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August 18, 2003

Changing the Culture via the Culture of Change
Babak Seradjeh  [info|posts]

culture-change-cultureCulture is a word with a wide variety of meanings and uses. It is also a key concept in understanding a people's behaviour. On the one hand, it acts on a totally personal level, determining the responses an individual makes to many common stimuli in his/her everyday life, and on the other hand, it is related to the collective traits of a group of people or a nation. In this sense, culture bridges the gap between the individual and the society and is a most referred-to subject when discussing the successes or the failures of a people in the context of their society. Many of the social or political problems in Iran, for instance, are commonly blamed on some faulty sections of the Iranian culture. In a rather pessimistic example of such assesments, there was a quite well-received comment to a post on this site that the Iranian culture would probably make a dictator out of a Gandhi-like leader.

Once our societal problems are so linked to our culture, the question of how we could rid our culture of its defects becomes of utmost importance. Here I'll share some of my thoughts on this issue, and hope to motivate a stream of discussions on the subject.

First off, it seems to me that the only systematic and effective way to change the culture of a large population is through the means of mass education, which includes the public education of schools as well as huge social campaigns relayed to the people by the media. But such a mechanism is immediately faced by a problem and a paradox.

The problem is of course that the success of this method is vitally dependent on the efficiency and the range of influence of its means. The culture of a society passes from generation to generation mostly through families. Therefore, changing a particular cultural aspect of the society through the curricula of the public education would basically make a battlefield in the society the two sides of which are the family unit and the classroom. It is far from certain what the result of such a battle may be.

The paradox is as follows: the official curricula of the public education are designed and supervised by the government, which is in turn affected and perhaps even shaped by the culture, and in particular the defect we are after disposing of. The chances of a thorough implementation of any comprehensive program necessary to effectively address the problem are then narrow, thus making it almost impossible to correct cultural wrongs through the only systematic means provided in the adminitsrative body of the society.

There is, however, one way out of this paradox, that is, the existance of the meta-cultural element of self-criticism within the culture. Once present, self-criticism could open up and keep alive cultural programs aimed at changing/improving certain defective/improper aspects of the current culture.

To conclude, I believe the fate of an isolated attempt at truly correcting a cultural nuisance, however well-thuoght and well-funded, is dire. The way to proceed is to concentrate our efforts on the creation of an openness to self-criticism, which would pave the way for any further refinement of the culture at large.

Old Fox at August 18, 2003 12:30 PM [permalink]:

Firstly, who gives a government the authority to "correct" people's culture? Doesn't this remind you of the right of "intelligent" governments to rule the "large population of naive people"? I believe your first suggestion (systematic and effective way to change the culture of a large population) is wrong from the very base.

Secondly, you correctly mentioned that education is an important element in development of culture. But keep this in mind that culture change (in big scale) does not show its effect in 1 or 2 years (through campagne or whatever). Culture works like human body in this context. The society receives a new cutural element, tests it, tastes it and after a while the new phenomenon gets either accepted or rejected; exactly the way human body reacts to a new food, or a body transplant.

Thirdly, the older the culture, the more chances it has for survival; the culture develops the capability of survival in thousands of years. This is very true for the Iranian culture.

Fourthly, dynamicity is a key element of culture change. If a culture becomes static, changes will happen very slowly and parts of it will start to become rotten.

Last but not least, the popular reform movement which started in Iran after the war (with Iraq), is the effort of Iranian people to move forward and evolve, while the rulling government was trying to keep the society as static as possible. I believe the young educated population of Iran (including ourselves) have an excellent chance to grow, evolve and enrich the culture the way they want. Most of us see points of weakness in our culture; and will consider them when we pass the culture to other people in our society and finally our next generation.

Hazhir at August 18, 2003 01:38 PM [permalink]:

Interesting article Babak, I think it is a fascinating area of discussion. Seconding old fox, speically on his/her first point, I want to add that It is attractive to think of self-critisism as a meta-cultural element, but I don't think it is a realistic claim. There are several cultural traits that directly connect to self-critisism, so introducing self-critisism in society is itself a cultural change, in fact a very fundamental one!
Nevertheless, one may save your main argument by maintaining that a change in this element of culture has reinforcing effects on possibility of change in other aspects... an interesting speculation, but needs more serious evidence and study.

Arash at August 18, 2003 02:20 PM [permalink]:

Great article Babak. I certainly do agree with your concluding remark, that "openness to self-criticism" is a must for any culture that has any hopes for change. However, I do not think this openness to criticism is sufficient by ANY means. In fact, although a necessity, it does not guarantee ANY change be it positive or otherwise. Take this very Iranian culture of ours as an example. I believe we are among the most self-criticizing people in the whole world, especially when it comes to culture. You said it yourself: "Many of the social or political problems in Iran, for instance, are commonly blamed on some faulty sections of the Iranian culture".

And yet, it is desperately in need of change. At the expense of being accused of skepticism, I would like to point out to some key elements within and/or missing in our culture that perhaps play a role in hampering (if not totally blocking) (positive)
changes in it despite its inherent critical tendencies:

1- Deep, profound thinking and reasoning based on "cold logic" is fundamentally missing in our culture. Like it or not, our collective way of thinking as a nation is very much influenced by the people who shaped our philosophical thoughts. Ideas and thoughts of people like Mulla Sadra (who happened to live at about the same time as Descartes) are as much part of our heritage as Persepolis is. That, I believed has caused our critiques of culture to transform (if not form) into something that looks more like mediocre complaints and naggings rather than a true "critique" in the Kantian sense of the word.

2- Religion, specifically Islam, has been an integral part of our culture and has therefore caused many aspects of our culture to become technically indisputable. Also, it has opened doors to many exploits and abuses, allowing fallacious, incorrect beliefs to (wrongfully) take refuge in the safe haven of religious immunity. No matter how many open discussions we have about equal rights for women for instance, as long as we are collectively willing to take this tumoral element into account, no true change for women will come to fruition.

And last, just to set the record straight, I have two theories as to why our culture is to be blamed for potentially turning Gandhi's into
dictators which again I hope I will able to write about in a separate article. I apologize for the long comment.

Zac at August 18, 2003 02:58 PM [permalink]:

Yeah, we need to check the interior
Of the system that cares
About only one culture
And that is why
We gotta take the power back

khajavi at August 18, 2003 03:45 PM [permalink]:

How can one change something in a society as one likes? Let's say one has the "authority" from oneself:).

Using an analogy between the society of humans and the society of neurons, the brain, may be useful, sometimes (obviously not always). The reason is that we have a lot of personal experience about our own brain. So each person is A MEMBER of society of humans and the A SOCIETY of neurons. We can have a lot of fun making countless number of analogies along this line.

I guess self criticism is the best way of changing personality for an intelligent person but not necessarily the best way for others. Here we are a neuron of the patient(society) and the brain of the doctor.

Let's assume for a second that the patient is not brain dead. What we prescribe to the patient should depend on the conditions, illnesses and intelligence of the patient not the doctor.

Does our patient need to think more to get rid of his/her mental problems? or does it need medicine/opium/religion/hero?

Babak S at August 18, 2003 04:42 PM [permalink]:

To keep the wheel of the discussions spinning, here are a few replies to your comments so far:

Old Fox, I appreciate parts two, three and four of your comment. On the first one: the authority is already given to the governments to _try_ to change things in the society. Who has done so depends on the kind of government, popular/democratic or tyrant/dictatorship. What I had in mind is not at all a unidirectional push for change by the government, far from it. I just observe that although cultural changes are usually brought about by different uncontrolled (random) causes but a nation always has the option of trying to correct itslef in a controlled, systematic way. Education in my view is _the_ means to this end. On your last (but not least) comment: I'm not sure what the role of the educated (minority) could be exactly, but even if we think there is a chance of correcting things by them, it should be a systematic effort that is not limited just to our restricted web of connections or family.

Hazhir, I certainlty agree that self-criticism is a cultural trait itself, although it seems to act on a meta level. The last paragraph of tmy post is meant to be understood with this in mind. If there is a change to be done, I think this should be the starting point.

Arash, I respectfully disagree with that `we are among the most self-criticizing people in the whole world'. The common blaming of the problems on culture, as you quoted me, just points to the connection between them, and not that we are open to criticism. Even in the often-heard balming of culture/nagging in Iranians' everyday talk, there is, I believe, still the impression that `I, the speaker, am beyond or separate from the society whose culture I am blaming.' In this regard, your frist point is well in order. Our balmings/naggings do not fit a definition of criticism, which is not just to point out/speculate on problems (negative), but also to propose solutions (positive). On the example of women's rights, I don't think I agree with that `no matter how many open discussions we have about equal rights for women [...], no true change for women will come to fruition.' This is too strong a conclusion the basis of which I can't quite see. The religious rigidities that you mention prior to this conclusion are indeed subject to change, as has been the case in the West, for instance.

Ghazal at August 18, 2003 07:12 PM [permalink]:

I agree with Babak about the fact that as much as Iranians ,including me, are always criticizing everything about everybody else in Iran, we are not tolerant at all to accept any criticism ourselves. About the women issues frankly I think lots of things have changed and is changing quite fast even in my short experience and I think nobody can even control it as long as the fever of education is so high among Iranians even though (or because) the education has been supervised so strongly.
I think 20-30 years ago, women's rights problem was much more of a cultural issue than it is today. Like so many other issues in Iran it is becoming more sever at the constitutional level.

Old Fox at August 18, 2003 08:07 PM [permalink]:

==Babak, I agree with your points. In order to explain what I meant by "the role of educated people of Iran": I just re-iterate your point: High number of educated people means we have the potential to be more successful that our previous generation, in evolving and changing our culture in a controlled and systematic way. The more education you get, the more practice you have in logic and analysis. Potentials are higher than ever before in Iran's history. This will also directly affect your other point about Government. A government which is elected by a relatively educated population reflects the wills and aims of them.==

Another point about education: Have a look at the important events in Iran in the past century: The constitutional revolution in 1906, the nationalisation of oil in 1952(?), the 1979 revolution, and the 1997 reform movement. In each movement, people have been more educated (%) and more politically-aware than the previous one. It's also clear that the time-gaps between events is getting shorter.

Senior Grad at August 19, 2003 11:15 AM [permalink]:
I read Babak Seradjeh's article with interest, although I should confess that I didn't quite like the title! It has become something of a tradition among our elite to play with words and come up with elegant, but not quite apt titles. Abdolkarim Soroush has done that and other less qualified intellectuals have followed suit, sometimes with less regard for the meaning of the phrase than for how it sounds, or rings. I would re-name Babak's article by something like "Changing the Culture through Education and Self-Criticism". Aside from that, however, I think important issues are brought up in this densely written article. The writer has got to the point quite briskly, unlike the above-mentioned master orator who takes one single notion and talks or writes about it forever, glancing at it from refreshingly new angles, and peppering his works with citations from the classical Persian poets. This extreme brevity will be one of my criticisms of Babak's writing, but a disclaimer is needed: This is not meant to be a thorough critique of Babak's article. As it suits such virtual forums, I would like to simply jot down whatever crosses my mind with little concern for details or the English language since my student status doesn't really allow more sophisticated involvement in such admittedly pleasant conversations. Some of the good things about Babak's article, in my humble viewpoint, are the following. First of all, Babak seems to have put a lot of thought into the issue of culture and have tried to reach some general concepts and thus find some remedies for whatever's wrong with the `Iranian culture', as non-well-defined (and perhaps, non-well-definable) as the latter term may be. The resulting article, therefore, enjoys (or suffers from, depending on with what purpose in mind Babak has bothered to write it) a level of abstraction that suits elite journals on, say, The Sociology of Culture or something of that category! If your writing is aimed at ordinary mortals, Babak, I think you should try to be more specific and elaborate on examples that led you, for example, to the conviction that "mass education" is the panacea for the Iranians' cultural ills. I myself am not very good at dealing with details, so I understand your dilemma. This may be partly due to the fact that one who reaches some general principles (such as "Education is the key to substantial social change") after thinking a lot on certain issues, has deliberated so much on specific examples that they now look trivial to her/him and as such do not look quite worth expounding on. But it's a weakness when you step out of the ivory tower of abstract theories and intend to effect a change. I happen to be of the same opinion of Babak that education is a most important key, if not *the* key, to change in a society. However, unlike Old Fox's impression of what Babak has written, the destination of this change need not be determined in advance by the government or any other agents. Allow me try to be more specific here, letting go of my love for the universality of an abstract notion in favor of clarity and concreteness. We hear a lot of talk about democracy nowadays. It turns out that 'democracy', like 'culture', is a fluid hard-to-define concept. A common mistake, shared by our authorities as well as common folks is that democracy has preordained goals, say, inevitably leading to Iran's Westernization or whatnot! Therefore, democracy is more often than not conceived, s ["Toooo long!" editors say, "Here: click to read the whole thing!"]