27 Jul 2021

Cultural Wisdom

Let me take a crack at defining what I mean by cultural wisdom right at the start.

Cultural wisdom


Wisdom you get for free just by adhering to cultural norms. You don’t have to be personally wise. You don’t have to even realize it's going on.

Of course, actually defining culture and wisdom is too hard. So instead let me list some everyday value inquiries that help get the flavor of what I’m talking about.

  • How should one’s day be structured?
  • What should one eat?
  • What is important in one’s life?
  • What groups does one belong to (e.g., family, friends, community)? How rigidly are these defined and maintained?
  • Is individual success defined? What does it look like?
  • Is group success defined? What does it look like?
  • How should one treat others?
  • How does one think about objects?
  • How does one think about animals?
  • Is there a concept of “nature?” What does one think about it?
  • What are the important things to measure (e.g., time, land)?

When your society has come to a good decision about one of the above questions, hooray, you get some wisdom for free.

Unfortunately, the reverse is true as well. If your society chooses badly in some aspect, you have quite the challenge ahead if you want to choose differently.

  1. First, you have to realize that the aspect is something you can actually choose. I bet this usually comes just from seeing that another decision is possible at all. Exposure comes from books, videos, or physical travel. Most of us will never realize most decisions our society has made.

  2. Then, you have to actually work out some new value system that you think is good. The easiest way is probably to adopt it from another culture that seems to score better on wisdom in that department.

  3. Finally, you have to live in (potentially slight) opposition to society in that regard, forever. Friends, family, strangers, you name it. The culture will try to wear you down—not because it’s evil, but because that’s culture, babyyyy.

    One alternative here is to move to a new society where you don’t experience friction in this dimension. But unless you adopt a lot of the new culture, you’ll then be in opposition along a suite of other dimensions. These other dimensions might be things you don’t want to change, and they might even be values you think this new culture is getting wrong.


Do we, by default, assume all present-day cultures have equal wisdom?

I suspect we—and I speak for my thirty-year-old American understanding alone—generally avoid assessing cultural wisdom. Westerners previously made the embarrassing mistake of calling other cultures “primitive.” Thankfully, we’ve mostly moved past that.

But I think we’ve thrown out a baby with the bathwater. Ironically, I think our American culture might be relatively primitive. (Which isn’t that crazy, really—America is still quite young.) By avoiding comparisons, we don’t look at our own culture and see shortcomings that other cultures have figured out. Their cultural wisdom.

Now, I don’t want to idolize another culture. It’s easy to ignore an unfamiliar set of vices, especially when the vices may be tricky to see from the outside. But it still shocks me when I realize some other culture has ironed out a really deep problem that we struggle with. And despite those people existing and living out a whole society with that mindset, we cannot take their example and adopt it.1

It does make sense why we can’t simply adopt another culture’s norms given the mechanics of culture. Cultural inertia is strong. That’s what makes it culture. If it changed by the day, “culture” would be so ephemeral we probably wouldn’t even have a name for it. Tradition protects both good ideas and bad ones. Plus, it’s complicated. Every culture has their own situation and set of problems. And on top of that, you’d have to make a massive coordinated decision to reorient the culture. These reorientations do happen. In fact, you can watch it happening in America right now. But it seems like a collective, “hey, look at what they’re doing over there, can we just try that?” doesn’t really happen.

And yet … and yet …

I guess what I want to capture is: it is surreal to travel someplace where the way of life is so different that the people have neatly sidestepped major ailments stamped into the backbone of your own culture. In some aspect, this other society has just totally nailed it. You get a taste for it, and in that aspect at least, things are truly just better in every way—more compassionate, or more healthy, or more harmonious. And before you can think to reason yourself out of it, you can’t help but wish, just for an instant, “man… why can’t we do that?”

  1. This inability to solve problems other societies have already solved reminds me of American healthcare. But of course, our problem isn’t that we can’t do it, it’s that we can’t agree whether we even want to. 

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