27 Aug 2008

The importance of everyday culture

The achievement of countries these days does not depend primarily on the extent of the land surface or the amount of natural resources the country controls. There are tiny states that have incredible radiation to the outside world (Monaco, Luxembourg, Singapore, Slovenia), and there are huge, natural resource rich countries that are struggling (most notably Nigeria, but also Venezuela).
Nothing is as important for the success of a country as the everday culture of society.
Noble prize winners and olympic gold medals are noteworthy. However, they are worth precious little if the general educational system is poor and if ordinary people live an unhealthy life. The success of a country does not depend on outstanding individual achievements. On the contrary, they are often a sign that something is wrong with the general culture. This is especially true if these personal achievements take place outside of one's home culture (as in the case of Africans who have moved to the West).
What is everday culture? First of all, it is not high culture. It is not the number of Verdi operas you can name, or the historical battles you can remember. As Dénes Kemény, trainer of the Hungarian water polo team that has won the olympic gold medal three times in a row, has put it, he will prefer weaker players who are team oriented to players with superior skills who are too individualistic for teamplay.
Everyday culture is rather an amazing number of latent understandings, compromises, abstractions, systems that people share in a given society. It begins with understanding and keeping to formalised systems such as the legal system or the the traffic code. It then extends to semi formal systems such as an understanding of how a democracy works in practice, or to to interethnic and interconfessionak tolerance. At a very extreme it reaches into domains that are completely informal: street politeness; how to interact with strangers and acquaintences; how to have effective discussions and agree on issues; how to keep your word; knowledgee of foreign languages. At the end of the day it is these latent, imponderable, unseen elements of common culture that define the economic potential of a society. Physical elements of a culture such as flashy cars, expensive cloths and new buildings are easier to see. Common culture is more difficult to identify, to discuss and to improve. However, you might come across people dressed in the finest cloths, driving the most expensive cars, and still unrefined in their everyday culture on the inside.
If these latent systems, these abstractions are there in people's minds, and they manage to keep to them, society will function smoothly. If people are unaware of these rules that govern everday lives, if they do not understand them well, or if they have lost their faith in them because society around them does not keep to them, there will be malfunctions. Members of society will cause each other harm, losses and delays. There will be snags and hitches, inefficiences. Society as a whole will lose, in addition to individuals. The operation of a society is as good as the knowledge and belief of individuals members of it.
Faith is incredible important in this respect. The driver that does not allow you into his lane knows that he will not gain much by doings so. He willget home two or three seconds earlier. The reason why he does it is because he has the experience that he gains nothing by investinging in society. He will never get back the favour from the same person. He will get it back from another member of society - society being an abstraction, but a functioning abstraction. If the majority are willing to make this abstract investment into society, the favour will be returned. If they are not, society will not function, further strenghtening individual experiences that a socially oriented strategy does not work, thus one has to fend for themselves. Therefore there are vicious and virtous circles that lead to societal failiure or success.
Robinson Crusoe, when stuck on a deserted island, continued to uphold the daily routine of a civilised environment. He kept a diary of months and dates, and punished the birds when they ate his food. He was a man who understood the importance of social norms and rules even though he was living all by himself. Some of us live in mass societies and yet fail to keep the same rules in mind.

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