What is culture, and what influences it?

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An old-timey drawing of three dahlia flowers in red, yellow, and pink, and writing that reads “The Dahlia” above the drawing and “Instability” below the drawing. It is an image of the meaning of the dahlia flower in flower language.
A fitting flower for such a fluid concept as language and culture. Internet Archive Book Images via Flickr

An introduction to a series on culture

Culture, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group.” According to notes from an Anthropology 100 course, culture is all of the “taken-for-granted notions, rules, moralities, & behaviours within a social group.”  

Symbols have dynamic cultural meanings, changing over time as individual and societal values, moralities, and behaviours grow. Culture influences the way humans interact with their environment as humans change, and humans bring growth to culture in turn.   

A good case study for cultural evolution is that of the dominant population’s views on abortion. An article by CNN entitled “Abortion is ancient history: Long before Roe, women terminated pregnancies” details the long history of abortions across the world. There are references to abortion dating as far back as 1550 before common era (BCE), with the first written reference currently being found in the Ebers Papyrus, which was a medical text at the time it was written.  

According to Oxford Reference, Exodus is believed to have been written between the ninth and fifth centuries BCE, after the Ebers Papyrus. According to Wilson-Kastner, P, and B Blair “Biblical views on abortion: an Episcopal perspective” abstract, Exodus is where the first and most obvious mention of abortion occurs in the Bible.  As Christianity is a historically dominant religion, its preachers’ interpretations of the Bible’s words highly influenced a large number of cultures, and has continued to do so.   

In the early 1800s, medical practitioners began campaigning for the criminalization of abortion. In the latter half of the 1960s, calls to decriminalize and liberalize access to abortions gained traction in conjunction with a movement for more freedom of choice for individuals.  

An individual’s opinion has a higher chance of increasing in reach if it is part of their personal practice of religion and they introduce that aspect to others in the same or a similar religion. It is the movement of an individual’s opinion to politics which can highly increase the reach of an individual’s moral opinion. Following the 1960s calls for decriminalization of abortion, Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign in the 1970s featured talking points on what he would do about abortion were he to become president.  

According to Greenhouse and Siegel’s article “Before (and After) Roe v. Wade: New Questions and Backlash” in The Yale Law Journal, Nixon appealed to social conservatives and Catholics by promising to re-criminalize “abortions on demand” to ensure he gained their votes. According to many sectors of the Catholic church and Eternal World Television Network (EWTN), a Catholic-led media organization, having an abortion is amoral. Therefore, Nixon’s position of criminalizing abortions appealed to this voter demographic and potentially helped him win the presidency.  

Nixon’s actions then opened the door for religion to enter the political sphere and gain dominance in the culture of the nation. Introducing any opinion into the political sphere increases the reach of that opinion, as now other voters need to consider whether they agree with the opinion enough to vote for that person. This encourages partisan debate and increases the likelihood of disagreements.  

However, as people tend to be defensive of their beliefs and opinions, these disagreements can very easily turn to hateful comments and an unwillingness to listen or consider, to closed-mindedness. Keep in mind that Canadian and American politics are closely tied due to the countries’ proximity, leaving many political stances to overlap. Access to abortions in Canada has been a highly controversial topic for decades, similar to our neighbours to the south, and many barriers for safe and easy access to abortions continue to exist today. Everyone always has things they can learn about; we’re not infallible, so it is my personal opinion that we should keep open minds or do more research before speaking on certain topics.  

Other ways in which culture is formed includes through oral accounts of history and storytelling. Creation stories, fables, and regional spiritual practices are important facets of culture that can influence daily interactions with the natural world. Stories and fables are used to impart teachings upon children and explain the world in ways children can understand and remember. From explaining how stealing and greed are bad, to how wandering away from your parents and trusting strangers is dangerous, or even that adventuring alone at night is dangerous, stories serve as valuable tools to teach.  

These stories help to keep children safe and teach them of how the world works without simply saying “Because I said so,” since any parent can tell you how often that works on its own. Even as a simple tool to share language, stories are invaluable parts of culture. Language is an equally important aspect of culture, as parents and teachers explain the culture to children who will live it while they are growing up.  

This can go even further to include things such as the flower, fan, and glove languages that were used between the 18th and 20th centuries. While out of use for the most part in our current era, these languages still served a purpose as communication tools and foundations of culture using tools and body language as communication. 

History influences culture as people learn from the past and try to build a better future. Most people want to live well and have future generations do the same, so culture adapts as people adapt to not repeat historical failures. The law and legal system can influence cultures as people avoid public scrutiny and the law’s sight of things to do what’s illegal where they are.  

Examples of this could be practicing the ‘wrong’ religion, expressing a gender different to the one assigned the person at birth, expressing a sexuality other than heterosexuality, or being houseless in a specific part of town. There are many things which can influence culture and many things that form cultures, but the human need to fit in and be part of a social group is the foundation.  

Culture is shared and makes people feel their values, beliefs, behaviours, and morals are correct and natural, so long as they align with the majority. 

Click here to read the next article in this series: History shapes culture, but how?

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