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Theses Toward a Theory of Generative Death Anxiety: Thesis #13

We continue the presentation, here offering:

Thesis #13 – Broadly socialized allegiance to the dominant cultural narrative is a strong force for sanctioning social conformity (this why all religions essentially equate “good citizenship” with God’s Will, etc.) But even the rebel or the criminal (sinner) must assume the essential transcendent power of the dominant cultural/religious myth in order for his/her deviance to itself have any meaning.

It is the very fact that in any society, the overwhelming number of people have been socialized to take for granted the dominant cultural narrative that produces the sense of peoplehood among them. Freud thought that in the deepest areas of our minds, which he called das Es, the It, we are not yet socialized in the dominant narrative and are instead completely centered on selfish desires. Through the socialization process we gain another competing voice, the voice of conscience and of civilization, which Freud called das Uber Ich, the Above I, which we eventually internalize and assume as our own voice (although it competes throughout one’s life with the selfish desires of the It voice, which never entirely ceases.) Why, according to Freud, do we have need of this later competing voice? Because life together with others (society, civilization) would simply be impossible without the common narrative encapsulated in the voice of the Above I.

One need not be a follower of Freud to recognize the truth of Freud’s observations in this regard. Furthermore, as we look at the situation through more existential lenses, this basic insight become even stronger. Freud was concerned mainly with the moral aspect of the later internalized voice. This is the aspect of that voice that in essence cajoles us to be good persons, to think of the needs of others, and learn to get along and play well with others. That is certainly important, and maybe even adequate enough for younger children who have not come into full confrontation with their own mortality. As the child does start to understand death and grasp the universal nature of mortality on a personal level, the inculcation of the dominant cultural narrative provides an equally important element, specifically, answers to the existential questions that naturally arise in face of mortality: who are we (I)? from where do we (I) come? to where are we (I) going? what is of value in this life? what is our (my) relationship to the natural world? what should our (my) relationship be to others? More, and similar, questions could be added, all of which find answers in the dominant cultural narrative of the society.

It is the fact that the overwhelming majority of people shares in the vision of life framed by the common cultural narrative of the society that allows us to live in relative harmony, to have a sense of what others are thinking about themselves and others (role taking), and allows us to assume that others will act in relation to us within the parameters of established behavioral norms., In short, we don’t have to start from scratch each time we meet a new person in figuring out what to expect. It is the mutual adherence to a dominant cultural narrative that creates a common bond between us and produces the Good Citizen within each of us.

We might just note here that what makes many of us uncomfortable about immigrant people who “do not share our values” is exactly that they have not (yet) fully absorbed themselves in the dominant cultural narrative (assimilated to our culture) and therefore many people find it difficult to fully “trust” them. Likewise, the uncomfortable experience of alienation many people report when they travel to cultures very different from their own stems directly from the fact that they do not themselves share in the dominant narrative of that culture. This basic thought is encapsulated in the term “outlandish” behavior, ideas, customs or what have you. In our everyday language, outlandish means shocking, disgusting, appalling, outrageous. But in its etiology, it simply means “foreign = not of our land.”

Within large, modern societies, there is latitude in areas of values and norms that would not be found among small tribal societies. That is to say, large modern societies contain numerous subcultures that have their own take on the dominant cultural narrative. I grew up, for example, within a fairly self-contained religious community (Mennonites) that hold to certain beliefs and values which, if pushed to their extremes, would set one almost in 180 degree opposition to the values and beliefs of the larger American society (particularly the anti-military and anti-materialist strains in Mennonite values.) It is exactly these ‘countercultural’ values that are under constant pressure of erosion, but even among those who advocate for these values most strongly, the tendency is to downplay the countercultural angle and to emphasize instead that these very values are themselves patriotic and integral to being the Good Citizen that both God and Country want us to be. Perhaps it was the experience of growing up in such a subculture, especially at a time when American was engaged in a war (Vietnam) to which I was fundamentally opposed, but I noticed already in my very early teen years that while there was an extreme diversity of religions, sects and denominations, and a wide range of teachings about God(s) in American society, the one thing all of these teachings about God(s) had in common was that above all else God(s) wanted us to be Good Citizens of the society in which we live. In other words, much as religious groups in America may argue among themselves about the nature of God, true beliefs, ethical specifics, and compete with each other for membership and money, they all converge in the basic notion that God wants us to be Good Citizens. That is to say, they each in turn come around to support for the dominant cultural narrative of the society in which we live.

Another thing we notice is that even in the behavior of outlaws, there is actually an acceptance and reinforcement of the dominant cultural narrative. We might expect that if there were anyone who rejects the dominant values of the society, and live opposed to them, it would be the social outlaw. And this may be true to some extent on a more superficial plane (the plane of Freud’s morality, for example.) But even the thief has to know what to steal, and therefore is thrown back on the dominant social narrative to know what is valuable. In American society, for example, we are taught to value money pretty much above all else, and while we may not like to admit is quite so bluntly, we all certainly understand what is meant by “everything has its price.” It is not surprising, therefore, that the schemes and actions of American outlaws is aimed primarily at stealing money or gaining money through other illegal activity. In doing so, outlaws may be thumbing their collective noses at the dominant narrative on moral level, but they are actually reinforcing that narrative on the level of signifying what is important and valued according to that narrative. Think about that for a minute.

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