Does the clothing make the person or the person make the clothing? While this question is typically related to dresses and women, the inquiry knows no gender. At the heart of the question is a consideration of the relationship between the created and the creator, between form and function. Clothing is not simply about covering the body, it functions dependent upon the intent of the person and the social context in which it is worn.
Follow along for a moment and we’ll get to the broader issue. In Western countries we notably wear black to funerals, brighter colors to weddings. The associations cannot be overstated, with one acknowledging an ending and the other a celebration of a type of birth or beginning. We have expectations of what to be worn at job interviews, on romantic dates, to music concerts depending on the genre. Importantly for the latter, location matters as well. Rock music played in an open stadium brings a certain dress-code, whereas the same music played in a concert hall by an orchestra will inspire a different response.
If anyone is shrugging at the significance of the impact of clothing choice, simply consider the days of High School and the social shame accompanying not wearing the ‘cool’ clothes, potential violence occurring if wearing shoes that are considered ‘must-have,’ and the time and mental anxiety accompanying what to wear for school pictures and first dances. For that matter, clothing stores have created an entire sales season out of ‘Back to School’ clothes shopping. Expand this a bit and consider wearing pastels or flowery-shirts to a funeral or ragged clothes and sandals to a job interview. Perhaps doing so was to make a statement, though it is precisely because the action is so contrary to expectations that the ‘statement’ will have any power (perhaps not great consequences though).
Culture Has Intrinsic Value
Clothing is simply one aspect of culture. Included in culture are a host of other issues that would not exist were there no human beings around to build and embody them in practice; religion, governmental systems, family structures, and social expectations at various levels. An initial focus on clothing helps us consider culture more broadly by 1) noting its intimate relationship to our humanity and 2) the impossibility of removing Value.
Any reflection on being human, collectively or individually, will inevitably involve memories associated with cultural practices. It is fair to say that to be conscious is to engage socially and one cannot engage socially without doing so through culture. Little wonder that the practices of culture have so much Value, they’re the means through which we initially inter-relate with one another.
Those building blocks for human relationships, the behavioral expectations and standards for interpersonal experience, are intimately tied to Values, even as they themselves are not such. Christianity is not a Value, nor is washing one’s hands after using the bathroom, wearing black at a funeral or democracy. What those practices support are Values; Spirituality, Cleanliness, Solidarity and Social Cohesion, respectively. We appreciate those Values and seek to support them because doing so is to align ourselves with one of the most basic of human needs: providing meaning/purpose.
Culture Has No Intrinsic Meaning
It’s impossible not to give some rationale for our behavior. When someone shrugs or declares “I don’t know,” the frustration felt is in no small part due to the bone-deep belief that a reason exists which must be found. Having a rationale for events is synonymous with ‘finding an answer’ or ‘solution.’ There’s a finality to it, despite, or even sometimes because of, the perceived ridiculousness of the story being told. The more absurd, the more the story is providing an answer regardless, i.e. the person is ‘crazy,’ ‘insane,’ ‘stupid’ or ‘evil.’ Such simple judgments pack the same punch as an involved story, they provide structure to the person’s experience.
What should be immediately apparent is the wide variation in our stories about behavior. Cultural practices are no exception. Religion may be the easiest example here, with group after group fighting, verbally and physically, over what is the ‘TRUE’ version of their particular mythology. Notice the Value doesn’t change, the need for Order/Spirituality remains constant. What the fight is over is the particular meaning to give to it. Does it drive behavior? Does it serve as a crutch? Does it provide a legitimate ground for morality?
When people of one group identify another as not being ‘TRUE,’ note that quite often the reasoning given is that the other simply doesn’t ‘understand’ properly. This focus on understanding as indicating legitimacy points us immediately back to the Value, but, and here’s the key, the Value as defined through the person criticizing. Cultural practices have no singular meaning because the story of their development for each person is as unique as each person’s genetic, familial and life histories. What’s often happening in debates of what is ‘TRUE’ religion (or any other cultural practice) are one’s own stories taking absolute ownership of a shared Value.
Cultural practices have no singular absolute meaning. They are derivatives of the human need to make meaning, not separate aspects of existence that people take on. To think of cultural practices as having inherent meaning is to divorce them from the humanity that gave them birth. Which is precisely where we all can contribute to a great deal of suffering.
Primacy of the Human
When considering a cultural practice, we can ask first what the purpose is for the person acting it out. They will provide a story that structures the meaning the behavior has for them. Before engaging with the story, a full stop needs to happen. This is to allow reflection on 1) identifying what shared Value the behavior is serving to support and 2) direct attention to how varied the other person’s personal history is from one’s own.
Identifying the shared Value can allow for an appreciation for why the person may deeply hold to the practice. Order, Social Cohesion, Family, and Cleanliness are nothing to easily dismiss, nor likely should they be. Once it is acknowledged how much weight the building of a story through a lifetime can bring to a Value, the strength of meaning/purpose becomes readily apparent.
We don’t have to agree with a particular practice, nor do we have to agree with the rationale given in support of it. However, if healthy dialogue is going to happen then we must first acknowledge that differences exist in those stories precisely because of the shared quality of being human.
Considering culture, we simply cannot lose sight of the human as a primary concern. To divorce or separate culture from the human being is to constrain humanity to a singular vision of what ‘should be.’ Such a divorce will drive the ‘war of ideas,’ a potentially fruitful dialogue exploring human expression, to simply ‘war.’