How Do You Turn a Culture

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It has been widely observed that the only real way to achieve change on various issues which straddle the moral-legal-cultural arenas is by “changing the culture”.  Drawing from the past: although segregation was theoretically made illegal fairly early on in the civil rights movement, it was not until the cultural consensus swung heavily against segregation that it really started to vanish in practice.  Similarly, if dueling were suddenly made legal in the modern US, I rather doubt it would suddenly become frequent in social sets that are not already known for shooting each other — we have reached a cultural consensus that swords or pistols at first light are not an acceptable means of settling arguments.

Yet how does one change the cultural consensus on an issue such as abortion, the nature of marriage, etc.?

Moral conservatives are often accused of “only caring about political means” when it comes to dealing with the great moral controversies of the day. And yet the advantage of advocating change within the political arena is that it’s clear how one does it. How does one work to change the culture as regards to the acceptability of abortion? Or the morality of gay marriage? Or any of the other pressing questions which provide fodder for the “culture wars”.

The conservative in me wants to say that cultural change is always slow and organic — that one cannot form a movement and change the culture. By that model, cultural change would best be achieved through living one’s life as one believes one ought, rearing children with the same beliefs, working with like-minded people to build communities which share and reinforce these values, etc.

And yet historically, one can see a number of examples of sea changes in cultural consensus which clearly happened much more quickly than that. Although the “sexual revolution” of the 60s and 70s clearly had antecedants in the 20s through the 50s, it cannot be denied that in a period of fifteen years or so the cultural consensus on a number of behaviors surrounding marriage, contraception and sexuality changed very, very quickly.

During roughly the same period, the cultural consensus surrounding issue of race changed — again very rapidly.

The movements leading up to the constellation of political and cultural issues falling under the banner of “women’s rights” and the abolitionist movement both took rather longer to come about, with each having a clear track record of at least fifty years before achieving any notable successes. However in both cases there was clearly more going on here than simply people living out their beliefs and passing them down within their own sub-cultures. There was in each case a very active advocacy movement.

I may or may not have any ideas here, but before attempting to go further (and because time is pressing at the moment) I’d like to open it up wide:

What do you think are the most important means of “changing the culture” on the “culture war” issues?

More to explorer

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  1. 1) Start locally. Teach your children well. They may not end up agreeing with you (as my sister disagrees with my parents quite a bit on issues of sexuality and culture), but one of the biggest reasons for falling into the trap of the secular culture is not having a firm grasp on why particular things are wrong.

    2) Don’t alienate people who have different views. Accept them as people, and find ways to converse with them. I have a few friends that are quite liberal minded about sexuality, and it has been a joy to be able to talk with them, even knowing we both agree. The best we can really hope for is set the message out there. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

    3) Participate in social gatherings in the church. Maybe even try to start one of your own. It helps to keep the faithful faithful.

    4) Try to discuss with people the notion of: “It’s not how much I can get away with, but how good I can be.” This message can be applied anywhere from speeding, to downloading music (illegally) from the internet, to sexuality, and so on. The first part, the “how much can I get away with” is concupiscence talking. Try to stress that the slippery slope is, indeed, slippery. The second part, “how good can I be” is just practical. It means: not paying speeding tickets, more on car insurance, or any medical bills from accidents. It means: not having to hide anything from scrutiny. It certainly means: I don’t have to worry that she’ll come knocking on my family’s door with evidence of our indiscretion.

    5) Pray. Always always always always pray. God still works miracles in the hearts of men.

  2. After having one too many pre-election Internet conversations with women who said they were Catholic and pro-choice (and voted for Guess Who), I thought a lot about this. With my wife and I not being able to add to our already ample brood, the 2 thoughts converged. If I adopted (and snatched that baby away from a pro-choice couple) I could add to the pro-life ranks. If a lot of Catholics did this we could change the culture. Catholics own the life issue and they are also the most generous when it comes to family size. If we could only be more generous and giving when it comes to adoptions and open our homes to those who are genetically not our own (not easy) , we could supply the pro-life cause a net benefit. I have yet to put my money where my mouth is but such are my thoughts as of late.

  3. “What do you think are the most important means of “changing the culture” on the “culture war” issues?”

    I think Ryan covers most of the bases. For a variety of different reasons, the U.S. has never been a particularly Catholic culture; Catholicism has always cut against the individualist ethos that undergirds many of the culture war debates. The best way that we can work for change is to try to ensure that we are well-formed in and committed to our Faith. Social change is often instigated by dedicated communities of individuals or sub-cultures. We should work to form sub-cultures and communities which challenge and invite the broader community.

    At the same time, the success of our efforts is ultimately out of our control. Not many observers foresaw that just over fifty years after Brown v. Board of education we would be electing our first African-American President, but that the institution of marriage would be floundering. Cultural change is unpredictable, but we should nevertheless be prepared to take advantage of all available opportunities to protect the dignity of human life.

  4. While I basically agree with the point that the best thing we can do is grow a healthy and self-reproducting sub-culture which passes on and lives out our beliefs — it strikes me that many people would find that answer overly complacant.

    “We’re suffering unprescidented slaughter of our most vulnerable, and the deconstruction of basic cultural institutions — and all you want to do is ignore it and raise our families?” might go the objection, strongly put.

    Maybe one of the basic illusions of a mass society is that if we’re not doing something that will somehow move our entire nation of 300 million people, we’re not doing anything.

    Still, I think the basic hunger is for answers on how to move the whole ship of state.

  5. “Still, I think the basic hunger is for answers on how to move the whole ship of state.”

    I am sympathetic to the complaint, but I think it is borne of impatience and a particular type of laziness (not from you). It is hard work to build sub-cultures, to engage in dialogue, to patiently explain errors and distortions of your position. It is hard and discouraging work to support very flawed candidates in the hope (it’s not just for Obama supporters) that some progress will be made.

    A friend of mine just spent eight years in the Bush administration working to push forward the pro-life agenda in various ways with some modest success and many failures, and now a new administration will come in and undo most of what he’s worked to do. It would be nice if there was an easy solution that would make these difficulties go away, but I don’t think there is.

  6. I have long been an advocate of the points outlined above by Ryan Harkins.

    It struck me some years ago that using the tactics of Leftist agit-prop to engender a political/legal solution was to put too much faith in the powers of this world. Powers that, I don’t have to remind anyone here, are controlled by the Enemy.

  7. “Maybe one of the basic illusions of a mass society is that if we’re not doing something that will somehow move our entire nation of 300 million people, we’re not doing anything.”

    I think this is right, and we should recognize it can be a benefit as well: there are quite a few people people anxious to influence all 300 million of us who I am quite glad have very limited influence.

  8. I agree with Ryan and John… we need to be patient and recognize that all we can do is, well, all we can do. I think it’s not only more authentically Catholic but more authentically conservative to “go local” and look to what kind of impact we can have in our parishes, neighborhoods, school districts, etc. It certainly isn’t easy, and its fruits aren’t nearly as quickly or readily apparent as are those of political/legal action, but — by and large — they are longer-lasting.

    Concretly, how do we do this? DC, I recall a comment you made about helping your local SVdP chapter, which was in turn helping people pay their utilities, mortgages, etc…. I think we need to do things like this: work on building up deep and abiding parish communities that intentionally strive to engage at every level and in every sector of local society & culture. I happen to think that small faith sharing communities (think “base communities” out of Latin American, minus the off-target liberation theology) which have service & missionary components are one great way to go… we’ve got Advent coming up… maybe we can propose something like this in our parishes.


  9. While I basically agree with the point that the best thing we can do is grow a healthy and self-reproducting sub-culture which passes on and lives out our beliefs — it strikes me that many people would find that answer overly complacant.

    Well, my points are certainly a place to start and not comprehensive by any means. And it is certainly important that we realize that we can always do more. The problem, though, is that we can’t ignore these seemingly smaller points. These are fundamental and have to come first.

    I know for myself that there’s a danger in wanting to focus on shifting the prevailing opinion of the whole nation. There’s a pride issue (or more specifically, an ego issue). If I can’t make a huge impact, why bother? Patience is a key when fighting this culture war, but we also need to be humble. We’re striving against a force, a predilection, that has been in place since the Fall and has persevered through the rise and fall of nation, through endless philosophers, theologians, and prophets, through the come of Christ Himself and the foundation of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church which is guided by the Holy Spirit. I’m not saying that we’re fighting a losing battle, or that we can’t make any gains, but it is important to keep in mind the magnitude of what we’re fighting against.

    I find it especially humbling to read about the history of Israel, in how, generation after generation the Jews rebelled against God, and how generation after generation God sent prophets to warn and invasion, plagues, and other disasters to chastise them. To our modern perspective, it is easy to roll our eyes at the foolishness of God’s chosen people, but we face the same dilemmas today. The sexual revolution is nothing new. It is concupiscence finding a toehold once again. The greediness of the wealthy, the flaunting of established tradition, the embracing of foreign and pagan religions–it has all been around before and will return in the future.

    In some respect, the Jews were fortunate, because they had God’s wrath dropping on them generation after generation, twitching them back onto the straight and narrow. For the most part, it seems we merely get to reap what we have sown.

    This is why no one should consider the small points of catechizing our children and evangelizing our fellow Catholics as complacency in the larger issue. First, it they are things we can do, and second, they are things we must do. Third, there is a real danger in wanting to focus only on the larger issue–the widespread cultural decay we’re all very aware of–because there is the desire to have one, quick fix that sets everything aright so that we can then get back to our humdrum lives.

  10. Fair point, Darwin. Sloppy wording on my part. Anyhow, what I vaguely have in mind in speaking of a “national debate” is making use of modern media technology to broadcast actual debates, and I mean actual debates, among leaders and well-known personalities of movements defending or advancing cultural agendas. I imagine the best defenders of a viewpoint sitting down with the best defenders of alternative viewpoints for televised debates. If nothing else, it might expose people to arguments they haven’t heard before.

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