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  • George Samuels

How culture overrides logic

In this post, I'm going to talk about: collective narratives, cultural context, and how culture overrides logic.

I stumbled upon a TEDx talk by Jim VandeHei, a veteran journalist who made profound discoveries using big data, titled "write less, say more." After writing 3 lessons from 45 days of writing earlier in the week, I realized I still have a long way to go.

But I noticed that what I was experiencing while trying to improve my writing skills could also be seen at a macro level: our collective stories influence our individual stories. Whether we're aware of it or not.

The above context is important in breaking free from perceived cultural restraints that often override logic.

Let me explain.

Communities form around stories

Source: NZ On Screen. Film 'Made in Taiwan' about a Maori tracing his DNA ancestry to Taiwan.

I've worked professionally in the "community management" space now for almost a decade. When it comes to professional communities (i.e. any community built as part of a business), I initially observed that most form around three key areas:

  1. A person

  2. An idea

  3. A product or brand

If it's a person, it is typically the founder. A compelling founder story sets the tone of the subsequent culture, which provides the foundations for values a community builds on over time.

If it's a particular idea, with no present "founder" per se (e.g. Bitcoin and Satoshi Nakamoto), then the subsequent community and culture go in the direction of the most vocal individuals. (A strong reason to know your why when seeking to build community, otherwise, the community gets overtaken by the loudest members.)

If it's a product or brand, then the subsequent community and culture are set by the most commonly held experiences. An example is Apple. Steve Jobs was very conscious of the type of brand he wanted to create, which then influenced the products, which then influenced the type of people that formed around the products.

The famous "I'm a Mac vs. PC" ads were a hit between 2006-2009 but did so well because they personified each of the competing brands: Macs vs. PCs.

By doing so, people could quickly grasp (and even self-identify with) the cultures that influenced each group. You can see the origins of this here:

I assumed that communities formed around those initial three elements I mentioned, but I realized it was more than that. It was the stories themselves.

Stories fuel culture

Q’orianka Kilcher stars as Te Ata, who grew up in Indian Territory and eventually performed for a U.S. president.

In issue #049, I shared the little-known story of Te Ata, a Chickasaw storyteller. In issue #050, I spoke about the indigenous Taiwanese group called Seediq.

In both instances, the protagonists shared similar oppression stories by either European colonists or Japanese imperialists.

This shared story by indigenous groups has fueled much pain and anguish over multiple generations, regardless of where the indigenous experienced the oppression. Although some argue that indigenous and First Nations people should "get over it," generational trauma is real. And it can also influence the stories that get passed down to a cellular level.

According to the latest epigenetic research, the things we experience in our lifetimes (e.g., trauma) can be embedded into our DNA and then passed down to subsequent generations.

This is why it's not so easy for some to just "get over it." It is not impossible, but it may be harder to overcome.

And when ancestors pass on such lived experiences, it fuels stories that get handed down.

And so, if a large group of people shares these traits, imagine the power it has on future generations? It can be debilitating if not brought to conscious awareness.

However, dealing with such groups requires more than "tough love." It needs compassion, empathy, and profound healing.

But this is just one example of how stories fuel culture, which fuels individual experiences. As I observed my writings, I realized that my exposure to different cultures influenced my personal story, which affected my tendency to look at both sides of every situation.

Culture holds collective narratives

In an old 1841 book called Extraordinary Popular Delusions & The Madness of Crowds by Charles MacKay.

In it, MacKay talks about the power of the collective - both in intelligence and madness. When individuals go off in an attempt to rebel against the "status quo," it can come at a high cost.

As communities grow, traditions form. As traditions form, culture sets in. And as culture sets in, individual logic can often get overridden.

If you've ever been amongst an angry mob, you'll know this to be true. At a certain point, collectives can stop listening to reason and give in to collectively shared emotions. It's a power that is incredibly hard to overcome as individuals, so you must always consider collective feelings, even if you're the more logical or rational type. Because it impacts your ability to reason with others.

When a collective narrative forms, it's important to first be aware of it. Because no matter how hard you try, if you try to fight against the prevailing 'wisdom' of a group, expect backlash. This is because all individuals within any collective, especially those with strong loyalty, will protect the operating system fueling their beliefs.

An example of this is the United States.

NOTE: If you're an American reading this, you may (predictably) disagree with what I'm about to say. But if you're an 'outsider' looking in, or an American able to look honestly at your collective state, you'll be able to understand what I'm about to share.

How culture overrides logic

The signing of the Declaration of Independence by the Founding Fathers of the United States

There's a topic in the United States that often gets a lot of heat: guns.

Now, for the record, I'm not against guns. I'm against guns being easily purchasable or without proper background checks. The norm in other countries.

Although it seems absolutely ridiculous that Americans wouldn't want to give up their guns after all the mass shootings experienced, it's not so ridiculous when you look at their underlying beliefs, culture, and collective narrative.

Underpinning modern American culture is the idea of freedom. Although freedom can mean different things to different people, the founding story of the US involves brutal conflict through civil war, but eventual independence (Happy July 4th) and unification.

So freedom was about being able to do what you wanted without an oppressive government's interference. But then there was the Second Amendment:

"A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

Although this amendment made sense at the time, does it still make sense today? Many Americans would argue yes, while other countries would say no.

Interestingly, the only countries in the world that still vigorously protect the "right to bear arms" are Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States - out of the world's 200 constituents.

The US is the only country worldwide that doesn't include explicit restrictive conditions.

And my theory on this is because the idea of freedom is so tightly embedded in the DNA of US culture - having the right to "bear arms" is a symbol of such freedom. Any attempt at impinging upon that would attack 'freedom' itself, the cultural root and DNA of its citizens.

The shared, collective trauma from those civil war days is the fear of being oppressed by a tyrannical government. Just hop on to Twitter, and you'll see that this fear is still present, even today. You wouldn't have groups fighting so hard to protect their gun rights if it weren't.

This collective fear overrides logic. Despite global evidence to the contrary, removing guns is absolutely a no-go for Americans. They see its removal as a weakness.

Instead, their leaders treat the symptoms than deal with the source: change doors at schools, increase security, or train children how to fight better. Perhaps they've just never experienced the benefit of living in a society where you don't have to worry about you or your children being shot.

The US was once a beacon of hope for the world, yet it seems stuck in the past.

Breaking narratives through context

In issue #50, I spoke about the Bitcoin whitepaper and the importance of context.

I brought up the Bitcoin whitepaper because it is another example of how a collective narrative can override intentions.

A group known as the cypherpunks helped popularize Bitcoin. The group was very anti-authoritarian, liberal in ideology, and technocratic. Despite this, it was pivotal in getting Bitcoin out to the rest of the world.

However, a lingering problem in Bitcoin has been the disappearance of its creator, Satoshi Nakamoto, and the resulting interpretations after he "left."

As a result, without the creator to provide context, the most vocal in the 'community' (e.g., Core Developers) felt that it was their duty to be the interpreters. Similar to how Catholic priests became the ordained 'interpreters' of God's word (interesting, right?).

Using remnants of Satoshi's writings, plus the whitepaper itself, a narrative formed but without proper context. A narrative of Bitcoin as "digital gold" versus "an electronic cash system." (The latter is more along the lines of paper on which currencies are printed, meaning Bitcoin was always designed to be much more than just "digital gold.")

An honest look

The above is how we see cultures get formed around false narratives. When this occurs, such cultures build on weak foundations, which eventually cave in upon themselves later. No different from romantic relationships that start with lies - the difference is the number of relationships involved.

To break away from an overarching cultural influence, you must first understand the context in which that culture sprang. Only from there can you even begin to break through.

When a group can start to look at their collective stories more honestly - sadly, usually through shared trauma (e.g., mass shootings, civil wars, genocide, etc.) - can they hope to make a change.

In the case of the US, the question will be, how many mass shootings will it take before they can look more honestly at themselves? For Bitcoin, how long will it take before people realize that what they thought was Bitcoin may be far from reality?

Both instances suffer from shared stories that typically lack context, both by those living it and those observing from afar. And that context comes from digging deeper into history, questioning underlying assumptions, and taking an honest look at any inherent biases.

So what do you think? Do you think collective narratives (culture) influence your story? Do you think they override your individual logic? Or do you think you are immune to them?