Can we bring cultural walls down by telling stories?
During the past week, TED Global 2010 was happening at Oxford and I was “following” the event through the TED Blog, Twitter, etc. Yes, I went a long way in the past 6 months from someone who thought of himself as “traditional” and against some of the fashionable trends on the Internet (read Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, …) to someone who’s embracing some of the services out there and thinks of them as useful platforms — I am now even an avid Youtube fan as it let’s me get access to stuff like superb BBC channel 4 documentaries (see my channel), but I digress from my original digression
As I was following some of the talks through my Twitter glimpses, I built a list of my favorites I’d like to watch as soon as their videos are posted at TED.com and I was really happy to see that Elif Shafak‘s (a Turkish fiction writer) talk was posted yesterday — I eagerly watched her tonight!
Elif delivered a remarkable and inspiring talk — “Beware of the power of circles … If you want to destroy something in this life all you need to do is to surround it with thick walls: it will dry up inside,” just one quote to wet your interest. But she also made me think a bit deeper about culture so I felt compelled to put my thoughts in my blog.
In her talk, Elif tells stories about pigeonholing people into stereotypical cultural identities and turning multicultural communities and groups into ones in which each member is seen as a representative of their bigger “identity” no matter how much they try to break loose of the stereotypes of their culture. She made a profound remark that rang a bell with me. She said that “it’s not healthy for a human being to spend too much time staring at their own reflection. Ironically, ” she added, ” communities of the like-minded is one of the greatest dangers of today’s globalized world.”
If you read some of my Nature vs Nurture articles, you will be familiar with the idea that we’re driven by two separate urges that shape our personality: the urge to belong and identify with a group of people, and the urge to differentiate ourselves as unique individuals and “fight” for our place within the group of our choosing — with the culture we come from being the ultimate group we belong to.
Like it or not, many feel the ties with their “bigger group” when something like the FIFA World Cup 2010 in South Africa, or closer to home for me, the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver happens. Though the feelings are more complex for people like me who immigrated from their motherland to another country which they call home now, still, the power of identifying with the bigger group called nation — and often culture too as it is usually tightly coupled with the nations — and feeling immersed into something grandeur than thyself is profound.
Evolution bestowed upon us an ability to socialize and read everyone’s mind about their opinion of us. This constant relationship bisecting is what drives the engine of group identification. It is likely what tipped us from the primitive culture abilities we share with our genetic cousins, the chimpanzees, to the true human culture which led to our flourishing history filled with innovation and technological breakthroughs that let us conquer the world — I have a theory around this that you can check here.
But, as Elif remarked, too much staring at our own reflection is dangerous. And this is where the human irony lies. Our relationship analyzing capacity provides us with numerous mirrors to stare at our own reflection! Our strong preference for belonging to a group widens the gap with the groups we don’t belong to. Unfortunately, this gap is the widest when the groups are as big as those identified by culture or nation, and this causes distortions in our mirrors — the reflection is no longer based on what we see in the person in front of us, but on what kind of stereotype we carry along about the group we believe the person belongs to. This is when we start building the thick walls Elif talks bout.
Carrying the flag during a football match can be fun, but doing so when interacting with people at work, in our personal life, in community gatherings, at serious events where serious problems are discussed, can be truly dangerous. The question is how can we overcome this if the emotions run strong to maintain our identity and we can’t see clearly through our distorted views?
We build stereotypes about our culture by reading or listening to stories describing those cultures. I hope we can overcome those stereotypes in the same way — by listening to stories from master story-tellers like Elif!