Does a fish know it’s in the water? Or, How has the American media culture machine contributed to our woes?
Every day we swim through a sea of cultures: Among them are family culture, religious culture, regional culture, and organizational culture. But the pervasive culture that dominates and permeates them all is the American culture.
Culture in this context is defined as:
the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group [m-w.com]
Cultures are usually geographically specific, as customs are shaped by land, history, distances, available materials, and what grows in a specific region.
Up until about a hundred years ago, culture was passed down from generation to generation through customs, rituals, group norms and behaviors. Cultural forms — including food preparation, music, dance and theater — were created and shared for the purpose of community bonding and meaning-making, all which contribute to a tribe’s survival.
Today, people participate less in the acts of culture and meaning-making such as cooking, storytelling, creating art and theater, gathering and sharing music and song. Without our personal involvement and participation in those activities, we turn to media for diversion.
With our attention rapt by moving images and prepackaged stories, several fundamental qualities of our culture have been reshaped through media.
Culture today is largely generated, produced and distributed globally by a handful of media giants, and fueled by the advertising budgets of consumer good companies.
Foremost, there’s the culture of convenience. These consumer goods companies, through their billion dollar advertising budgets, have fundamentally changed the cultural values of participation and process to that of convenience. The value and culture of convenience is antithetical to the meaning-making inherent in the more direct forms of cultural creation, and has the side effects of chronic disease, polluted air and water, debased lands, and massive amounts of garbage. So. Much. Garbage. In fact, our culture of convenience generates so much garbage that it is a health hazard to humans, animals and plants alike.
These consumer goods companies, through their billion dollar advertising budgets, have fundamentally changed the cultural values of participation and process to that of convenience.
This culture of convenience has clearly been detrimental to human and planetary health. And there are other cultural norms have we inadvertently adopted by virtue of their repetition in the media, which have equally dire consequences.
Then there is the culture of fear. The incessant reporting of “if it bleeds it leads” news reports, particularly when race is noted in the crime, has created a culture of fear around people of color. The massive amounts of visual information that we take-in largely bypasses our critical faculties, and goes right to our emotional centers, creating unacknowledged biases that then shape our behavior. Adopting the culture of fear as the norm prevents us from addressing the systemic racism that pervades our institutions.
And, there is the culture of achievement and power, which go together. When we live in a culture that prizes achievement over kindness, we are always fighting for our value. If we do not achieve — at an internally or externally imposed level — then we do not experience ourselves as worthy or lovable. When we do not feel loved and accepted, by ourselves or others, we exert power over others to claim a sense of worthiness.
These invisible elements of culture must be acknowledged and addressed if we are to grow into an inclusive, healthy and thriving global community.
Media publishing by individuals, including blogs, videos, websites is a way of reclaiming culture and community: it allows like-minded people to find and support each other. But it also entrenches us in our limited viewpoint. The use of the internet is largely tribal — people tend to frequent the same sources of information and entertainment, and Google caters to your preferred perspective. It has further fractured our sense of collective culture and values.
There is plenty of room in the ocean for all the different kinds of fish. But is the water poisoning us or nurturing us?
We need to examine the water: our institutions (including political, media and economic), our social structures and laws to see how they deliberately or inadvertently cripple our most precious asset, the glorious mosaic of people who are sharing the earth at this time.
And we all need to enlivening the values of kindness, creativity and shared purpose in ourselves so that we can reclaim the water we are all swimming in.
About the author
Dr. Andrea Grayson is a communications consultant specializing in behavior change and teaches in the Masters of Public Health program in the Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont. She is the creator of the online course Breaking Free from Sugar, which includes everything she learned quitting a life-long carb addiction, and addresses the physiological, emotional and habitual aspects of sugar dependency.