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Cultural Narratives

I recently read the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, and upon finishing the book it occured to me that it had a major idea in common with another book I read recently, Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. Ishmael is a fiction book that focuses on the issues of environmental degradation and species extinction, using analogies and metaphors. Eating Animals is a non-fiction and therefor a more data-centred book that discusses the problems regarding consuming animals. What they both have in common is the exploration of the stories that exist on both a cultural and a personal level that affect how we see the world, with a focus on the issues stated above. In Ishmael for example, creation myths are discussed in relation to how humanity interacts with the surrounding world and how the centrality of humanity in these stories has lead to a pervasive attitude of viewing the world as something at the disposal of humankind. In Eating Animals, Foer discusses the cultural narratives that for example cause some animals to be viewed as man’s best friend, and others to be seen as man’s favourite food.

These stories have huge societal implications because enacting these stories is what makes our culture, our society, and our history. The understanding of these narratives is essential to realizing the often unspoken and unnoticed assumptions that our perception of the world is based on. These perceptions are in turn what our individual and collective actions are based on. So if the stories  contain ideas contrary to such values and compassion or harmony, or are interpreted in such a way, enacting these stories will have a detrimental effect to ourselves and the world around us.

Gaining factual knowledge of current issues is important to building an understanding of the world, but as Foer discusses, wide availability of information on the treatment of farm animals or scientific research on animal capacities for intelligence or suffering has not lead to the changes in behaviour one would expect because it appears the cultural narrative (“mother culture” in Ishmael) overrides facts. This helps put facts into perspective because knowing what I know I often wonder how people can still do what they do, think what they think. Searching for new facts relating to current issues and events is important to our understanding of these things, but it is paramount we can understand and question the most basic assumptions of our society, ever present assumptions that are generally passed over without the acknowledgment of existence. These assumptions can take many forms and there is certainly no shortage of them.

I’m tempted to try to over-explain these ideas and provide more examples, creating a web that touches on many other pieces of knowledge I have. But that would probably be a mistake, the authors do a good job of explaining these ideas in relation to particular issues and while these ideas are relevant to other issues as well, those other issues would require their books to discuss. My oft cited favourite author Thoreau once wrote a somewhat odd passage about looking at Walden Pond upside down with his head between his legs, and how he saw things he never noticed before despite looking at the pond every day.┬áSo maybe seeing new things is not what is needed most, but rather news ways of seeing the old and familiar. In the end it comes down to balancing both avenues of exploration.

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