There is a theory in Sociology that states that all cultural growth comes out of a deep human desire to smooth over contradictions.
Money became a global force because it smoothed over the contradictions in culture caused by the barter system – Trading with your neighbour is a simple back and forth of ‘I want this, you want that’, but how do I trade a goat in China with tomatoes in Mexico? As the system grew and became more complicated we had to smooth over the complex contradictions inherent in the system – so we invented money.
Money is now a universally dominant system of value, it has successfully spread everywhere, and shows no sign of going anywhere.
The same is true of religion, and ideas about sex.
We had to control the contradiction between the desire for sexual pleasure and the desire not to have a baby, in a rapidly growing state that was getting harder and harder to manage. So, first we invented religious ideas about the nature of sex, that allowed us to manage this contradiction, by telling ourselves ‘God wants us to be married’, and to prepare to raise a child together before sex is acceptable, in order to reach those imagined ‘pearly gates’.
(Side note: Imagine going from a small hunter-gatherer tribe who all knew each other, to a larger tribe with more sexual opportunity – In a world before Jeremy Kyle’s DNA specials, working out who the father was must have been a huge source of social conflict, which needed to be managed.)
Then came scientific arguments that revealed deep contradictions in these religious arguments, and offered an alternative – birth control, which smoothed over that tension and allowed sex to be for pleasure, and procreation, under human control. But that sprung another issue – If our cultural argument for not allowing homosexuals to do it in the butt, was that it was not part of ‘god’s plan’ of procreation, it, too, was ‘unnatural’ and couldn’t possibly be allowed.
So, a new cultural contradiction was invented with the easing of another, and growth continued. Today, we enjoy an array of sexual positions, devices and forms of media not even dreamed of by our ancestors. The easing of contradiction drives growth.
One of the more humorous observations around this is in how cultures differ based on age – America’s is a much younger society than the British one, and so, it could be argued is in a ‘younger phase’.
This, some say, explains why the US has an obsession with chanting at political rallies, observing gossip and infighting on shows like Maury and screaming about religious differences in the media, on a more dramatic scale than seen in Brit media.
They, the theory goes, are a younger culture, and therefore have many more contradiction points.
Like a teenager discovering himself, America is in conflict about who he is, and needs to go through this ‘self-discovery phase’ of angst and, as time goes on, they will smooth over logical contradictions in their culture more and more.
This smoothing is what some observers have argued has occurred in Britain. We, as the old rulers of the world’s largest empire, have been there, seen it, and done it all. Britain is the old wise, grandmother in the corner – She is calm. Her life experience taught her that life is but a ride, and we should simply relax, have a laugh and then just die.
This is what wisdom and experience ultimately teaches us all. That life is complex and different people have different views and, more cynically, ‘nothing’s going to change that’, so stop fighting. Just go with it.
This argument has also been used to explain why Americans are currently more innovative and entrepreneurial than Brits. They still have that fighting spirit that comes from a culture so young and contradictory, so divided, it must spring forwards towards new solutions until it can finally quench the thirst for unity of ideas, avoidance of contradictions and ultimately, calm.
This, then, is the price of cultural wisdom – If we need contradiction to strive, then it’s an important driver in growth and innovation.
Britain has seen a revival of this kind of grand cultural fighting very recently over the Brexit vote. It is the most contradicted I have ever seen this country in my lifetime.
But, if, as wars have led to great periods of innovation and growth in the years after, this, too has caused a great internal conflict inside our society, our desire to smooth over these conflicts could spell a new and exciting era of growth and creativity in British society. (Too optimistic?)
This, then, is the great paradox of the human experience – The wiser and more unified we get with this shit show we call life, the closer we veer toward our fateful end. Ultimately, then, it is not being all-knowing, all unified and all-smoothed out that drive our growth, but the very pain, conflict and hypocrisy that can make life so difficult to enjoy.