Culture is Not Your Friend

“The belief that “honor demands it” promotes not only honor suicide, but “honor killings” of family members as well. The UN estimates that about five thousands women are murdered each year around the world -most of them in the Middle East- by family members who believe that the family has been dishonored… In each case, the perpetrators believed they were “doing the right thing.”” -Clinical Psychologist James Alcock

Alcock also noted, “In many South Asian societies, people believe that a man’s honor is directly related to the chastity and purity of his female family members.” Culture, as Terrence McKenna once said, is not your friend. Culture, rather than religion per se, is what starts wars, culture is what fosters resentments between different communities, and culture is what sets the standard for human-value, thus perpetuating a cycle of attempted perfection and subsequent, and inevitable, self-loathing. Culture is not your friend!

Most of my clinical work encompasses the ideal of self-esteem, or rather self-compassion. My clients come from all sorts of different backgrounds, with all sorts of different expectations: some expect themselves to become, and remain, high achievers (those from the US, Russia, and various Asian countries), some expect to be perpetually obedient to their parents and their spouses (those from Asian and Middle Eastern countries), and some expect to remain pure, and holy, in the eyes of their gods (predominantly those from the US and the Middle East). The common factor which links all of them is the cultural expectation to meet a generalized ideal, regardless of how practical it actually is. And when they fail, they seek therapy in a search for answers, hoping to remove the barriers preventing them from self-actualization, working to change themselves to feel good about themselves.

Culture teaches them to be one way over another, providing them with sets of rules as children, while leaving no room for error; in some cultures, error equates with death. At an early age, culture begins to define our values and our value; without being taught the why, we’re taught the how. And then, we learn to punish ourselves in the ways in which our parents punished us. We were punished for cursing, we were punished for breaking the rules, we were punished for being too promiscuous and too loud, and we were punished for worshipping the wrong idol. Culture, while providing us with a sense of safety and comfort, became our bludgeon, which we then used to chastise ourselves for being inadequate. Culture is at the root of depression, and plays a significant role in anxiety.

Culture affords us the tools of our own self-destruction, which we too happily accept. In the US, our culture lauds the successful and shuns the academically inferior. A client of mine contemplated suicide because he wasn’t able to overcome test anxiety, thus perceiving himself as the ultimate failure. Whether we want to admit it or not, and I am implicated as well, we perpetuate our cultures; we perpetuate them each time we accept praise for some achievement and each time we brag about some status symbol, we perpetuate them in each instance of gossip, and we perpetuate them in each moment of condemnation, when we convince others that they’re simply not good enough.

It’s up to us to redefine success and, more importantly, to redefine human value. Abortion, fornication, homosexuality, academic failure, professional failure, promiscuity, and selfishness are facets of life, not defining factors. People are, and always will be, so much more than their cultural standards and consequential cultural failures. If we, as a species, ever decide to grow up, culture has to be the first thing to go.

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