Besetting sins of our culture

A few weeks ago I was at a Bible study. The subject of our discussion was a book titled “The Overload Syndrome: Learning to live within your limits“. It’s essentially a critique of the Christian assumption of the American cultural obsession with achievement.

One of the mindsets that is most difficult to avoid on the East Coast is the mentality that busyness is a virtue. It goes something like this: When I am working, I am doing good for the world and ultimately for myself, thus if I work more, I am doing more good. So, high productivity is equated with being good. You are a good and worthwhile person if you can maintain a consistent high output. So, if you are busy you are clearly making a difference thus your busyness is looked upon as a virtue.

So, in the culture, being productive is a virtue and the sacrifices one makes to maintain that lifestyle are seen as necessary and admirable: Living on four hours of sleep, jetting all over the country, taking business meetings over meals, all of these are seen as necessary losses for the greater cause of doing more.

This attitude is clearly seen in Christian ministers and church volunteers who shoulder massive burdens because it is a. expected of them and b. they desire to accomplish the task. They might feel guilty for being ‘lazy’ and leaving the tasks of Jesus unfinished.

As we discussed this American cultural phenomenon I became aware that, as a British person, I was not familiar with the exhausting pressure the people I was speaking to were experiencing.

That’s because this incessant need to achieve to have self-worth is not the besetting sin of my culture.

But what is?

Is it our Island-mentality pride and superiority? Is it the presumptuous sense of prestige? Is it our belief that the government is the powerhouse of our morality (whatever is legal is morally right)?

Maybe it is our assumptive Christianity: The assumption that one is a Christian because some priest splashed water on their forehead. Maybe it is our narrow minded complaining (Just ask a British person about the weather. Then ask about… I don’t know, the genocide in Sudan). Maybe it’s our reliance upon the State for our welfare?

I don’t have the cultural distance to know the answer to this question: I am merely posing the issue for discussion.

What do you think the besetting sin of English culture is?

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  1. If I had to name just one (and I’m mindful that I don’t possess cultural distance either, so this may be a general thing with humans), it’d be ideological apathy.
    Its very difficult to stir people up about matters of principle which don’t directly affect them.

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    • I think that’s at least a Western sin. Has there been any time in British history when we have stood up for the principle? I am thinking of the great wars, but the ‘principle’ being fought for was, essentially, Britain.

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      • Well, if you’ve been reading Hitchens’ articles on that film ‘The King’s Speech’, and its dubious historicity, then it’d be hard not to notice the lack of principle on the question of going to war, which was endemic until the enemy were mobilised.

        Its always hard to use the term ‘we’, since there’s always differing views. One could argue that any stand on principle has to be tainted with a degree of self-interest, since one would presumably be ‘making a stand’ for creating a world we’d want to live in. My point is that its hard to rally people over issues which seem removed from the immediacy of, say, direct threat (such as the world wars).
        I was just watching the Question Time your friend Anneka was on. I was disgusted by one questioner who seemed to be saying (on the Libya intervention point) that it ‘doesn’t affect us’, so its not our business. I view any such instance of brutal dictatorship (that’s not mine – tee-hee) anywhere in the world as a form of threat, ideological, as well as humanitarian.

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      • Indeed you’re right to raise the point about Libya and other nations. Seems a touch hypocritical to intervene in Libya and ignore the other civil wars and genocides in Africa though.

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      • Certainly its hypocritical. I could not agree more.

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      • The only time of note when we have ‘stood up for the principle’ that comes to mind is the recent public stand against our forests being sold off.

        It actually worked this time instead of the other standing up for ‘the principle’ on fuel pump price rises or other things.

        Whether this is actually a ‘point of principle’ is possibly debatable, I think there is a moral principle but how many people stood because of that as opposed to standing because it was a ‘bridge too far’ so-to-speak I don’t know.

        I would have to be with Ben on this though.

        Apathy is definitely a big problem here in the UK (again aware of my lack of cultural distance) possibly felt more keenly because it is such a personal battle. (If that is you can fight apathy, cue Alan Parker Urban warrior “I fight apathy every day only sometimes I can’t be bothered”.)

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      • Surly we only stopped our forests being sold off because we’re paranoid the end of the world gets a little closer each time someone cuts down a tree? I still see it as a matter of self interest, politicians not losing face with this new issue which may or may not prove to be real.

        I am reminded of a Mumford and Sons lyric:

        “If only I had an enemy bigger than my apathy I could have won”

        Maybe we’ve become far too sensitised to terrible things for us to care about them anymore.

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      • Ah, Ian… what do you think about my idea that in theory, all stands of principle are also of self-interest – because one is trying to contribute to a world we’d want to live in?

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      • I think you presume too much. People in general really aren’t that self-aware?

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      • You are probably correct. 😉

        Just a thought.

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  2. when I prepare people for road trips in Africa, I try to at least make people they are going to be challenged on 2 fronts..no, wrong already, 3 fronts but they all have an inkling of this 3rd front which is coming face to face with abject poverty.

    Anyway, the two fronts in question which a lot of people can’t even begin to grasp until time in Africa starts to hammer it home…

    first, start to be less aggressive……when faced with ‘other ways of doing things’, we Brits get so tetchy! If its not like we know it back home, its no good so start complaining/get angry right away. Does explain why South Spain is full of lager and chips……although lager is a 1980’s cultural import of course!
    I have seen so many Brits get absolutely obnoxious and sanctimonious over paperwork, 30 minutes wait and people not speaking English it astonishes me. Thats before you get onto stuff which actually is a bit important.

    second, learn to give some respect…..actually try to listen to the person jibber jabbering at you. Try to see it from where they stand. Try to believe they have a valid point of view.
    In terms of dealing with Police, Borders and local guides, this is so important and we Brits can offend so easily with our ‘moral authority/lack of respect’. It might be cool to mouth off at people at home but its deeply offensive to Johnny Foreigner.

    after a few weeks of increasing madness going further South in Africa, over half the folks I’ve travelled with have more or less got this to some extent. Some of the others still don’t understand why there can’t be a McD’s, Pizza Hut and UK phone coverage.

    Which is kind of along Ian’s island mentality idea – so perhaps not accepting other cultures is a candidate? Seems amazing to put that given our tolerant multiculturalistic society – although it does explain why neighbourhoods can lose all their ‘white English’ or stay ‘white English’.

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    • Insulated, maybe so pampered we don’t realise how lucky we are just because of an accident of birth.

      I think you’ve hit a number of nails on the head, Mike.

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  3. I think the stereotypical ‘Brit’ is often guilty of not being able to fully share life together, as they do not wish to express their full range of emotions. Showing brotherly affection to all is one that i feel is grossly missing.

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    • That one is for sure. Do you think this speaks into the current complaint that faith and spirituality isn’t ‘manly’ enough? Is that just Britishness rearing it’s head?

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      • ‘They’ do say the British are a repressed lot. Not my circle perhaps, but I’ve known enough of the type mentioned above to think its likely that ‘we’ hold a lot back.

        Not sure about the faith/spirituality not being manly point. Speaking from the opposition’s perspective, that isn’t the characterisation we give you. Is it Joe Public’s, do you think?

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      • It is a common complaint amongst believers and non-believers. They (ignorantly) forget creativity and expression is historically a male pastime.

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      • Bah!

        Philistines.
        (Yes, I get the irony 😉 )

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      • Personally, I think it’s an excuse grounded in our western ‘ideals’ which have defined a masculinity grounded in mere aesthetics.

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      • …Interesting.

        I’d need more than that sentence to agree/disagree, but you’ve got me beguiled.

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      • I’m sure you’ll think about it 😉

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