Coffee Thoughts: on Social Constructs and culture as a set of coded messages

Culture is a set of constructs, coded messages, layer on layer, for the young to absorb. That is why fairytales are always about sex or character or respecting old taboos. Follow the weird old crone’s directions to the letter, even when it doesn’t make any sense. Kindness to powerless critters like stray cats and pleading bees will always be rewarded, and cruelty to the powerless will always come back to bite you. Beware of magic stuff. Consuming food/pleasure can have dangerous strings attached. Be respectful, be kind, be careful, follow the instructions.

Or dancing–in the Jane Austen Pride-and-Prejudice era (I’m thinking of English Country Dancing in particular, though Square Dance is akin to it), so many dances are about a man and a woman carefully hopping, weaving, bowing to, circling around everyone else. It’s an elaborate and restrained dance involving brains and work and being aware of all the other people on the dance floor who are part of the larger pattern. You and your symbolic ‘spouse’ in the dance are a team in which you both carefully navigate the elaborate norms of society together. Translation: marriage is about restraint, teamwork, and society as a whole.

Compare this to some modern slow couple dances, where the two of you have a close sensual moment while awkwardly bumping into everyone else on the dance floor, who have no part in your dance and are just there to be ignored. The message is clear: marriage (or romance/sexual partnership) is about your feelings for eachother, and the better it is the more you’ll zone out everyone else. It is about the two of you and your feelings–you aren’t so much a working unit navigating society as two individuals wrapped up in eachother’s rapture.

Stuff like ballroom and swing fall somewhere between the two. And I’m sure there are plenty of exceptions. But it is interesting how they are all saying something. Rituals always have a point. Fairy tales always have a point. Things always do.

Culture doesn’t “send” coded messages, it IS coded messages. It tells people who they are. Who they are. What they should become. What Role they must play.

That is why no action is completely insignificant, and everything matters.


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