Cultural Dialogue and Humility

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2It is difficult to observe the world these days without being struck by the ubiquity of conflict both in the US and around the World.  All our politicians seem to do is fight with one another. A new terror attack is an almost daily occurrence as are shooting incidents in schools, homes and stores abound some even perpetrated by toddlers. Racial tension and strife continues. The rich get rich and the poor get poor.  Income inequality grows and society grows less and less civil.

In all this we do not seem to be able to talk to one another and to work through difficulties.  Real dialogue is becoming more and more elusive.  Why? In this short essay I would like to suggest two among myriad explanatory contenders: the lack of social humility and courage.

As finite beings, you and I really can not interpret the world around us from anyone else’s perspective.  We can empathize and try to see things from the perspective of another but we can not, for example, actually leave ourselves and look back at ourselves from the other’s point of view. We can imagine. We can project. At best, we can approximate.

This reality is very easy to forget.  The experience of our own self-awareness–our consciousness– can fool us into thinking that we have stepped out of ourselves and taken up a kind of universal and decontextualized perspective from which we perceive ourselves and others objectively, clearly, truly. The fact that we experience, to one degree or another, what psychologists call, a subject/object relationship with ourselves can deceive us into thinking that we can have an almost unlimited and disembodied point of view on all of reality. While most of us have no trouble acknowledging that we do not have all the answers to vexing life issues, we much less frequently acknowledge that our perspective itself is radically constrained by the conditions of our finitude.

One of the conditions of that finitude is the fact that our lives are deeply contextualized.  We exist in time and space–we live in a particular time and place.  We all enter that time and space with specific genetic potential and limitation. Experience, both profound and apparently insignificant, teaches us about life, shapes our identities and our views of what is good/bad, wise/unwise and right/wrong.  We become who we are and live as we do within a context of past and present experience.  We do not live or perceive outside of that context. The notion of decontextualized perspective is an illusion.

One aspect of our radical contextualization is culture.  We are all encultured and see our world through the lenses of the various cultures and subcultures that have shaped us and which we continue to shape in turn.  Enculturation is both a good and somewhat problematic feature of our lives.

On the one hand, enculturation enables us to interpret the world around us in the real time of everyday life.  Without a cultural framework we would be, metaphorically, stumbling around in the dark without any sense of the “lay of the land” and without reference points and “aids to navigation.”  In this sense, culture affords us what Archimedes, over two thousand years ago, called “a place to stand.”


archimedes 1

On the other hand, because cultures seem to those who live in them and have been shaped by them to define the natural and normal way of things, they make cultural realities other than one’s own seem unnatural, odd and in many cases even invisible. For example, it is difficult to see economic or racial privilege for what it is from the point of view–cultural perspective– of privilege itself.  In other words, each culture limits the perspective of its members to its own confines and because members of a cultural group see their own cultural norms as the natural “way of it,” they default to the assumption that their own cultural lens is more revelatory and less limited than it actually is or can be.

These qualities of contextualization put us in a difficult position.  We need the guiding light of our cultural cues but if we follow that refracted light alone, we will miss the guidance of other refracted beams and fall afoul of the dangers no single cultural light can illuminate.  Are we stuck? Must we simply stand still or continue going along merrily oblivious to our cultural myopia.

To proceed we need the virtues of humility and courage simultaneously.  The Latin root of the word “humility” is humus which means earth or ground. The humble are those who recognize that they are of the earth.  Dust we are and to dust shall we return.ashes

The humble person is the person who realizes and accepts his/her earth bound finitude–their humanity in all its limitations.  The humble person embraces and accepts the conditions of finitude and does not fall victim to imagining themselves on high free of all the conditions of finite existence and enlightened by some universal light.  The humble person takes themselves to be seeing their way through life lighting their path with their own unique light along with all others who are doing the same.  The humble person takes their light to be a light like any other–no better no worse.  In this sense, humility shares a great deal with being firmly grounded.

The Latin root of “courage” is cor which means heart and, by extension, innermost spirit.  In its earliest usage, the word meant to speak or act one’s heart and later to mean an inner strength in the face of fear.  Accepting that we are finite, mortal and profoundly limited in a variety of ways can be a fearsome prospect and requires real courage but without a courageous acceptance of finitude (humility) we sentence ourselves to a future of tunnel vision confined to our own limited context and unable to see beyond our present cultural limits.

Real social dialogue requires both humility and courage.  Without a deep acceptance of our finitude and the humility that ensues, we can never really open ourselves to the individual and cultural lenses of others.  While we consider ourselves “mighty,” “exceptional,” “special” and “more enlightened than thou,” dialogue remains a pipe dream.