Before I plunge in to another post that I hope will be helpful for understanding both the value of using culture-related language and what I believe is the fundamental difference between Western and Non-Western cultures, I believe a clear definition of the word is in order.
CULTURE: the shared beliefs, values, knowledge, language, and behaviors of a specific group of people that distinguishes them, or makes them unique, from other groups of people.
Because I almost always view what is taking place in people’s individual lives and in society as a whole through a culture detecting lens, I’ve had more than a few of my fellow Americans admonish me to leave the “culture-thing” alone and just view and help people as individuals.
But as noble as that admonition may sound. it’s actually the product of the American form of the foundational value that lies at the base of Western culture, and it just doesn’t line-up with what’s revealed in God’s word or the history of humanity.
The reality is that although every person who has ever lived was created by God with certain components of who they are that are unique to them, (like their fingerprints, their unique facial features, their unique blend of personality traits, and so forth), every person also enters into existence as part of one specific group of people, and then becomes parts of other groups as they progress in life.
In other words, although every baby born is a unique individual, until some time later in life, that baby’s primary identity in the eyes of everyone else, (and the baby’s own eyes) is as a member of a group–first the baby’s nuclear family consisting of it’s mom and dad and siblings, but also as a member of their parent’s larger, extended family–the grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and so forth.
But it isn’t just our families that He assigned us to draw our group identity from.
Our identity is also generated by the larger groups that our families are found within–ethnicity, language, nationality, and so forth–that also contribute to making us who we are.
Whether we like it or agree with it, viewing individuals as part of one or more specific cultures is essential for understanding who that person is, what they value, what they do, and why they do it.
By taking the time and effort to learn about the different cultural or sub-cultural groups from which an individual draws a significant portion of their identity, we can also discover the similarities and differences between the cultural groups, and the beliefs and values that produce them.
When we learn these kinds of things about individuals and groups, it increases our ability to help them understand themselves and each other.
It also makes it easier to develop methods that will enable the people within them to live alongside people from other cultures peacefully, respectfully, and with the minimum amount of misunderstanding and conflict possible.
Put as simply as possible, if you desire to understand and help an individual, it’s essential to understand the groups they derive a significant portion of their identity from.
Although our American culture has influenced us to believe that our primary identity in the eyes of others should be as an individual, that belief is contrary to God’s design as He has unveiled it in His word, and also contrary to the reality of human history.
What’s ironic is that our discomfort and even resistance to being categorized or identified first and foremost as a member of a specific group, or categorizing or identifying others primarily as members of a specific group, actually places us in to a very small group or category of people–known as extreme, or hyper-individualists.
Because of the more than seven billion people that live on this planet, the number that believes individual-identity is primary and that categorizing and/or identifying people first and foremost as part of a group is unfair, unhealthy, or inherently wrong, is probably less than two percent.
When we do view the inhabitants of our planet through the lens of the word culture that I defined above, it’s fairly obvious that humanity as a whole–human society, is composed of thousands of diverse cultural groups and many times more than that when the sub-cultures within each of those groups is considered.
But as important and valuable as it is to identity every individual as a member of as small a group as possible, it’s also helpful to identify every individual and the groups they are part of as a member of as large a group as possible.
If we look at all 7.4 billion of us that live on this planet right now through a mega-culture detecting lens, every person and every cultural and sub-cultural group that makes each individual who they are, can be viewed as either Western or Non-Western.
Even though I don’t really like using Western and Non-western as the terminology to describe these two mega-cultures, it is what is used and understood by most people today.
And as crazy as it sounds, it really is possible to determine which mega-culture a person’s identity is drawn from by asking them one question expressed in two different ways, (to ensure that it is understood).
Here’s the question:
In your view, what is the foundational, or most basic, building block of society? In other words, knowing that every person lives in some way as part of a group or society, what is the foundation that society rests upon?
Although there will always be a few exceptions, almost every person on the planet will either say that society is built on the group, or, that society is built upon the individual person.
If a person believes the foundation that society is built upon is the group, they are part of a Collectivistic culture.
If a person believes the foundation that society is built upon is the individual, they are part of an Individualistic culture.
Although this is obviously an over-simplification, the reality that Non-Western cultures are built upon a collectivistic view of what the foundation of society is, whereas Western cultures are built upon an individualistic view of what the foundation of society is, makes them fundamentally different.
And since the foundations of Western and Non-Western cultures are fundamentally different, the cultural values and behaviors that rise from and rest upon those radically different foundational beliefs, will also be radically different.