Early on, I asked myself why anyone would want to join an artificially-created culture, which would, obviously, entail some sort of adherence or obedience to cultural norms. If you’re going to be a member of the Water Buffaloes, you have to wear the Big Funny Hat, right? But what if you don’t want to wear the Big Funny Hat?
The answer is that people would join if they knew the culture would empower and protect them. If it made them BETTER people, healthier, smarter, more effective in the world both as the larger group and as individuals. If it was a more-than-fair trade, they might even be willing to wear the Big Funny Hat.
And truthfully, strengthening and empowering people — already living in a decidedly predatory social environment — is my primary goal in thinking about Beta. If we can’t create something better, why would any of us bother to bother?
In his book Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, Alain de Botton makes a number of points that align very closely with some of my own thinking on Beta Culture.
I should say here that I don’t completely like the title of de Botton’s book. It disturbs me in that it gives a slightly false image of what de Botton is really talking about, which is, mainly, culture. Culture as it is used — and abused — by religions, but which is really available to all of us.
To an atheist, religion-as-culture is sort of like a banana. You know you don’t like the peel, but no banana-eater thinks about the peel, other than as something you tear off and throw away, or use to illustrate a pratfall joke. You take the peel off and eat the banana, happily and healthily. Just so, you can peel religion away from culture, throw it away, and have something useful, healthy and life-affirming left. Something that is not religion, nothing like religion, but that takes back and makes useful some of what religion has stolen from us.
For instance, if religion annexes Morality and claims it as its own — as it has — and you choose not to be religious, the answer is not to be amoral, but to take back the ownership of morality by showing it as something HUMAN. The result being that you’re able to be MORE moral than those who take a strictly religious approach to it, because you understand that morality is a human endeavor, subject to human judgments and aspirations, and not something instructed by the tight-assed god of whatever holy book you happen to be reading.
I’ll quote de Botton from his chapter on Kindness:
By contrast with this Christian desire to generate a moral atmosphere, libertarian theorists have argued that public space should be kept neutral. There should be no reminders of kindness on the walls of our buildings or in the pages of our books. Such messages would, after all, constitute dramatic infringements on our much-prized ‘liberty.’However, [ we can admit that ] our public spaces are not even remotely neutral. They are — as a quick glance down any high street will reveal — covered with commercial messages. Even in societies theoretically dedicated to leaving us free to make our own choices, our minds are continuously manipulated in directions we hardly consciously recognize.
Atheists tend to pity the inhabitants of religiously dominated societies for the extent of the propaganda they have to endure, but this is to overlook secular societies’ equally powerful and continuous calls to prayer. A libertarian state truly worthy of the name would try to redress the balance of messages that reach its citizens away from the merely commercial and towards a holistic conception of flourishing. True to the ambitions of Giotto’s frescoes, these new messages would render vivid to us the many noble ways of behaving that we currently admire so much and so blithely ignore.
More than once, I’ve found myself watching something wonderful on TV or elsewhere, a short video with a message of love, or giving, or caring, and then felt disappointed to find it was a commercial from Nike or McDonald’s, or some bank. (I admit to a certain fondness and forgiveness for the Budweiser Clydesdales.) I’ve caught myself hoping, more than once, that this time, THIS TIME, what I was watching was going to be a genuine message of caring, or togetherness, or love for one’s fellow man.
And honestly, can anyone give me a good reason why it couldn’t be? Why it SHOULDN’T be that we might see messages of human aspiration and connection, at least as often as we’re persuaded to buy Big Macs or Fords or socks? On the so-called “public airwaves,” why is there almost nothing but lowest-common-denominator entertainment and commercial sales pitches?
I’ll give you a couple of examples which are, sadly, still commercials, but which lean very strong toward the sort of teaching stories, the social sharing and shaping I imagine.
I’ll admit I don’t know who would pay for such things. But I would darned sure like to see them, and in some ways I don’t think we can afford to NOT have such caring reminders in view, at least as often as the current nonstop barrage of exploitative commercial messages.
A people that cared about people, and all the other things worth caring about, would manage it.