Killing Sacred Cows

Why Sometimes ‘Cultures’ Must Change or Die so That We Don’t Have To

Some metaphorical cows have got to go...

Some metaphorical cows have got to go…

My post today is about a more liberating definition of culture. It’s quite thorough and it will probably take you about ten minutes to read. In the wake of recent events though, I think it’s something different that might shed new perspective on problems that are with us now more than ever in probably the most confusing time to be alive: the 21st Century.

Culture is a vague word trotted out in defence of and attacks upon groups of people as if they were part of an unofficial club with no clear defining criteria for membership.

On Friday night some people in Paris executed others that they considered ‘Infidels’. Many people went to bed and woke up on Saturday, angry at ‘Muslims’.

People could say that I was ‘White’, ‘Male’, ‘Straight’, ‘Middle-class’, ‘Atheist’ and ‘British’ as if putting me in those boxes made me part of an organisation that had regular meetings every Tuesday.

Yet as I’m about to explain, all those ‘Cultural’ definitions do is to make it easier for other people to avoid investing effort into special thinking when they interact with me. I, like everyone else am guilty of prejudice too, and my purpose is not really to criticise the mental shortcuts people use to get by in an urbanised world where they bump into hundreds of strangers on a daily basis.

Instead, what I’m talking about is becoming conscious of what our ‘Cultural identities’ are really built from and why the distinctions matter.

The Definition

I’d suggest that ‘Culture’ is built from:

  • The things we believe
  • The things we value
  • and the habits of our behaviour and choices

We are born a certain way and raised a certain way, but once we become adults, most of us have the mental capacity to reflect on what we believe, what we value and what we do on a regular basis and alter these things based on the evidence available if we choose to do so.

Culture, in other words, is not fixed. And that is important.

Below are some examples (of many more that I could choose) to walk you through why I think that matters.


White British. That’s the box I tick on the form like about 85% of the rest of the British public. But here’s the thing: race in the definitive, natural, categorising way we represent it in surveys doesn’t really exist. Somewhere in my family tree, before a certain point, everyone’s skin was black. That’s a clear conclusion of all the evidence available about genetics, evolution and heredity. My ancestors were from Africa where the first Homo Sapiens and their ancestors had more pigment in their skin as an evolutionary adaptation to the sun. Since then, Homo Sapiens have interbred with so many combinations of different genetic facial features, skin pigments, eye shapes and sizes, heights and body shapes to the point where there are no pedigree people, just mongrels.

These are facts. They don’t make the obvious differences in the way different-looking people get grouped together and treated go away, but they are still facts.

Gender and Sexuality

Gender is a more complicated division between what is cultural (artificial) and what are fixed or weighted biological and neuro-chemical differences.

“Men are like this. Women are like that.”

Clearly there’s so much overlap that these kinds of generalisations muddy the water about where real and imagined differences lie. Individuals are all slightly different from one another but genetically, I have far more in common with every other man on the planet than I do with any woman.

Sexuality, I suspect, based on experience and the limited science I have read, appears to be something you are born with and leaves you anywhere in the spectrum of possible sexual persuasions. Cultures; systems of beliefs, values, norms and habits, have varying degrees of acceptance for those outside the tidy notion of man-woman-baby-making, but natural selection in the billions of years it has been going on has not made differences in sexuality go away. They are a fact, and culture is a human decision, consciously or unconsciously, to respond to a set of facts in a particular way.

The sense of confusion that stems from trying to wrap your head around the idea of being ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’, ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ is really about wanting a dividing line and to be on the ‘right’ side of it. But while the social and sex lives of people can be hugely affected by whether other people consider them to be inside the safe protective shield of preferential treatment and prejudice, nature doesn’t give a shit.

Nature is often random, complex and diverse. How you deal with that is not a fact, it’s a chosen response to a fact.


Religions are the oldest cultures that survive relatively intact. They have survived by being willing to adapt and paradoxically by refusing to change over long periods of time.

Ultimately though, they boil down to a set of rules, laws, habits and beliefs that have been effective over many centuries and faithfully passed down from generation to generation. In that sense they are no different to other cultures and traditions apart from one important distinction: that one of the rules of being a member of a religion is that it’s against the rules to try to question or change the rules.

But what if your religion is wrong? What if the rules weren’t designed by a perfect being but by a man or group of men perhaps using wisdom and common sense to try and put people on the right track?

The freedom to pick and choose what works for you seems great and that’s how most cultures work, but religion doesn’t allow it. If the world in which you live changes then so too must the best way of living in it. How could a non-magical view on the best way of life possibly account for that if it stays the same for thousands of years? Answers on a postcard.


Culture is a real thing. So too are it’s effects. But the illusion that has been exposed by living in a world and a society where we are free to question our values, beliefs and habits, and where we have instant and overlapping access to influences from every culture still in existence, as well as all the ones resigned to history, has hugely profound ramifications.

The lie is that any culture has permanence; that putting things in a neat, tidy little box is what nature does and not just what human beings do and have done for hundreds of thousands of years to make themselves feel safe.

While using boxes is sometimes useful, its important to remember the difference between the ones that are defined by human beings and the ones defined by physics and by nature.

The Punchline

You are not a set of labels. If you can live with that then perhaps that’s the first step towards learning to live with everyone else, even and especially when they’re different from you. But the point I’m trying to make is more important than that.

If you are proud of your culture and you gain strength from it then in Britain we almost universally assume that to be a good thing. In the west our liberality often currently extends that respect to the point where we give sacred, unquestioning reverence to someone’s beliefs, values and habits simply because lots of people share them and they’ve been around a long time as an organised way of living life.

Here’s the thing though: your culture is just a set of strategies to live a good, happy life. As such, it should be open to the same rational scrutiny and questioning as all other strategies, by you and everyone else.

If someone thinks smoking is part of ‘the good life’ then within strict limits we live in a society that allows them to carry on doing so. As long as they aren’t imposing it’s harmful effects on other people then its allowed; that’s how liberalism works. Smoking is banned in public places, in front of children and is heavily taxed. We do this because it’s scientifically proven that it’s effects are bad for your physical health and expensive to the health service. Smoker or not, we abide in this country by the rationale that this aspect of someone’s ‘Culture’ is open to criticism or censorship at the point at which it can be proven to harm others.

Now imagine we applied that equally to all other beliefs, values and habits.

  • Some aspects of organised religion would get torn to pieces under this logic
  • Homeopathy wouldn’t be available on the Health Service
  • Individuals would be judged based on the evidence-driven rationale of what they did rather than the ‘group’ they belonged to
  • Mainstream media would be officially fact-checked (or at least held to account on the claims it makes) by an independent body
  • Schools would teach logical questioning and reasoning (or philosophy as some people call it) at the same time as teaching kids to read and write

If this looks familiar, then it should; its called secularism.

And arguably the most secular country on the planet is France.

And if you’re wondering what the number one threat to any ‘Culture’ that doesn’t want to be held to reasonable account is, then that’s where you’d start.

The truth is that even ‘organised religions’ aren’t organised. There are as many subtly different religions as there are people who follow them. But if you aren’t allowed to criticise any aspect of a systematic set of beliefs, values or habits then you’ll never see it for what it truly is: an experiment in living a good life, one that must be held to account by the same logical and physical limitations as everything else if it’s to yield the best results.

There should be no “safe space” for fanaticism of any kind, even when the result is widespread offence. But in the context of the definition of ‘Culture’ that I’ve just outlined, unless you have a rational case for how it does no harm, then being ‘offended’ just means that you don’t like having your way of life mocked or criticised. Sometimes that’s impolite, but it’s also non-violent and, quite often, very necessary.

Photo Credit: PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE


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