Laws and cultural variations
A dialogue between Peter the hawk and Davina the goose. Davina is a frequent traveler who knows that knowledge and ethics are acquired with experience. Peter believes that animals and plants are equal to humans and that mutual aid is necessary.
Davina: hello Peter, how are you today?
Peter: alright, Davina, and hearing you is an added pleasure.
Davina: ha, ha, always so gallant! Instead, listen to these two stories I have chosen, one from Finland and the other from Canada. Both are about nudists.
Peter: nudists in Canada and Finland!
Davina: yes, they seem cold hardy in these northern countries or they want to soak up the sun whenever there is some. In any case, in Finland they are free to undress, but in Canada it is not possible. What do you say about that?
Peter: I can explain it by local laws, of course, but what is more interesting is to talk about the contrast between a common desire and opposing repercussions.
Davina: yes, it is even frequent that depending on where humans are, they will have the right to satisfy their desires or not even though they are the same.
Peter: it is indeed a proof that they are incapable of agreeing on anything even though they look alike. There is a common structure underlying all habits. This is because humans have identical desires. This should logically generate uniform responses but in reality, they take different forms in different places
Davina: are you talking here about the universal desire to feel free, to commune with nature, to go back to basics?
Peter: yes , that’s right, in one case, it can be expressed in public, in another, it must remain private.
Davina: it would be easier if we could understand why these customs change since it doesn’t seem logical.
Peter: most human laws are arbitrary, intended to impose power or set a standard rather than rationally responding to a specific problem. They follow cultural ideas that define an identity but they aren’t always justified. This is why they change regularly. But tell me, what were these nudists doing?
Davina: in Finland, they took a bath together to break a record; in Canada, some wanted to dance unhindered during a concert.
Peter: one could therefore think that it is a matter of numbers…
Davina: and that if the majority of people had stripped naked to dance, there would have been no problem?
Peter: well, there would have been awareness of a collective desire and the movement could have spread.
Davina: with clashes I suppose.
Peter: true. Each culture is defined as opposed to the others so there is always resistance to change since it means losing part of the previous identity.
Davina: yet we can see that humans are alike even in their differences so why don’t they see it?
Peter : because they don’t want it. They can only play on appearances to differentiate themselves so they stick to them. This is what makes our travels difficult because we never know what to expect.
Davina: hence the need to familiarize ourselves with inconsistent laws that can also change when the need arises.
Peter: yes, however they remain necessary because they frame society by giving it rules. They create a set of shared values that allow group members to recognize each other.
Davina: so that when the law changes, so does society.
Peter: voila, that’s what explains the resistance.
Davina: the humans are very complicated. If they had kept their body hair, it would have made their lives easier at least in terms of these stories.
Peter: which allow you to have fun, I think
Davina: right, it also allows us to measure our differences with them and to often feel comforted in who we are.
Can we explain cultural differences?
For Peter, they hide an underlying structure identical to all but they exist to allow differences and the emergence of particular identities.
For Davina, they are difficult to justify because they change regularly and you have to be familiar with them in order to travel. However, this allows comparison with others and the reinforcement of local beliefs.
How are cultural differences the occasion of tragedies?
Should we act according to our conscience or according to custom?
Want to think a little more? See, for example, Myth and meaning where Claude Lévi-Strauss shows how cultures and local developments are linked.
Want to contribute to these dialogues? Write your comments and questions below.
Want to know more about the tastes of Peter and Davina? Their favorite books are in the domain library.