Our cultures clash, and we risk personal isolation as a result
By Jose Leonardo Santos
Jose Leonardo Santos is an anthropologist and assistant professor of social science at Metropolitan State University.
We think the other guy's crazy all the time. We can't agree on gun laws, fiscal policy, education, diversity, health care, voter rights or same-sex marriage. How do we cope when people's values are so different? We freak out.
A friend recently told me she had slept with a married man. Then she tried to convince me I was out of my mind for thinking it was wrong. Several recently divorced friends have done similar things.
Am I old-fashioned? For days, I thought the world had gone mad. I panicked. I thought I would give up on trust, give up on getting married, give up on people and move to some mountainside.
Why did I freak out? The world is changing. For decades now, half of marriages have become divorces. It's impossible to maintain the illusion they will always work. How does that lead to a cabin in the Rockies?
I made a foolish assumption. I assumed difference meant the world was ending. My beliefs weren't universal. Did that mean everything I valued was gone?
Values and norms structure our lives. Religion. Politics. Family traditions. Cultural values. Pop psychology. They tell us how to live, vote and tell right from wrong. We're so convinced that we can't stand people who disagree. We assume they're crazy. If it's enough people, we assume the world is crazy. We assume everything we believe is threatened.
Anthony Wallace called this "mazeway disintegration." When societies change rapidly, people freak out. The structure they are used to shifts. Some give up on rules. They indulge; alcoholism and abuse go up. Others cling to their values and past; religious revitalization movements arise.
The world is changing. Economies crash. Cultures clash. Definitions of marriage change. Religious demographics shift. Gun rights are fought over. Sexual identities once taboo are lived openly. Women leave the domestic sphere. Immigration grows. Jobs are lost, lives fall apart.
Certain values once dominated whole nations; now they clash within neighborhoods. One response: extremist religious and political movements. Another is a rise in violence and mass shootings. In both, people shut themselves off to difference.
My friend ended up in tears, but not because she had slept with a married man. She wept for me. It was clear I thought she had done wrong. Is our friendship over? I've struggled with it.
The world won't end because of difference, but our social lives can. They end when we call everyone else crazy and shut ourselves off on the mountainside.