Culture and its role in development
Regional, Analysis, 1/25/2000
Culture is the tool by which societies preserve values and habits that have proven to work over a long period of time. These values are transmitted from one generation to the next, giving a sense of continuity and having to avoid the mistakes of the past and embodying knowledge that is suitable to that culture in the environment in which it has evolved.
Culture is an informal educational system that lies in between religion, which has much stronger and deeper values tested over much longer periods of time, and the formal educational system of a society, which is more flexible and subject to change on this continuum of religious values, cultural values, and then education.
Religion, being at the deepest level of this continuum of knowledge preservation and transmission, is the most personal and difficult to effect if change is needed. Though cultural values are less difficult to change than religious values, they are nonetheless difficult to change and subject to much resistance when there is a need for such a change.
Here we begin to see that in times of rapid change where there is a need for flexibility-- be it in the economic, social, or political structure of a society-- the more flexible a culture is, the more able this culture is to take advantage and adapt to inevitable change. This puts "conservative" cultures at a disadvantage as opposed to more liberal cultures that are willing to explore and change to meet the challenges they encounter.
Compounding the difficulty in making a change in some conservative cultures is that the resistance to change is not simply based on the need to preserve good values of the past but also to protect power structures that will feel threatened and affected by such a change.
Yet an additional factor that prevents needed change is whether the culture values science and reason as an instrument that is not seen to be in conflict with religion. When a culture views science and reason and its methods and conclusions as contrary to its values, then this culture is setting itself up for a dichotomy that it will never resolve except by accepting that reason and the conclusions it leads to are congruent with good religious and moral values. Therefore, when there is a problem to be solved or a crisis to be dealt with, a culture that is committed to the values of reason, community, and action will always gather its resources to find a solution whereas other cultures will not, relying on fate and destiny as reasons for inaction, supplemented by the leaders of the culture encouraging such attitudes to preserve the status quo.
It is easy to underappreciate the effect of culture and its values on civil progress. One may be quickly tempted to specify these attributes as relating to the East, the West, the Chinese, the Arabs, the Greeks, the Europeans, etc. But a look at history clearly provides that each one of these cultures had its low points and its high points based on whether the positive values that we described above were present or absent in the culture at that period of time.
Assuming the above problems of culture are correctly stated, then the solution becomes readily available if there are willing leaders ready to take on the challenge. This entails challenging the old values that are harmful to progress and stand in the way of promoting and elevating the positive values that we described. This problem must be attacked at the educational level and through the use of media-- be it political, educational or entertainment-- to cause discussions, to educate, and to entertain and create positive images that embody the values that we seek to instill in the society. In plain English, this is one place where positive propaganda can have a dramatic affect on a culture and its view of itself. The USA and Singapore, two extremely different types of political and cultural systems, have managed to each develop this art in completely different models to a great and successful ends.
In this regard we state that it is even necessary for the culture through its popular cultural media to "recreate itself in the image that it wants to be," even if that entails an exaggerated emphasis on the positive and desirable aspects of the culture and the extreme neglect of the negative aspects of the culture. This is no different than a parent with shortcomings, nevertheless focusing only on positive values and reinforcement in raising a child to be molded in the hoped-for image. It works, when done skillfully. This implies that the elite in a society need to have a common sense of what they are doing and trying to accomplish.
So a government that is in a developing state usually has great control over the media and its assets and has used it in the past for political control, whereas now this media presents a great opportunity to use those same resources and techniques to create that desired and called-for positive image and values for society by showing and reinforcing the values of community, justice, fairness, hard work, reason, innovation, etc. as the values that the citizen should acquire and equip themselves with.
This transformation that a culture needs to go through is a difficult challenge, as are the needed execution and required time frame, and these values that we presented are "value neutral"-- in that they do not belong to any particular country or culture, but are the positive foundation of any culture that wishes to thrive and be competitive.
There is a tendency in some cultures to look resentfully at other cultures that have succeeded by focusing on the trivial aspects of the successful cultures in order to have something to criticize and in the process fail to notice the fundamental values that are at the heart of those successful cultures, values that can and should belong to all cultures without affecting the cosmetic aspects of each culture, because when a culture cannot separate the cosmetic from the substantial it will not be able to discern the wheat from the chaff.
This needed cultural transformation must be taken by those who wish to progress, and politicians, educators, and the media all have big roles to play, together and separately, in bringing about a success to meet the aspirations of citizens for development. And reason, mankind's most elevated and distinctive feature, should guide the way, and the other informal educational systems should walk along, not behind or ahead. Culture is a tool that is meant to serve mankind and not enslave it, and when aspects of a culture become an impediment to progress, then these aspects of the culture should be changed.
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