Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Is Culture More Important than Politics?

The Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Virginia, the group who produces The Hedgehog Review:Critical Reflections on Contemporary Culture and which also produces a newsletter has re-vamped their look and created a new mission statement. In their latest newsletter, they claim that "culture determines our social values and laws proceed from them." They cite the example of gay rights gaining growing acceptance in the population while archaic laws remained and remain on the books. Yet, would it not change culture if gay marriage were allowed? It would be a new cultural phenomenon because it would be legally permitted. The law will constantly affect culture in this way. Perhaps culture is, at times, ahead of politics, yet political power and laws affects our choices in numerous personal ways and can limit our ability to shape culture.

It is a point well taken; however, that we fail to distinguish between culture and politics and that politics or its caricature is given front and center attention. Emerging values and questions in American mainstream media are frequently pre-digested into two possible political categories, ignoring how questions can be answered in multiple ways and may have multiple responses according to world-views that are not as clear-cut as would be convenient.

Today, animal rights activists and conservationists are seen as logically belonging in a camp that would be in clear-cut opposition to Christian conservatives with suspicions about scientific inquiry especially Darwin. Yet, historically, this would have been a nonsensical division.

Take the example of Francis Orpen Morris, a 19th century naturalist and contemporary of Darwin's. His best known book complete with his own stunning illustrations is, A Natural History of the Nests and Eggs of British Birds (1853–6). Yet, he continually held to the belief that his studies ‘infallibly lead from the works of nature up to the God of Nature’ (F. O. Morris, viii).

His theological beliefs and political conservatism lead him to distrust Darwinian theories of evolution. Yet, he was passionately against the prevailing practice of scientific experiments on living animals, especialy live dissection or "vivisection." He presented papers on the subject both at scientific conferences and testified against it to Parliament. He urged the conservation of bird habitat and advocated strict penalties agains the wanton hunting or shooting of birds.

So here, scientific progress is urged to exercise compassion and caution in its practices, and the public at large urged to value what we now refer to as ecosystems. Culture is complex. We are done a disservice when issues are presented as yet another point of division between easily caricatured oppositional groups.

Animal experiments are on my mind because every University of Utah employee received a letter from the University President Michael Young explaining his decision not to comply with a request by a student animal rights group to obtain more information about what primate experiments were taking place at the University and who was undertaking the research. The decision was defended as a matter of protecting the researchers from harassment or (who knows) bodily harm. Without revealing who, however, it would have made sense to reveal "what," if not who was involved in the research. Surrounding scientific or medical practices with mystery and secrecy only fuels the fears of those who would advocate for the well-being of the animals. And yet, what have we come to, when there is no safe space for debate and the researchers fear for their own lives.

Debate concerning the social values of American society is in a terrible state of atrophy. There must be a "safe" space to discuss values concerns before they fester or escalate into physical violence. What can we do to create this space, virtual or physical?

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