The Water We Swim In: Ambient Culture as a Shaper of Belief
by Grayson Bray Morris
This essay was first published in November 2016 on this site. Its permalink is here.
I’ve lived in Europe for almost fifteen years. One thing it’s taught me firsthand is the crucial role the ambient culture plays in people’s beliefs and actions.
My first example came before I even made it to Europe. On a lunch date with my future husband, then a graduate student from the Netherlands, circumcision came up. I told him how I’d agonized over the right thing to do, should my first child turn out to be a boy. He said, “Are you Jewish?” When I quizzically said no, he blinked, aghast. “Then why would you even consider it?”
And so I learned that in the Netherlands and, indeed, the rest of Europe, circumcision isn’t a thing that’s routinely done to infant boys. It is not a medical decision. There’s no need to agonize about it at all.
My second example came when the first elections rolled around in my new country. To my astonishment, no one was talking about same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriage was not a campaign issue. It was just a thing that was legal. And most of the Dutch population, Christian or otherwise, takes that right pretty much for granted now.
But not everyone does, of course. And in the multi-party system of the Netherlands, their voices are also represented. In the Netherlands, the 150 seats in the House of Representatives are divided among all the country’s political parties—seventeen, as of this writing—according to the percentage of the popular vote they receive. It’s pretty much impossible for one party to have anything even close to a majority—forty seats is a whopping number. In the Netherlands, it’s a given that parties representing diverse viewpoints from hardcore socialism to fundamentalist Christianity must work together to govern the country.
Ambient culture is determined by two major factors: a country’s laws and its educational system. The thing is, most people are pretty much born a blank slate for many issues. There’s nothing innate about a whole lot of the things we feel passionate about. Our beliefs about them are learned. And they can be unlearned. That’s good news, when the beliefs are oppressive and harmful. But it’s also bad news, as I learned from investigative journalist Elles van Gelder.
In 2012, Van Gelder wrote an article on right-wing survival camps for white Afrikaner youth.Watch the multimedia production of this story by Van Gelder and photojournalist Ilvy Njiokiktjien. Link is external. When she met the boys attending, the first generation born after apartheid into the rainbow nation, they said things like “We have to fight racism.” Nine grueling days later, they were unanimous again: “The enemy is the black man.”
So, America, our first challenge is to keep the hooligans from changing our culture for the worse. From normalizing hatred of the other, starting now, and from codifying that hatred in legislation come January 21st.
Our second, concurrent challenge is to change our ambient culture for the better, through education and political reform.
And then we stay vigilant. Forever.