Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Culture, Sweet Liquor of Life

I groan inside when I hear people talking about things like "the cultural pressure to be thin."  Consider a case involving the person whose culture I know the most about--i.e. myself.  As a subclinical anorexic (maybe more accurately described as orthorexic), I cannot think of any cultural triggers prompting my obsession with "health" (as defined by waistline).  I was about eight years old when I suddenly became very concerned that I was too fat.  I did not have people telling me that. I did not see any culture promoting thinness (my childhood occurred in the early eighties, before obesity became a thing people cared about).  I produced anorexic (orthorexic) thoughts on my own, as part of my natural development.  As I got older, I became aware that there were other people like me, including some that happen to be famous.  But I was not created by them (recruited by their anorexic agenda, which is as specious to me as the gay agenda: I don't think it really exists, at least not in any way that I find meaningful).  Now, after many years of introspection and life experience, during which I have more or less come to terms with my own illness (as an orthorexic anorexic), I learn that my mother had issues with anorexia back in the day.  As far as I know she did not actively try to pass them on to me, telling me not to eat too much or whatever, but they were there nonetheless. Our shared biology set us up to be the kind of folks who practice culture that is anorexic (and occasionally toxic, expressing itself as self-harming behavior that can terminate in premature death).

There is not one standard of beauty in society.  There never was, and there never will be.  Not everyone reads Cosmopolitan or Seventeen, and even readers of magazines like these don't uniformly "believe in" let alone actively endorse the (incoherent) standards of beauty their authors and editors put forward.  Culture has many forms, many varieties, and that is not by deliberate design: it just happens, as people like me grow up and do what we naturally tend to do (e.g. starve ourselves and/or utter cries of disgust every time we see human fat).  Naturally, as we anorexics stand apart from the feast and groan in disgust together, we notice each other, and culture is born (as we do together that which we were already doing on our own).  All culture is toxic, in my view, just as all tools are weapons.  Culture becomes dangerous to us as we manipulate it unskillfully and/or maliciously (with intent to harm).   

Going back to my opening statement, I do not think that people who rail against particularly toxic forms of culture are misguided or wrong (they are reacting to something real), but I do think that the best solutions to cultural toxicity always come from conscious individual disengagement from groupthink (of any kind). Don't expect journalists, artists, and editors to make your standards of beauty (or anything else you value). Don't consume somebody else's culture, imbibing their values uncritically.  Make your own culture, and then carefully, gingerly introduce it to people whom you trust.  Ask these trusted friends for honest feedback, so that you know how your culture is toxic and can consciously build antidotes into it--rather than broadcast it universally with no thought for any untoward consequences.

There will never be an utterly safe culture, a drug that isn't also a poison. That doesn't mean that we all must be hermits, living in perpetual isolation from ourselves and one another. But it does mean that we have to be careful. We cannot simply "express ourselves" or expose ourselves willy-nilly to others' expression with no thought for the consequences (which will always be bad at some point). Culture is like a wonderful alcoholic beverage (or some other kind of delicious and even nutritious poison): it can be enjoyed, but it must be enjoyed carefully, responsibly, under caution.

*It occurs to me that the real reason I groan whenever people talk about what is wrong with culture, is that I always fear that they want to take my culture (which has problems) and replace it with theirs (whose problems eager salespeople often ignore, for one reason or another).  I wish people were better at cultivating boundaries, that we knew how to share without imposing.  I know my culture is poisonous.  That is why I mark it with a skull and crossbones.  But yours is too.  So stop pretending like I will be fine if I just uncork the bottle on whatever you have and drink it all down at one gulp.

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