Globalization has brought each of us face to face with those whose values, beliefs and ways of living are different from our own. When different cultures come into contact, as they do now on a daily basis, Living Heritage plays a direct role in how people react or respond to the situation. Moreover, as we grow and learn as individuals within communities, we interact with the natural environment which in turn shapes our cultural and social context. This is true for all human beings; our brains are wired to process information and make sense of our experiences as we navigate our way in the world. Jill Bolte Taylor explains it like this in her book, My Stroke of Insight,
Sensory information streams in through our sensory systems and is immediately processed through our limbic system. By the time a message reaches our cerebral cortex for higher thinking, we have already placed a ‘feeling’ upon how we view that stimulation - is this pain or is this pleasure? Although many of us may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think.
Building positive relationships within our own groups and communities can be difficult at times and expanding the circle to include others is always a challenge. Nevertheless, building a shared future depends on our ability to do just that. Negotiating a shared future can only be achieved with a greater understanding of Living Heritage and how it influences relationships in the present; in the classroom, on the playground, in the workplace, or wherever people gather to share experiences.
In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell devotes the whole of Part II, chapters six through nine to the theme of legacy. By asking the question, “Can we learn something about why people succeed and how to make people better at what they do by taking cultural legacies seriously?” Gladwell also demonstrates an understanding of Living Heritage, confirming the role of our cultural inheritance in contemporary, real life situations, providing examples of how our behaviours and choices are shaped by our cultural identity, from garment manufacturers to lawyers and airline pilots to agricultural workers.
Exploring the process of social integration and understanding how individuals and groups initially cope with, and eventually prosper, in a culturally diverse environment has been the focus of much scholarship. In Canada and around the world this research initially focussed on immigrant experiences and more recently on the elderly in response to the issues of cultural diversity / pluralism and an aging population. In her 2008 paper, Promoting Social Integration - A Brief Examination of Concepts and Issues, Sharon Jeannotte included the definition of social integration from the Copenhagen Declaration on Social Development, Commitment 4; which aligns with the work of UNESCO and their suite of declarations and conventions that promote and support human rights.
Social Integration is the process of fostering societies that are stable, safe and just and that are based on the promotion and protection of all human rights, as well as on non-discrimination, tolerance, respect for diversity, equality of opportunity, solidarity, security and participation of all people, including disadvantaged and vulnerable groups and persons.
Our Living Heritage, in other words, our values, beliefs and ways of living are used to understand and create meaning from our experiences and enable us to make sense of the world around us, our environment. When individuals and groups come into contact with other worldviews or ways of living, questions naturally arise. The new ideas can be dismissed outright or they can be considered for viability and relevance. Then they may be dismissed because they are determined not to be viable or irrelevant, or they may be adopted into new ways of living. In all cases, both individuals and groups are changed in the process. Ways of living that persist over time do so because they are relevant and viable in the present where they are valued within the community or society. This process of social integration is constantly repeated as we grow and learn throughout the life cycle.
Recent discoveries in neuroscience are also helping us understand how this works in the human brain. In his book, Who’s In Charge?, neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga explains,
“Our brain has evolved neural circuitry that enables us to thrive in a social context. Even as infants we make judgements and choices and behave based on the action of others. We prefer others who are helpful, or even neutral, to others who hinder. We understand when another needs help, and we engage in altruistic helping. Our extensive mirror neuron systems give us the ability to understand the intentions and emotions of others, and from this information our interpreter module weaves together a theory about others. We also use the same module to weave a story about ourselves.”
Although we are unaware of it, we are constantly constructing and reconstructing our sense of the world around us. According to Gazzaniga, becoming conscious of a situation or circumstance, or physical state requires processing time. In addition, people will react in a situation rather than respond in a thoughtful, measured way and then justify their actions in retrospect. We can’t help this; it is how the human brain is designed to work. As Gazzaniga explains,
“It is the left hemisphere that engages in the human tendency to find order in chaos, that tries to fit everything into a story and put it into a context. It seems that it is driven to hypothesize about the structure of the world even in the face of evidence that no pattern exists. It persists in this endeavor even when it is sometimes detrimental to performance...”
Malcolm Gladwell also writes about how our gut reactions can misguide our behaviour in emotionally charged situations in his book, Blink. Sometimes our instincts are right and can save a life, other times they can reveal our cultural prejudices and bias. To stop and think before we act, although not always possible, is generally good advice.
Because it takes time to become conscious of changing situations or circumstances, consciousness is known as an emergent property. Scientifically speaking Gazzaniga tells us,
“Emergence is when micro-level complex systems that are far from equilibrium (thus allowing for the amplification of random events,) self-organize (creative, self-generated, adaptability-seeking behavior) into new structures, with new properties that previously did not exist, to form a new level of organization on the macro level.”
This corresponds to the social concept of the other, which would cease to exist if we acknowledged that when two different cultures (complex systems that are far from equilibrium) come together and share meaningful experiences (self-organize) both are changed as a result, creating something entirely new; neither are other any longer. As Jeannotte explains, Living Heritage or
“Culture in this context is not monolithic or homogenous, but an “inventory of possibilities” or a “toolkit” for regulating daily life. It is, in fact, a means of encouraging cultural diversity within a society in a way that does not focus on the immigrant as “the other” but as a participant in and contributor to the cultural life of the community.
As with any system, social cohesion builds on itself; changes in one part of the system, affect all the other parts of the system with potentially unforeseen, long-term consequences. Like all human development, community development depends on an ascending spiral of learning and growth however, without vigilant nurturing of cultural and social supports, development can easily spiral downward. Governments at all levels, non-for-profit organizations and the volunteer sector as well as the corporate and business communities share responsibility to nurture and support social cohesion as we negotiate the future and determine what the next generation will inherit.
Gazzaniga, Michael S., Who’s In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain. New York: Ecco, HarperCollins Publishers, 2012.
Gladwell, Malcolm, Outliers. New York: Back Bay Books / Little, Brown and Company, 2011.
Gladwell, Malcolm, Blink. New York: Back Bay Books / Little, Brown and Company, 2007.
Jeanotte, Sharon, Promoting Social Integration - A Brief Examination of Concepts and Issues, presentation to the Experts Group Meeting in Helsinki, Finland in 2008.
Taylor, Jill Bolte, My Stroke of Insight. New York: A Plume Book, Penguin Group, 2009.