All young children have an ability to recognize characteristics that distinguish themselves from other children. Basic characteristics like: shy/outgoing, withdrawn/bold, unflappable/excitable, quiet/loud, etc. Only in time does this “recognition” begin to fade. As a child grows it naturally attempts to modify (or mask) those ‘core’ characteristics depending on whether they are seen as enhancing or diminishing cultural (social) acceptance and/or success. Not only do they sublimate (or reinforce) core (identifying) characteristics, but they also begin to lose their ability to easily recognize those differences in others; i.e., as they begin shaping and tailoring their own “cultural identity” they find it increasingly difficult to recognize others (as they “really are”) underneath their similarly motivated cultural “masks.” Thus they transition from an open-eyed, feet-on-the-ground view of themselves…and the world around them…into a virtual, culturally shaped illusion of who they are, and what they see (or want to be, and want to see).


  3. William… I’m going to respond to this from a personal perspective (rather than an academic one). In reading the abstract, I found myself fully engaged in the questions you’re presenting primarily because it’s a struggle that has been highlighted in my own life.

    The culture of my childhood was a religious and rural one, heavily peppered with rhetoric and theology. All the way through my education I was incubated in a theological, prejudiced, poverty-ridden, southern society. As a young woman, my environment changed dramatically with my move (independent of any family or friends)to the Metro DC area. And I think that’s a key thought… I relocated alone, without the influences of my current life. I started over.

    Immediately, there was a fracturing. In reference to your discussion of mirrors, it was like stepping away from a single mirror and being lost in a funhouse. The experience brought every belief into question and even triggered complete distrust in nearly everything around me, primarily because I had the overwhelming sense I was being “lied” to.

    Over these past 12 years I’ve worked to filter out what was simply a part of my childhood culture and what is really me. And I’ve yet to filter it all out. I rarely discuss religion in a public forum because I’m still unsure of what I actually believe and what I’m just throwing up. It seems nearly impossible to separate… a herculean effort to view God without the voices of the church.

    As of late, I’ve focused primarily on nature as a way of understanding God. It’s my way of removing the filter. (I use religion as an example here because it’s the one I know and have experienced.)

    In response to your questions, what I wonder is that if we are pursuing ‘happiness’ and ‘knowledge’then digging past this cultural mask seems to be the only answer. How else can we be fully ourselves, know what we really think and what we are really seeing until we remove the screen of what has been built around us?

    For me, I feel constantly blinded by the environment I grew up in. Imagine going for a swim underwater in a muddy lake… how hard it is to see with all the muck in the way!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I dare say that there is no way you can possibly remove all “filters”. You are your filters, from the biological/genetic to the cultural/societal ones. Stripped of them you are a void. Like Plato’s caveman who holds the shadows projected onto his walls to be the real thing, you perceive the values and contexts which were given to you to be truthful. In absence of society and culture you are but a chaotic array of blood vessels and more or less well-functioning organs – plus a weird neurological entity inside your head which creates the illusion of a stable persona/identity. I don’t believe in identity being stable. Identity is a construct. I am just thinking of Brave New World and its fascinating discussion of the Bokanovsky process. OK you could tell me that Bernard Marx, one the characters, intrinsically an Alpha, turns into a rebel on grounds of alcohol consumption during his “production” and becomes a threat to Brave New World, although he has been bred to be one of its faithful inhabitants. But here again you have conditioning: the genetic one. Beauty and ugliness are just as inescapable are are brains, diseases or a certain inborn, all-encompassing states of mind (I was born melancholic and manic-depressive, I am sure of that). I for my part wouldn’t even want to escape anything. I can bring myself to love my shackles – and God have I done so most efficiently throughout my life. As long as I don’t mind my addictions I can live with them.

    Back to the Amises now (yuck).


    Liked by 1 person

  5. “The culture one grows up in and assimilates is a circumstance of birth.” Circumstance as in random chance, winning or losing lottery ticket, luck of the draw? If so, I’d like to suggest that this is a culturally-derived belief as well, as there are those who believe we choose our parents.


    • Which wonderfully illustrates our inclination to believe in whatever we’re told is true. Perhaps the more informative question is what in our little brain is beyond belief? Anything? (He says, as he dowses the universe with a bent stick, seeking the source of rain. ;-)


  6. Pingback: Evolution vs. Devolution (06) | CiderPress

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