For over two decades, from 1983 to 2009, the beautiful island nation of Sri Lanka was torn apart by civil war. It was a brutal, bloody conflict that claimed more than 100,000 lives. The power balance between the Sinhalese and Tamils—long riven along demographic and religious lines—had been exacerbated by British imperial rule, which favored the minority Tamils. Following the nation’s independence, the equilibrium shifted and civil war broke out between the two peoples. It was led on one side by the incumbent Sinhalese government and, on the other, the separatist guerrilla force called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
The LTTE was a highly successful terrorist organization, and one of the world’s most notorious. They used suicide terrorism as a key tactic, recruiting from local Tamil populations (including women, who comprised around a third of their force). It seems that their members joined without coercion.
How did the LTTE persuade so many to sacrifice their lives voluntarily?
The key was culture. Recruiters built an impermeable cultural framework that made what would otherwise be an unappealing prospect seem vital. Science writer Michael Bond reported on the work of a Sri Lankan psychologist known as Amali (not her real name), who interviewed many members of LTTE. She relayed that the organization created “a culture of martyrdom. . . . Recruits were publicly celebrated, their families given special status when they died.” They promoted a long-standing tradition that presented war as an ultimate and necessary honor, with death representing heroic martyrdom. All this, within the context of war, made such violent self-sacrifice seem imperative.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this, though, is what happened afterward. Amali reported that once recruits were removed from the culture the LTTE had created, the compulsion to sacrifice no longer seemed important: “Once they emerge from their bubble they quickly see that things are very different from what they were led to believe. Their singular world view can easily be refuted.” Having discovered that their culture had blinded them to other choices, they quickly relinquished what had previously seemed the only option.
The Power of Culture
You might think that the story of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, while fascinating, is relevant only to that time and place. But what the LTTE understood and exploited was something universal: the overwhelming power of culture, a phenomenon that affects us all. Every day we hear and absorb ideas from other people. Our thoughts, words and actions are molded and informed by a morass of external concepts, associations and preoccupations. Our conversations are prompted by the issues of the day. We wear clothes that we deem appropriate according to cultural norms. Views on politics, religion, identity—even such trivial things as pineapple on pizza—are influenced by our cultural environment.
Culture is a widely used term, but it’s also one of the hardest to define. Academic Raymond Williams famously labeled it “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language.” Multiple cultures can coexist, and we might encounter and form our identity from any number at any one time—whether derived from our family, workplace and online environments, or along national, political, religious, gender or societal lines.
“Culture . . . is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”
The list of cultural bubbles is seemingly endless and ranges from the trivial to the deeply consequential. Using horses in rodeos seems a natural form of entertainment in parts of western Canada and the United States, but it may seem bizarre to anyone in North Korea or Egypt. Many in central Europe believe it’s harmful to drink water after eating cherries, while such an idea would not even occur to people elsewhere. In the United Kingdom, curry has been crowned the nation’s favorite dish; in France, however, it’s very difficult to find. Modern secular societies find it challenging to understand the mindset of those who persecute people as witches in India and Papua New Guinea. And while cultural differences have long been factors in political elections, they have had especially troubling effects across the globe in recent years. At times it seems that people on either side might as well belong to different species.
And yet, partly because of its amorphous nature, it’s nearly impossible to measure exactly how much culture affects us, especially when so many other factors (upbringing, societal associations, mental health difficulties, etc.) also come into play.
What seems irrefutable, though, is its inescapable ubiquity. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, culture is everywhere. We like to think of ourselves as independent beings, free-thinking masters of our own decisions and behavior, but this is largely a delusion. We cannot escape culture’s prevalence in the news of the day, material that goes viral on social media, or—less visibly—prevailing views of life and how to live it (which are confirmed and reinforced through conversations with friends, relatives and colleagues).
This immersion makes perspectives drawn from other cultures—which may be of equal or greater value—seem strange to us. We have freedom to choose our perspective, of course, but what good is that freedom if certain options don’t even occur to us or are rejected out of hand?
For LTTE’s suicide terrorists, sacrificing their lives for the cause of their people seemed not just the highest honor but the only choice. But as soon as they were removed from that culture, other ideas seemed more natural to them—ideas that had not been appealing before.
We might wonder whether the same applies to us. Are the cultural bubbles we live in blinding us to other, better solutions, better ways of thinking? Would we take time to consider a good but unfamiliar idea, or would we dismiss it as absurd?
“One culture is always a potential menace to another because it is a living example that life can go on heroically within a value framework totally alien to one’s own.”
Culture is a powerful force of exclusion. Accepting one idea often leads to a cascade of related ideas and conclusions and puts us on a path with like-minded people around us. That’s our bubble. Those outside that bubble often cannot make sense of the way we think.
There is flexibility and latitude in this, of course; we’re not completely defenseless against outside factors. Culture is too mutable for that to be the case. Nevertheless, it’s worth examining our own situation. Why do we think the way we think? And perhaps most pertinent of all, what might we be missing?
There are reasons we adhere to what people around us are thinking, and it’s to do with our sociable nature. We feel comfort, clarity and validation when we agree with others. American behavioral economist Cass R. Sunstein notes that “if someone tells you something you already know, you are likely to like that person a little bit better . . . [and] you are likely to like yourself a bit better as a result!” It has a cumulative effect, too: research by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski has shown that “the more people who share our beliefs, the more sure we feel that [those beliefs] are correct.”
The lengths we will go to in order to attain this comfort are really quite extraordinary, and the consequences disturbing. A classic study by psychologist Solomon Asch demonstrated that we generally prefer to agree with the majority, even when the majority position is obviously wrong. Later, psychologist Read D. Tuddenham found that people would answer sensibly when on their own but would accept wild, outlandish propositions in a group.
For instance, when others in the group claimed to believe that male babies have a life expectancy of 25 years, that most people would be better off in life if they never went to school, and that most Americans eat six meals a day and sleep four to five hours a night, individuals who may have doubted those claims nevertheless went along with them to avoid being the odd one out. Even more astonishingly, they claimed afterward that they spoke according to their own judgment and had not been influenced by others. This tendency to prefer conformity among our peers over truth—and our blindness to the fact of it happening—should make us wonder about our own behavior.
Perhaps contrary to expectations, our desire to agree does not lead to compromise and a soft middle ground. Numerous studies have shown that a strong desire to agree within groups of like-minded people actually exaggerates their opinions and leads individuals within the group to adopt more extreme positions. Sunstein found, for instance, that “white people who tend to show significant racial prejudice will show more racial prejudice after speaking with one another,” and that groups of Americans identifying as either Democrat or Republican, after discussion with their peers, will vote more than twice as strongly along party lines than before. (Interestingly, the presence of a single dissenting voice—a perspective from outside the bubble—counters this very effectively.)
Sunstein’s research focused on contemporary issues in the United States, but the problems he described are universal across human societies worldwide, and at an extreme can lead to civil war; similar tendencies could be found in conflicts in 1970s Angola, 17th-century England, and (as mentioned) Sri Lanka at the turn of the last century. The isolating influence of culture is remarkable, and it raises questions about the value of identity-driven social media groups—those created to appeal to people who share a particular worldview.
This repeated process of agreement and reinforcement without outside perspectives produces a more entrenched, intensified and isolated culture. And it will vigorously defend itself against other cultural influences, which it often sees as a threat. Culture divides and alienates others in order to defend itself. This dynamic in our daily interactions could, if we’re not careful, match that of extremist groups; as Sunstein says, “a good way to create an extremist group, or a cult of any kind, is to separate members from the rest of society.” It’s a tendency that can be replicated in our families, workspaces or friendship groups, and we might not even realize it. That should give us pause for thought, because we’re at our best when we’re looking beyond our narrow confines and expressing love and concern toward fellow human beings.
Online Worlds Apart
The world has become more polarized in recent years. Technological innovation played a part in exacerbating culture’s exclusionary effect. In order to make the online world profitable, with clear market demographics, companies have worked to create definable digital spaces and identities. Eli Pariser’s term filter bubble—demonstrating that what I see online is not what you see—was shocking when he coined it around 2010, but it’s an indisputable fact of life now. As algorithms become cleverer, filter bubbles more closely align with their cultural counterparts, thereby aggravating the effect. How isolated are we in our online worlds? Pariser sees the sharing aspect of democratic societies as a value that is now under threat: “Democracy requires citizens to see things from one another’s point of view, but instead we’re more and more enclosed in our own bubbles. Democracy requires a reliance on shared facts; instead we’re being offered parallel but separate universes.”
It should concern us, not least because it can affect our moral judgment. History has shown how cultural entrenchment can cause reasonable human beings to adopt disturbing behaviors. Adolf Eichmann was one of the key architects of Nazi Germany’s “Final Solution” for extermination of the Jewish people. But once brought to trial after the war, he was far from the deranged psychopath that people expected. As political theorist Hannah Arendt famously noted, he was not diabolical or demonic; nor was he stupid. He was merely doing what was expected of him. Although this may be hard for most people to imagine, within the culture of Nazi leadership, his actions seemed sensible.
“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.”
War is an extreme situation, but its impact on the behavior of Eichmann and LTTE recruits amply demonstrates how culture can warp our judgment. The ancient wisdom of “not following a crowd to do evil” rings true, because within a particular bubble, it’s harder to say no; the conventional response is what most consistently comes to mind. And it’s clear that the conventional response—the one that everyone in the bubble would find normal—can in some cases be utterly repulsive. Rwandan hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina, who reportedly sheltered more than a thousand Hutus and Tutsis during the 1994 genocide, understood how difficult it is to stand against a twisted cultural norm. He noted in his book An Ordinary Man that “if nobody can find it within themselves to stand outside the group and find the inner strength to say no, then the mass of men will easily commit atrocities for the sake of keeping up personal appearances.”
More recently, the instant response of many ordinary people to events has very clearly demonstrated the exclusionary power of culture. When a 31-year-old Syrian man attacked people in a French town in 2023, many (including some who did not live in France) immediately called for closing the borders to immigrants. The online conversation quickly narrowed, excluding consideration of other possible causes or aspects of the attack; his nationality and identity as an asylum seeker were enough to make it purely a question of immigration policies, even though the man was in France legally. Similarly, when basketball player LeBron James’s son Bronny suffered a cardiac arrest in July 2023, the assumption for many online—with minimal knowledge of the circumstances—was that it was caused by a COVID-19 vaccine. It later became clear that he had a congenital heart defect. Yet in both situations the cultural influence was so strong that it excluded space for empathy, curiosity, concern, patience, factual rigor and alternate explanations. The conversation became a verbal brawl, largely disregarding the possibility that the real cause would be something previously unanticipated. Violence comes in many forms.
Culture rarely stands still and thus demands that we continually adjust alongside it. It can move in many directions, sometimes bringing welcome light to a situation. For instance the #MeToo movement, which emerged unexpectedly in 2017, called attention to a long-standing problem: the prevalence of male violence against women, especially of a sexual nature.
The problem existed long before the hashtag, and continues after it, but the cultural shift changed the tenor. Before, men often felt able, even entitled, to act however they wished; it didn’t even occur to many of them that they were harming others. You might say that they could not—and perhaps would not—see outside their bubble. #MeToo changed that. It may, of course, be only a temporary change and limited in scope; some cultures could not see the benefit in the movement from the start. In France, for instance, many leading voices—both female and male—rejected the concept.
One of the most dramatic culture shifts happened in the 19th century. The discovery of dinosaurs and other prehistoric worlds helped precipitate the uprooting of religion as a fundamental understanding in many societies. It was a notable example of what science historian Thomas Kuhn called a “paradigm shift.” A new theory brings a new set of explanations and solutions, but its adoption can make previous concerns seem unimportant, Kuhn wrote; they “may be relegated to another science or declared entirely ‘unscientific’ . . . a mere metaphysical speculation, word game, or mathematical play.” The work of Darwin, Huxley, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and others represented a monumental paradigm shift in relation to religion, both scientifically and culturally.
Religion was posed as an enemy of science (which it does not have to be). The shift relegated discussions of individual purpose, nonmaterialist perspectives and interpersonal relations to the realm of speculative self-help. Its effects are now deeply entrenched, shaping our thinking in ways that perhaps we do not always fully appreciate. The public conversation was forever changed, excluding entire areas of discussion—sometimes to our detriment. Many of our contemporary difficulties, both online and in real life, are arguably consequences of this shift.
“What man sees depends both upon what he looks at and also upon what his previous visual-conceptual experience has taught him to see.”
The Bible, for example, offers great help in such areas as loneliness, grief and abusive behavior; but it’s a resource that exists outside most cultural bubbles today. After centuries of misinterpretation and exploitation by individuals and organizations, it sank in cultural standing. It had been obscured so thoroughly that few could see it for what it was and continues to be—a resource to help people deal with real-life problems. Yet many today would not bother to read it or assess it seriously. For them it’s a relic, a joke, or an impotent weapon in a fruitless tit-for-tat battle with science. Its wisdom is largely untapped and untried. Might we be missing something as a result?
In an article for the New York Times, columnist David Brooks drew from wisdom that is embedded in biblical texts, embodying “the act of leading with love in harsh times.” His words echo biblical principles that ring through the centuries. Brooks writes: “The most practical thing you can do, even in hard times, is to lead with curiosity, lead with respect, work hard to understand the people you might be taught to detest.”
It’s an example of how comprehensively culture can blind us to other ways of thinking. What we believe is strongly affected by the bubbles we inhabit. The way we think can change dramatically as a result of simply moving to a different locale, changing workplace, or joining a new social network.
To be so susceptible to factors as incidental as time and place should make us uncomfortable. We had no control over where and when we were born. What kind of people might we be if we were born in Chile in 1973, Zimbabwe in 2008, or China in 1949? Are we convinced that the way we think is right simply because it seems to suit our times, where we live, or the views of our family or friends? If we care at all about how we act, how we impact others, or how we see the world, these are questions we ought to consider carefully.