Cultural Confidence

I can’t turn around in this country without hearing someone talk about the value of self-esteem and self-confidence.

We blog on it: http://zenhabits.net/25-killer-actions-to-boost-your-self-confidence/

We fret over it in the news: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/nov/29/girls-low-self-esteem-rising-girlguiding-report

We have seminars on it: http://www.optimalthinking.com/SelfEsteem.html

And like every other fashionable intellectual topic, it gets a TED talk: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w-HYZv6HzAs

So hooray for self-confidence, I guess!

This isn’t a surprise, as this is an individualistic culture. But what if we’re talking about the culture instead of the individual? Should a society have any form of collective self-confidence? Should we have cultural self-confidence?

It seems like the exact same people who place such a high value on self-confidence for individuals also seem to place a negative value on their culture thinking well of itself. When was the last time you heard someone on the political left say something really positive about the cultural values of the industrialized West, anyway? In fact, there seems to be only one element of the West that they really appreciate, which is individualism. When it comes to having faith in systems or institutions, they just aren’t going for it. Everyone with power should be looked at with suspicion, every judgment questioned, every tradition subverted. Really, believing in the ideas of a society gets a bad rap among lots of people.

In a recent Art of Manliness blog entry on pursuing excellence and dominance, one comment said that men should not pursue any such thing, should not pursue an imposition of will over others, because to do so would be an assertion that one way of life is superior to another, which is simply wrong. But why is it wrong?

I guess it’s because individualistic people want to see themselves as self-creating, not competing, and not products of their society; the crux of it comes down to something like a personal “right way to be” that cannot be, and should not be, defined by others. Maybe they will point you to the Crusades and say, “these people believed too strongly in their way of living, and people got hurt. You should live and let live.”

But let me ask: if you believe that the life you’re living is good, why wouldn’t you want to increase the visibility and esteem of a life lived like yours? If you say a culture is messed up, knowing that generations are yet to be born into this culture that isn’t “optimized for human flourishing”, isn’t it morally sound to try and change that culture? We certainly believe that about our own, and at the very least, we appreciate the freedom available in this culture that makes such change a stronger possibility. This sort of freedom is a cultural value. Why not try to spread your values, emphasize your way of doing things, glorify what seems to be working well? Shouldn’t we at least have the confidence in our way of life to not denigrate it? After all, say what you want about the benefits of being humble, but a confident culture is a charismatic culture.

This becomes more important when you understanding that the individual is forged by their environment. Our culture largely defines us. Even when we say, “you shouldn’t impose your culture on others”, saying that is an attempt to modify people’s behavior to create a more ideal culture, which in this case is a supportive and non-judgmental environment. The use of the word should gives it away: you’re making a judgmental assertion on how people should act, in an attempt to modify the prevailing social environment. You have to realize, there is no neutral culture; the supposed moral decency of non-judgmentalism, as many people have noted, is extremely judgmental itself when people fail to meet its expectations, as political correctness in America shows regularly.

Once you understand that the concept of a “supportive environment” with no judgment really makes no sense at all, you’re left with the basic truth: your culture makes you who you are. Every attempt to figure out some core of individuality for humans fails on the basic grounds of experience being relevant to our identity.

And thus, we should ask ourselves: can you love who you are without loving the society that made you?

The voices that cry the loudest over the West’s cultural dominance of other countries solve this problem for themselves by taking and leaving elements of culture as they wish. Institutions with hierarchies are right out, but the philosophical individualism of the West and its notions of rights are in, and never mind that those rights are impossible to create, defend, and enforce without the institutions. The point of the entire exercise is to liberate the individual from obligations. It’s a power game.

In the real world, your choice is between separatism and unity, between alienating yourself and playing the social game with others where you win some and see your cultural environment become more like what you want it to be, or you lose and have to conform. Most people have to conform, and no one conforms harder than the guy saying, “give me liberty” or protesting the WTO. Those are cultural values he’s expressing.

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