Culture and Cult

Culture and Cult

We hear a lot about the importance of an organisation’s Culture. Culture is the environment in which things grow. It is the soil or nutrients that feed an organism enabling it to be cultivated. Whether home, business, military establishment or hospital, culture will determine the success of the structure it is supporting. As a farmer I understand the importance of culture.

The word cult is related to culture but its manifestation is very different. Where culture implies nourishing, cult impresses control, order, discipline, obedience. Where effort in culture is nurturing, effort in cult is controlling. A cult appears to have a fence around it, to keep people in, as much as to control outsiders joining. Cults become incestuous, self-fulfilling, ritualised, often to the point of self-destruction, though that can take a long time. Cults are ‘always right’.

Just as you must be careful to keep your culture open, refreshing, willing to consider other points of view, cults lure their members into a state of self-satisfaction and dogma that excludes all other possibilities. They will fight to confirm their superiority and the essence of their rituals and beliefs. Dogma applies only to beliefs. You cannot be dogmatic about facts.

Discipline is an important part of any organisation’s smooth running. When a process or system is set up to ensure safety or productivity, what makes it work is discipline. Lee Kuan Yew was shown Singapore from the roof of the then newly constructed Marina Bay Sands – the building that looks as though it has a boat on top of it –  by one of his colleagues who said ‘You built all this’. LKY replied ‘No, all these people built Singapore with the help of discipline’. Very true, and Singapore owes everything to him and to the disciplines he insisted on. 

But discipline gives rise to a paradox. Like everything in life, excess is a killer. If a discipline becomes overwhelming it creates a cult of exclusivity, unquestioning obedience and, in the end, strife. Ownership, not just of possessions or wealth but of legacy, become an issue of right and jealousy. If you want to see an excellent example of this watch the film of the final months of Tolstoy’s life (The Last Station). At the end what, superficially, his wife and children appeared to be fighting about was the relatively modest wealth the intellectual property of two books yielded. In fact the issue was his legacy and who had the right to carry on his name.

Where is the balance between, on the one hand, cultural freedom in which the standards of a society can fall and it can become corrupt and dysfunctional and, on the other hand, excessive discipline in which the trees are nice but all identical and growth is confined to more of the same?

People are complex organisms and life is a complicated affair. We seek perfection but know that today’s ideal is tomorrow’s has-been. Every change we effect, every invention we discover, every truth we unearth changes the rules for everything else because we are more interconnected than we imagine. Pre internet, pre digitisation, pre artificial intelligence these interconnections were slow to take effect. The pace was one we could handle. It was little different from the pace of the animals we depended on for energy, food and clothing. It is, perhaps, ten thousand times faster than it was twenty years ago. That is what is so daunting.

A culture that gave us life will lose us control of our personality and future unless we learn how to manage it. It demands a new culture and a demolition, or significant modification, of many of the cults we built. They served their purpose for a time. They have now become an albatross around the necks of those they possess. If you want a simple example of this see how the rules of the road for both pedestrians and vehicles have been completely outdated by motorised scooters.

As we start to fashion the new culture can we first be clear what it is that we want a human being to be. If ‘creative’ is in the answer we must allow for some chaos, for it is from this that creativity grows. Can we also be clear how we want human spirituality to develop. This is the source of true enjoyment. If I were to adapt John Steinbeck’s brilliant definition of mankind in The Grapes of Wrath, I would say that ‘muscles aching to work, minds aching to create beyond the single need’ must become ‘minds stretching to think, nerves sensing to enable the spirit to appreciate and enjoy’ must be the preoccupation of those who design the future.

For it is not what we take out of the new life that matters.

It is how we take it out.