I’ve been thinking a lot lately about sociology.  Specifically, the extent to which society and culture impacts who we are.  I’ve been wondering about it in the context of “where do I begin and where does society end?”  What I mean by this is where do I—I, Nathan Safran the individual with definite ideas of right and wrong, of morality and ethics, where do I, with my own independent views on things begin and where does society’s forming these opinions and points of view for me end?

Cognitive dissonance has us reflexively insisting that “I am the master of my domain—no one tells me what to think”.  The truth might be quite a bit more complex.

There have been several documented instances of what sociologists call “uncontacted tribes”, tribes in remote parts of the world such as New Guineau, the Brazilian rain forests and parts of India, that have had no contact with the outside world prior to their discovery.  These discoveries are of particular interest to sociologists because it gives them an opportunity to study how humans develop when not influenced by modern societies norms and cultures.


In many cases their findings were that the tribes views on many things that we would have thought to be absolutes for all people were entirely different.  For example, for many, their views on nakedness were very different from the western worlds.  Many of the tribes’ women walked around without a shirt.  That behavior was perfectly normal for them, in fact, their view was that our take on nakedness is strange.   Clearly one’s culture is profoundly impactful on one’s views and beliefs, and it likely extends deep into our points of view, opinions and norms to a degree that might make us more than slightly uncomfortable.

So What?

Why does any of this matter?  Because knowing where I begin and where society ends seems like a fairly critical part of any self-identification process.  What do I really stand for?  Where am I immovable no matter how many others in the room might take an opposite position?

It may sound extreme, but what am I willing to die for?

A man who hasn’t found something he is willing to die for is not fit to live.

-Martin Luther King

Having answers to these questions—real answers that I am sure about—requires having a real sense of where I may have accepted society’s norms and values by default.  Stumbling across an area where I do that thing ‘because that’s the way it’s always been done’—in other words, an area of my life that has not truly been vetted and questioned and I do it that particular way because I’ve never really thought about–is a dead giveaway that I have allowed society to decide in regards to that specific thing.

Questioning for Our Children

But, there’s another aspect too.

Sometimes, for varied and often complicated reasons, we are willing to do things—hard things–things like question the very assumptions on which many of our key mental constructs lie—we are willing to do hard things for our children that we would not do for ourselves.  If society and our parents have indeed passed on norms and values to us, we can be sure we are passing them on to our children whether we have explored them or not.

The question we must ask ourselves is “If society really does have an enormous impact on my beliefs and norms, to what extent am I willing to allow society to dictate norms for my children?  And, that may just be enough of a motivator for us to really explore our accepted norms and beliefs with a willingness to question literally everything.

I don’t profess to have the user manual for exposing deeply seated beliefs.  What I’ve found works for me is to always be asking “where did that come from?” closely followed with “do I really agree with that?” Perhaps more often than not I do not end up getting to the root cause.  But I am hopeful that the times that I do and make adjustments to my point of view based on real thorough exploration rather than the default value add up to positive change for both me and my children.

No matter my success rate I’ve got to keep on trying.  Because there may just be more at stake than I am willing to admit.


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