Cultivating Humanity

Culture as a Defence against Tyranny

“… to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

            Nelson Mandela

The cultures imposed on societies by tyrants are characterised by violence and brutality, narcissism and greed, paranoia and the elimination of difference. The downfall of tyrannical governments leave in their wake traumatised societies susceptible to authoritarian leaders and dismissive of the rights of women and minorities.

The overthrow of tyrannical governments on the other hand allows cultures to gradually become more representative of the humane psychology of the majority population. Freed from the dominant influence of people with dangerous personality disorders, cultures over time become more inclusive, more tolerant and more democratic.

The emergence of the more humane world which has accompanied the overthrow of pathological elites over the last few centuries can be seen in the successes of the freedom struggles of people of colour, women and homosexuals. As a result of these struggles, cultural values of racism, sexism and homophobia which persisted unchanged for millennia have altered radically in many parts of the world.

Progress is most apparent in the dramatic demise of racism, which as recently as World War II formed the very basis for international relations.

Contemporary United States history provides dramatic proof that racist cultural values have changed. At the turn of the twentieth century, President Theodore Roosevelt invited black educator Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House. The public clamour which resulted was such that Roosevelt was forced to admit his ‘mistake’. One New Orleans paper declared indignantly, ‘When Mr Roosevelt sits down to dinner with a Negro he declares that the Negro is the social equal of the white man.’[1] Almost exactly a century later, President Barack Obama was elected the forty-fourth President of the United States. Obama’s father was a black man from Kenya, his mother a white American. When Obama was born, such interracial marriages were illegal in more than half of America’s states[2].

photo credit: Cayusa via photopin cc

photo credit: Cayusa via photopin cc

Dramatic advances are also apparent in the case of homosexuals. While virulent homophobia still exists, remarkable successes have been achieved by the gay rights movement worldwide. In the 1970s the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. In 1989 Denmark became the first country in the world to legally recognise same-sex partnerships. In 1993 post-apartheid South Africa became the first country ever to include in its Constitution the prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. In China sodomy was decriminalized in 1997 and the Chinese psychiatric profession removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses in 2001. And in 2009 the High Court in New Delhi decriminalised homosexual relations between consenting adults in India. These dramatic successes show that homophobic cultural values are changing.

On women’s rights too, cultures are shifting. The Arab Spring is part of a global movement in which women are winning the struggle for their humanity. Worldwide, women are also increasingly taking their place on the front line in the battle against pathological elites. Women such as Tawakkol Karman in Yemen,  Leymah Gbowee in Liberia, Sherin Ebadi in Iran, and Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, not only challenge the dictators directly, they also provide invaluable role models for women and girls the world over in their private battles to overcome the local prejudices they suffer. For those who argue against women’s freedoms the answer is simple: women’s consciousness in needed if we are to humanise our brutal world.

The overthrow of the tyranny of both dictators and of oppressive cultures is a prerequisite for the development of humane societies and the emergence of a more civilised world. The challenge facing successful revolutionaries in the aftermath of the revolution is to transform authoritarian cultures – the legacy of the ousted pathological elites – into more inclusive cultures in which democratic values can become the norm. The lesson for social revolutionaries struggling to establish stable democracy is that one route to undermining the pathological opposition is to embrace the causes of anti-racism, women’s equality and gay rights as their own.

Continue reading excerpts from the final chapter here or go to my blog post on Cultural Tyranny here.


[1] Ron Field, Civil Rights in America 1865–1980, Cambridge Perspectives in History, Cambridge University Press, 2010:51

[2] Steve Crawshaw and John Jackson, Small Acts of Resistance, How courage, tenacity, and ingenuity can change the world, Union Square Press, 2010:112

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