Most people don’t like change and the faster the change the more discomfort and dislike they experience. The vast majority of people don’t stray far from their culture; to put in another way, the frame of their life, worldview and mindset is set in place by cultural gravity. Gravity is the force that attracts objects to earth. Scientists have discovered that gravitation pull is not uniform on the earth. There are variations so gravity on earth is relative to position. A similar idea applies to culture.
Cultural gravity is the force of ideas, concepts, values, and attitudes that shapes, forms and attracts those who share them into a community and keeps them in orbit around the community. Only a minority of people in any community make the decision of their own free will to leave and take up residence in another culture. There are many obstacles to breaking cultural gravity orbit. You start over by learning a new language, history, social customs, taboos, and that is no easy task. And as hard as you try, at some level, you will always remain an outsider to most.
Moving to another culture also comes at a high price: you cut your day-to-day link with people from the culture you once shared. You swim inside a different fishbowl where you can see the water. If after ten years you try to return to your ‘home’ culture; you find yourself an outsider in the place you once called home. You discover that you’ve acquired a different perspective, which allows you to detect the lies and deceptions you’d previously not seen. Also you’ve lost the basis of social conversation based on local personalities of the moment, sport, gossips, TV and movie celebrities, and the spills and chills of neighbors and friends who signal such events with short hand expressions that mean nothing to you.
Expat authors are an example of those who shed their cultural gravity boots, some for a time, others for a life time, to live in locales foreign to their native culture: from Joseph Conrad, Grahame Greene, George Orwell, T.S. Eliot, Henry James, and a fair share of authors on the annual Man Booker long-list fall into this group.
I have a horse in this race as well. I’ve written twenty-four novels and most of them feature outliers treading in new cultural waters and trying to stay afloat. Taken as a whole, my novels are a long chronicle of stories and characters who, over a number of decades, have shaken loose from the gravity of their home culture. Sometimes the decision was accidental, other times involuntary, and often intentional. Inside my fictional worlds, the characters confront the consequences of leaving their native culture by stumbling through the social fabric leaving behind a trail of miscommunication, misunderstanding and disaster.
Only a few of the characters I’ve written about have undertaken a journey into another culture and emerge into a realm of greater insight and understanding. Changing cultures is a costly, risky business. There is one large upside that can also be a curse—once the cultural gravity is lessened, the first realization is the shared belief, attitudes and values were never more than social constructs and people have the freedom to choose among a number of different religions, languages, or history of events. That is a radical idea to many.
If you speak more than one language, have been educated in another culture or live in another culture from a young age, you have likely found the experience has equipped you to ride the differences with an open mind and you’ve evolved the ability to adapt. That said, there are a number of people who have lived in Thailand for more than twenty-five years who still wear their hometown gravity boots as a source of pride.
It is possible to coast to through life, ride the wave without thinking too much about the experience. Until there is a disruption and something in the culture comes under stress, breaks up, or falls apart. Disruptions are usually unexpected and come in a variety of forms. Internal cultural disruptions can be caused through large-scale immigration, increases in poverty, crime, inequality, or unemployment. Another source of disruption—and perhaps the most important—is technological change. When the methods, processes, raw materials, networked links abruptly threat the existing way of doing things, a fundamental source of change that ripples through a culture, destroying and leveling the old. From the invention of the printing press, steam engine, gunpowder, airplanes, telephones, radio, TV, and computers, cultures have changed as the underlying economic system has shifted.
Part of the role of fiction is to document the range of emotional reaction that occurs during periods of disruption. When a culture goes into a phase transition and there is a sense of excitement, uncertainty, and fear. My first novel, His Lordship’s Arsenal was a story about how the invention of the submachine gun changed not just warfare but the military class system. The Vincent Calvino series will soon be 14 volumes, and most of them are about the cultural changes in Southeast Asia over the last twenty-five years.
In Comfort Zone, Vietnam and the lifting of the American embargo became the pivotal event that caused disruptions. And in Zero Hour in Phnom Penh, the appearance of UNTAC in Cambodia as part of the transition from civil war to peace was an opportunity to examine how people reacted during this period.
In Missing In Rangoonwith the opening of Burma after half a century of isolation was to peer into a culture that had been frozen and to see what changes were coming to transfer it. In almost every one of these books, there is an old elite defending wealth captured from the fruits of an earlier technology. When a new technology threats to make the old methods and ways obsolete, tensions inside the culture arise as those who stand to lose readjust the rules and beliefs to their benefit. Literature is a portal into that tug of war between the conservative forces against the creative, innovative forces working to replace them.
In my Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma and Thailand novels I’ve explored what happens to the lives of people inside a culture once a big disruption lessens the force of the old cultural gravity. I spent time in Rangoon January 2012 researching for Missing in Rangoon. I’d been to Burma many times from 1993. This time was different. The country was opening up to the world. A political decision has been made to engage the world. In 2012, I was struck to see how many people were smiling and they looked happy as if they were already floating free from the old constraints.
Communication between cultures often in the pre-digital past was carried through the medium of books, magazines, radio and TV. Though in many cultures the availability of ‘other’ cultures was at best limited. Look at a bestseller list in the United States like the New York Times. The authors wear cultural gravity boots and this appears to the local readers who see shadows and reflections of themselves, fears, lives and dreams in the story and characters.
There are the ‘nativist’, the ‘racist’, and the ‘nationalist’ who share a common front against an open, tolerant, and diverse approach to the world of ideas and beliefs. Such people patrol the boundaries of their culture for intruders, defectors, and dissents. The old slogan: “Love it or Leave it” is stenciled on their cultural gravity boots. The predominant goal is to prevent change and preserve the past. These are technological consumers who hate paying the price that new technology brings.
Sometimes a disruption may be isolated inside one culture. Immigration is a good example of disruptions in patterns of daily life that causes anxiety, distrust, and suspicion among those who fear the presence of the ‘other’ will change their way of life. Immigrants enter a space where the locals wear cultural gravity boots manufactured by immediate family and neighbors through teachers, preachers, friends, relatives, TV, movies, radio and books. The immigrant is the ‘other’; not one of us. The belief system is a shared social construct that is assumed to be ‘real’ and not a construct that someone can choose to accept or reject. It often takes an outsider to point out the network of lies, deception and illusions. You would think that would make the locals happy. Life doesn’t work that way. Locals become hostile, defensive and angry. A drug addiction is minor compared with ability to kick the easy slogans and half-truths embedded in a social construct.
The social construct can be so ‘real’ as to lead to demonstrations and violence for those who believe in them as ‘scared’. The anxiety surrounding the wait for the International Court of Justice’s decision on grounds adjacent Preah Vihear Temple along the Cambodian-Thai border is a classic example of nationalism. A small strip of land becomes inflated with identity, purpose and meaning. It is difficult to control the emotions once they go through a phase transition inside the nuclear reactor of nationalism.
What has changed in the lifetime of my writing is the rate or velocity of change that causes disruption. In the past, there was time for people to adjust their lives to the disruptions caused by technology. Political institutions had a way to incorporate the changes into the existing culture to preserve their own power and authority and to adjust the cultural landscape to keep the casualty rate caused by change low. Those days are gone. The current rate of disruptions in computer software and hardware are bringing fundamental global changes in medicine, health, marketing, security systems, information gathering, storage, and evaluation. No individual culture is doing well to understand, communicate or absorb the rapid changes being made.
You can witness the full force of cultural gravity on a population when a national sports team wins a gold medal at the Olympics, a local beauty is crown Miss Universe, local scientists and scholars take home a Nobel Prize. National air carriers, flags, colors and uniforms are part of the cultural gravity wardrobe. Then there are the annual indexes on corruption, governance, longevity, human rights, and education to name a few, which can show the dark sole of the cultural gravity boot. To prevent a break in the gravitational cultural force the negative reports are usually buried in the back pages of a newspaper.
This will make fiction and non-fiction all the more essential as people wish to understand the source, nature and dangers of the disruptive changes and prepare themselves for the future. No longer can we rely on existing cultural institutions from political or social to address the political and economic issues with clarity, precision, and absence of bias. We will become more aware that our cognitive biases have a cultural contour. Being guide by our biases, cognitive and cultural, is like wearing blinders on a dark road, driving at night without headlights.
The old order in most cultures is reactive and seeks to control the rate of the disruptions caused by the new technology and the fast-changing social structure. That approach is less effective than in the past as the old order no longer can monopoly over communications, the products and services demanded by its citizens. It’s not just the elites who have a large stake in wealth destruction who push back, but a significant minority of ordinary citizens who form an alliance with these elites. Check the footwear. Both groups are wearing the same gravity boots!
But for others, they discover the old cultural gravity boots no longer keeps them grounded to the neighborhood. They are free-floating in a larger world. Witness the fear, the doubts, along with the heightened emotions on the political and social front. Communities are splitting into smaller units. The old beliefs and systems lack the comfort and security of earlier times. People lose faith first in their political institutions, which can’t control the scale and rate of technological disruptions, blaming politicians for events they don’t fully understand and have limited ability to influence. The attraction for the soft totalitarian regimes is taking place as a substitute for the slow, messy and inefficient democratic institutions that are less able to manage disruption as sub-communities no longer accept electoral mandates.
The role of thinkers and writers in the whirlwind of disruption is to provide context and meaning to these forces and how they are shaping modern choices about life. But writers need, in other to thrive, a democratic culture to work in and they atrophy in totalitarian ones. The political class is skillful in using in sticking to the cultural gravity talking points that avoid dealing with the hard choices ahead. No one wants to hear the old set of boots no longer fit. We have less focus, and pay less attention to difficult issues. The void is filled with hundreds of daily streams of that promise fun and thrills, from YouTube cute cat and dog videos, twerking, plates of bacon and eggs and breaking news story about celebrities. The new technology is disrupting the thinking process, too. The short entertainment is read, shared and discussed more avidly than the thought-provoking essay. As we enter a new Dark Age, it won’t seem dark. The bright colors, the seductive graphics, the flash programs mask the emptiness of the message—buy something. Laugh and everything will be better. Don’t think too much, the old bar girl piece of advice has gone viral.
Writers need to be the ones to push back against these disruptions not by becoming Luddites but by laying out the implications of what choices we have, the implications of the choice, the cost we will pay, and what this means for our relationships. We are at the beginning of a global scale restructuring of culture project. It is a scary time for many because the direction isn’t clear. No culture will remain untouched by these changes. New, resilient global communities will kick off their gravity boots and find a way not only to survive but to thrive in the new environment. Others will join them. But they will also find there is a lot of kick left in the old gravity boot brigade who won’t go quietly into the long night.
In this essay Newtonian principles have been adapted to look at the effect of culture. Newton’s theory of gravity is flawless for most everyday purpose. On a larger cosmological scale, there are problems. Next week, in an essay titled Discontinuity, I ask whether Einstein’s theories of relativity might be adapted to reveal a deeper understanding of culture and lead to an idea of “cultural relativity.”