Nothing Changes Unless the Culture Changes

by Dr. John F. Gilligan

Think of culture and change as two sides of the same coin.

We can neither endure our vices, nor their remedies.
Titus Livy, Roman historian, circa 25 BC
Have we, too, arrived at a time when we can neither endure our excesses nor their cures? So wrote Titus Livy on the eve of the implosion of the Roman republic. Livy’s statement cleverly embraces two inextricable concepts: culture and change. Think of them as two sides of the same coin, for you can’t flip one without the other. More importantly, he describes the dynamics of culture without any recourse to abstract definitions. Culture may be hard to define, but you know it when you see it.

How would Livy critique today’s vices and their unbearable remedies? Perhaps like this: “We are in debt, debt, debt and more debt. It pervades the nation’s capital, states, cities and households across the land. What needs to be restrained is no longer restrainable.”

Livy would proceed to provide an explanation for such excess. He actually did this in his History of Rome. Here’s a synopsis: “It was the character of the people that built the republic and brought to it success and fame. But slowly and incrementally, discipline was slackened and habits deteriorated. And then they lapsed more and more. Finally, the collapse came.” Is there any wisdom here? Is there anything we can learn from another human civilization that went awry?

But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?
James Madison, The Federalist #51, 1788
The insight here is that our problem is more fundamental than the national debt, the deficit and the $3 trillion that China holds and from whom we must borrow to finance the American lifestyle. What we have here are the symptoms of a deeper malady.

The fundamental problem is cultural. And this refers to the typical patterns of beliefs, attitudes, feelings and habits of a people. As character speaks to the individual, culture speaks to the character of the American people. So unless the culture changes, nothing changes.

Our economic malaise can be easily described mathematically: a national debt of $14.25 trillion and counting, an annual deficit of $1.5 trillion, and the necessity of having to borrow 40 cents on every dollar that the government spends. These are the crippling symptoms of cultural degeneration.

Culture being the root of the problem defies mathematical expression. And in a numbers-driven world, this tends to diminish its importance, power and relevance. Yet the cultural environment must be nourished and protected as much as the physical. If the physical becomes toxic, we die. If the culture becomes toxic, human life becomes Hobbesian—“solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Unfortunately, it seems that neither quantitative nor qualitative warnings are having much effect. How come?

We write our own destiny, we become what we do.
Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, 1898-2003
We’ve gotten used to the way things are. It’s called habituation, and it’s a remarkable feature of our nature. Yet it’s a two-edged sword. Humans can get used to doing almost anything—even the worst of things. Many habits are thoughtlessly acquired, some good, some bad; and some are deadly in the long run, if not in the short run. Yet through corrective action, bad habits such as the present culture of excess can be transformed. But this takes awareness, civil discourse and work.

On the other hand, good habits can be developed, but they atrophy without vigilance and effort. As Livy pointed out, this loss is usually a slow and incremental process that’s rarely noticed until it’s too late.

Underlying all this are the centrifugal forces of human desires within a democratic society. And unless they are kept in order, chaos ensues. Madison advocated for the U.S. Constitution as a means for doing just this, pointing out that, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” But he also knew that this would fail without a modicum of virtue among the citizenry. There had to be some right habits shared by enough people to keep the nation on track.

And that’s a culture of self-restraint, which finds expression in the habits of civility, politeness, manners, tolerance, cooperation and living within our means. It’s the only way of keeping the lesser angels of our nature in check. Self-restraint remains the single virtue upon which American civilization and everything in it hinges. But having the right habits today is no guarantee that they will exist tomorrow. Like physical fitness, if neglected, a culture breaks down, just like the body.

All is flux, nothing stays still.
Heraclitus, 540 BC

In a technologically driven world, Heraclitus’ view that nothing stays the same seems right. There is slow and incremental change that’s rarely observed. Take the aging of the baby boomers. Although we don’t immediately see it, it’s well known that this demographic change will have serious repercussions for Social Security and Medicare. Whether forethought will prevail is another matter.

The other kind of change is sudden, unexpected, unplanned, felt immediately and often devastating. It can range from technological innovations that destroy jobs almost overnight to tornados and floods that destroy homes and lives. Change can bring out the best and worst in a people, but it all depends upon the culture. And this is where the human factor enters. It’s the one permanent variable that Heraclitus failed to take into account.

The sudden tragedies of Hurricane Katrina and the recent tsunami in Japan reveal two cultures at work. The world witnessed the chaos, violence and looting in New Orleans. It also observed the opposite in Japan: civility, people ordering themselves, coordinating and cooperating with one another. None of this happened magically. A healthy culture (one with the right habits) counts when there’s a family, community, organizational or national crisis. Think of it as a group’s immune system or resiliency potential.

Culture has a two-fold function: facilitating the development of our humanness and protecting it. It does this by inculcating the habits of restraint and reflection. Without them, there can be no humanness or community worth living in.

Know thyself; Nothing in excess.
Temple of Apollo, Delphi, circa 650 BC

Inscribed upon the walls of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi were Western civilization’s most ancient admonitions: Know thyself and Nothing in excess. The Greeks had learned early on that thoughtlessness and impulse breed disaster.

The human factor pervades every aspect of life; it’s the wild card that trumps everything. But the underlying, yet unarticulated, belief of our frenetic, unreflective and mechanistic-driven world is that human nature is irrelevant.

The assumption is that with the right organizational structures, proper internal controls, better policies and more laws, it can be virtually eliminated. Embedded in that assumption is the belief that effectively designed fail-safe social, political and economic systems can make moral concerns about personal responsibility, accountability and virtue irrelevant.

The inevitable outcome is an imperial democracy in which everything is driven from the top down. Representatives of the people are transformed into the people’s caretakers. The need for restraint is replaced by an eagerness to satisfy infinite and unyielding demands. And a government of the people, by the people and for the people dies a slow death.

In contrast, a liberal democracy is sustained not by presidents, governors, mayors, representatives and councils, but by all the anonymous people they represent. In the end, it is We, the people who form or fail to form a more perfect union.

Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations of Democracy in America in 1835 are as relevant today as they were then. He greatly admired our democracy, but perceived a weakness in its practice. American democracy had fostered a hustling, bustling and free-wheeling world in which people could improve themselves and get ahead. But while Americans were enjoying and benefiting from the fruits of their freedom, he noticed that the tree bearing the fruit received little of their attention and cultivation. Tocqueville feared that such neglect would foster a disengaged citizenry. The goose that laid the golden egg would be slowly starved to death. The end result would be enfeeblement, if not the corruption of democracy itself.

The point here is that culture, the habits of a people, matter. Our very survival depends upon it. So it behooves us to reflect upon what we are doing, take corrective action and exercise eternal vigilance and discipline over ourselves. A failure to do so will be fatal. iBi