This is part of the 'Cultural Flux' series, article 1 of 3.
In this 3-part series, I will explore culture in the context of global flux both in terms of the level of change and uncertainty we face today. Furthermore, exploring what this means practically and how to cultivate the conditions for transformative emergence, where the parts add to the whole in way that is not visible to us yet. But first we must deconstruct and define culture.
What is Culture?
The word culture comes from the Latin ‘colere’ which means ‘to tend, till or cultivate.’ What do these words evoke in you? Preparing to plant, growing crops or vegetables perhaps? Whatever your associations, in this fast-paced digital world, more and more of us do not see the fruits of our labour in a physical/visceral sense. Thereby, making the need to reconnect with nature all the more important. This is true for me — someone who can easily get lost in thought and ideas and has had to learn to consciously become more embodied and grounded.
I believe reconnecting with nature is important if we are to successfully navigate and actively foster the conditions for something new to emerge. The emergence of which will likely be rooted in the lessons learnt, intersectionality of different fields and principles known to have worked in the past.
In light of this realisation, last summer we planted 35 native wildflowers seeds and three grasses at the bottom of our garden, being especially mindful of the variety of seeds that would flourish in this area— difficult to grow much because of the partial shade caused by a large overhanging tree and poor soil quality. For me this represented hope, creativity and the very act of tilling, cultivating, sowing and tending being a grounding experience. The whole process of which taught me some useful lessons that seem highly relevant here.
Imagination is our ability to conceive new ideas, concepts and images that were not previously wholly perceived in our external reality, nor present to our senses. Take my simple example of planting a wildflower area — there were many possibilities and several options we explored beforehand. The entire process was vividly imagined, conceived and then brought into reality. So too are the great feats in human progress and exploration such as sending men to the moon. Again, these are very visceral and tangible achievements but now on a cosmic level.
Similarly, Yuval Noah in his book ‘Sapiens’ describes ‘culture’ as creating and recreating imagined orders. Our ability to do so as humans gives us a unique evolutionary advantage, enabling us to cooperate effectively at scale. Over time diverse imagined realities have resulted in diverse ways of thinking, belief systems, values and behavioural norms. Just think about the stories, myths and archetypes you were told about as children and how we continue to pass these down to future generations. Yet, this is not a static process but a dynamic one.
Although conditioned from birth our beliefs and how we identify with ‘our culture’ continues to evolve and remains in constant flux. How so? Well, just consider the impact of 203 new words being added to the Oxford dictionary as part of the October 2019 update (including the Star Wars term Jedi). We shape language and in turn language shapes how we think. What fascinates me is the intersectionality between cultures, industries, ways of thinking — that’s where you can often find the growing edge — areas of our life and work we actively develop despite feeling unsure, uncomfortable, uneasy and perhaps even frightened. Another area I am personally fascinated by is how multilingual thinking shapes identity and culture. Moreover, what insights, lessons and values can we draw in this intersectional space that can help shape our current context and the need to ‘ground global flux’ so as to address the most pressing issues of our time. This impacts all of us to some extent as we borrow words from other languages and cultures such as Safari (Arabic), Guru (Sanskrit) and Cookie (Dutch).
By recognising and accepting that culture is constantly changing because as humans we are naturally driven towards exploration, evolution and growth. Culture is not something that can stay stagnant as this lack of movement causes problems both locally and increasingly at a global/planetary level. Returning to days gone by is not the answer either as those conditions no longer exist for a reason — ultimately we evolved beyond them and they no longer work for current conditions. That is not to say we need to completely disregard what came before but to ‘include and transcend’ to the next iteration, level and evolutionary cycle. We can and may regress should the conditions permit but the overarching drive is forward movement, progress and evolution.
Culture is no one thing but is made up of a myriad of elements and is increasingly interacting with many other cultures. A need is arising for an inclusive, universal and global culture to emerge, so that we can organise ourselves and cooperate at scale e.g. finding a vaccine for COVID-19. This is not only desirable but necessary if we are to successfully navigate climate change through new technologies and behaviour change, foster equitable economic, political and social norms, whilst reducing or eliminating the threat of nuclear war or conflict. This requires cooperation at a much greater level than we have seen before — a global perspective enacted locally.
We can draw reassurance and inspiration from arguably one of the greatest human achievement of the twentieth century — great strides in public health including sanitation, antibiotics and vaccinations against some of the deadliest diseases.
Back to my gardening project and the insights I drew from it. The whole process was a co-creative one; we prepared the soil, sowed the seeds and watered occasionally but it was not all down to us thankfully. We co-created with nature which wonderfully illustrates the interconnectedness and interdependence of our existence.
The right conditions were necessary for a thriving wildflower meadow to emerge. Only then when the time was right, did the seeds germinate and grow into an impressive display of beautiful flowers. The wider impact was to provide a habitat for a whole array of insects, butterflies, bees, spiders and birds. Culminating in our enjoyment of its beauty, an important facet of the human experience as demonstrated by art, music or any creative endeavour. This not only allows us to express ourselves but gives us hope and the fertile environment to imagine new realities.
Another important lesson was the journey being just as if not more important than the outcome. As who you become in the process and how you think and act differently impacts how you show up in the world. We need to show up differently, as our best and most evolved selves to brake free from our current level of thinking, to a level that resolves the problems we have created using former levels of thinking and being.
Beyond Cultural Relativism
It is incredibly useful to deconstruct ideas, theories and cultures themselves to understand and test the validity of the underlying beliefs and assumptions from different vantage points. However, it is equally important to rebuild on a stronger footing. There is almost always something useful to extract, a useful connection, insight or questions raised that can unlock a whole new way forward in a specific field or for a much wider human application. The difference being we are looking to evolve understanding and not just trash, criticise, create a sense of ‘other’ fostering ‘false separateness.’ Even worse dehumanise paving the path for immoral/inhumane action being perpetrated more easily and then justified. Making ‘the other’ wrong so we can be right is operating from ego consciousness (short-term gain, pleasure, violence, fear) and not a greater collective consciousness (unity, sustainability, human kind flourishing).
A great example that captures rebuilding and reclaiming from the past is the High Line in Manhattan, New York. This elevated park is 1.45 miles long and was redesigned on abandoned spur railroad tracks. As a ‘living system’ space it was created using a multi-disciplinary approach including ecology, urban design and landscape architecture.
Back to our garden, despite there being the potential of 35 wildflower seeds to geminate and flourish, only several did and perhaps next year other varieties may emerge depending on the conditions. This is the very process of co-creation and
emergence — you do not know what will arise exactly yet you remain committed to the process of discovery and unfoldment.
The conditions we find ourselves in today include ‘post-truth’ — appeals to emotion disconnected from facts, polarisation that shows up most vehemently in the schism between left and right, freedom of speech and cancel culture as well as identity politics. Now more than ever, there is need to make great strides towards truth-seeking, sense- making and first principles. This will provide a firm footing to move forward in a way that allows us as human beings to organise and cooperate at scale against the many threats but also opportunities looming. The disappearing standard for objective truth is highly problematic and cannot remain so if we are to not only survive but thrive sustainably as a collective whole.
The focus of this first article has been on a more macro level but this is not to diminish the importance of the individual. There is a need to take individual responsibility for what we say and do, be willing to have those courageous but necessary conversations to move the debate forward rather than remain stuck and polarised in ‘no mans land.’ Moving towards openness and a willingness to understand others requires empathy and
compassion for ourselves and others.
So rather than just being tolerant of other people’s beliefs and values we need to actively engage and find a way to ‘transcend and include’ our current and dominant psychological paradigms. From this dialogue, a way of thinking, a system or framework can emerge that can begin creating global values and solidarity around a common interest as way to organise and cooperate effectively at a global scale. This will only emerge through committed engagement, co-creation and doing the necessary work.
In summary, the work is to create the right cultural conditions for humans to flourish through the emergence of new cultural norms necessary for us to thrive. This is not a single destination but a continuous evolutionary process. In article 2, I explore how we can navigate a volatile and uncertain world using an existing framework and in article 3 what can be done more on an individual and organisational level.
If you are interested in starting conversations on how we can co-create a more transformative, cohesive and inclusive culture in the workplace and society, please send your name, contact phone number and email address to firstname.lastname@example.org
Connect with Sobia on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sobia-iqbal-pegasus-wellbeing/
About the Author
Sobia Iqbal is a leadership and management transformational coach, as well as an organisational development strategist and facilitator.