Religion

The Urge to Create Meaning

I have been reading (slowly; I'm still on chapter one) a book about the origins of modern Mexican culture. It's fresh hamburger for culture geeks like me. The author was discussing how the Mexicans had created a pantheon of gods, which they used in part to make sense of their world. 

Side note: Don't go all Marvin Harris critique on me. I'm not saying Mexicans or anyone else "invented" a cosmology in order to explain their world. Maybe they did this purposely; maybe it just happened. The point is, however it happened, it seemed to work.

If you're the average citizen of Mexico and Central America, with no formal education, no literacy, forced to work for someone else and/or pay them tribute (or die) it makes sense that you'd want a way to make sense of your life. Even just the activities we now see as part of daily geology, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, were scary and required some explanation. So, there arose a belief system that said (for instance) that there were all these gods, who didn't care that much about you and could fuck up your life if they chose to. If you placated them, they might not bother you; then again, they might anyway (this was one of the differences between native beliefs and the Christian beliefs of the invading Spaniards.) The populace dealt with changing beliefs and circumstances by inventing or promoting new gods and demoting others. (This is akin to my notion of "culture as an adaptive system" that was my Great Thought at Stanford. Whether it really was a great thought or just the result of too many beers is an ongoing question.)

All of the above would be stock anthropology fare, except for an "aha" moment I had at work soon after starting the book. I was in a meeting with one of our product partners. They had been trying for some time to reinvent themselves, and they wanted to come and explain what the new company was all about.

Our CTO and I sat down and listened as they pulled out their PowerPoint slides and started explaining how the world had changed. That's when it struck me: these people had to describe a reality in order to make sense of the actions they were now taking. Absent that explained (and, for them, hopefully convincing) point of view, their changes might not make any sense.

Thinking back over my years spent explaining product roadmaps and strategy positions, across hundreds of PowerPoint presentations (thankfully, a rare occurrence for me lately) it all made sense. To enact a new reality (for you, your country, your company) you first had to answer the question, "why?" Why do this? Why not keep doing what you've been doing? What is the rationale for change?

Having seen these slides in a new light, I started noticing how common these kinds of presentations and stories are. "Let me explain why, before I explain what."

The problem with these explanations, the problem with religious and cultural world views, is that they are but one interpretation of events. How many other interpretations are there, leading to how many different prescriptions for action? The book I was reading was all about the world view of the Conquistadores compared to that of the indigenous peoples. One set of observable events, two interpretations, two courses of action.

All of this had led me to a new way of viewing these kinds of stories. I like to ask myself not just "why" but "why this point of view?". It also made me realize that, for all our trappings of modernity, in some ways we're not very different than our pre-literate ancestors.

Culture, for the win!


We Have All Been Here Before

Department of Obscure References

The media feed after the ISIS attacks in Paris had a familiar feel to me.  People seeking answers. People seeking revenge. People seeking solutions. People feeling like their story was being overlooked.

  • What about the massacre in Beirut? Mali? Kenya?
  • Ban the refugees!
  • It's all ___'s fault!
  • More wiretaps!
  • More drone strikes!
  • Bomb Raqqa!

And on and on.

I remember, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, a similar dialogue.  It was mostly carried out via email then, but the flow was the same.  People were hurt. They were afraid. They needed to make sense of something that made no sense at all.  And I remember, as I read the back-and-forth, thinking that we needed to cut each other some slack.  Someone took the conversation too far down the patriotism road for your liking.  OK, you disagree, but have a little patience and understanding.  You don't have to agree to feel their pain.

I've spent a good part of the last few weeks in LA, where the media is obsessed with the shootings in San Bernardino.  Maybe this is because it's a hot story.  I think it's also because people are hurting.  How could this happen to us?

Overlay the silly season that is the run-up to Presidential primaries and you have a recipe for extreme "look at me" views as candidates vie for attention and media coverage.  These stories further stir the pot, as people debate the talking points on their merits, or debate whether the points have any merit at all.

Through all of this, I suggest attaching a human face to the group you want to address.  Think about your Muslim friend, your relative who works in government.  Think about families you see that are struggling to find a safe place to live.  Would you say the same things to their face?  Maybe that should be the test.

 


When Love Wins

Last week was a momentous week, especially with the Supreme Court affirming the constitutionality of same-sex marriage.  I happened to be driving past the Facebook campus on Friday, and noticed that their "like" sign had been covered in the rainbow-colored gay pride background.

Twitter no doubt went crazy (I stayed away) but when I checked in to Facebook there were scores of posts celebrating the news, and lots of people changing their profile photos to include a gay pride background.  As I said in my Facebook post, I thought this was a big day for America.

I also noticed what was missing: reaction from those who didn't favor the idea of same-sex marriage.  Some of these friends are prolific posters, so I knew it wasn't because they had nothing to say.  More likely, they were holding off.  This got me thinking that it might help to explain my position on the matter.

First off, living in the San Francisco area, we're used to "live and let live" being the dominant ethos.  It can be easy to forget that what seems normal here is far from normal in many other places.

Second, my happiness had to do with empathy for the gay and lesbian friends and co-workers I've known over the years.  Seeing someone have to avoid sharing their personal life for fear of rejection or retribution just seemed like a terrible way to live.  For me, this ruling was about being able to say, "this is who I am!"  I couldn't be happier knowing that this roadblock to living a genuine life had been removed.

I have friends who object to homosexuality on religious grounds.  I get that, and I'm not here to change their minds.  I don't think the Supreme Court ruling threatens their beliefs.  Freedom of religion is a strong value in our country.  What you choose to believe about others, as a result of your religious beliefs, is up to you.

I also think there are those that equate marriage to a religious institution and event.  It is that, but that's not the "marriage" that is in question here.  I focus on the ability to obtain a marriage certificate--a legal document from the government.  This ruling doesn't mean that churches are now going to be obligated to conduct wedding ceremonies for people living a life those churches don't believe in.  I had the opportunity to get married in a church, and the religious leaders made it clear what was required of me (and my spouse) for that to happen.  It was in essence a business transaction:  you do this for us, we do that for you.  Even the fact that I belonged to the church didn't grant me any special privileges in that regard.

Having just finished reading a book about the struggle for ensuring voting rights for black Americans, I see this ruling in that context.  This was a great victory, but the struggle to grant equal rights to those whose sexual preferences are different than my own is a struggle that continues.

I'm not into culture wars.  I don't celebrate the unhappiness of anyone who thinks this ruling is wrong.  I'm glad I have friends with diverse opinions; it makes like more interesting.  I don't expect to convince anyone to think differently about the same-sex marriage ruling after reading this.  I do hope they'll have a different understanding.