Breaking down a culture

By Leigh Greaney

A great way to get a snap-shot of a culture is to look at its proverbs. These paradigms have helped map out a set of morals for centuries and have defined what is legitimate to believe. As Americans, we’ve got some really virtuous ones to attach to our brand.

We’ve got some uplifting ones, like, “Don’t cry over spilt milk,” “Gold is where you find it,” and, “From little acorns mighty oaks do grow.” We’ve even got some good advice ones, like, “If you can’t ride two horses at once, you shouldn’t be in the circus.” Who could forget this one, “Leave well enough alone.”

Some are funny, like, “In God we trust; all others pay cash.” Some are serious (and borderline rude), like, “Put up or shut up.” Some are even peacefully sexy, like, “Make love, not war.”

However, some encapsulate American materialism, ignorance and other negative cultural traits. These bad eggs have leached into society to the point where they aren’t seen as opinion, but as facts of life. People deem the thoughts instilled by these cliches to be natural since generations have passed them down as acquired knowledge.

These culturally poisonous faux factoids are well-known, yet don’t present themselves as mentally dangerous. The proverb “ignorance is bliss” is a good example. It implies that a lack of knowledge results in a gain of happiness. The more a person knows, the more they have to worry about. Child-like naivete becomes an object of value, whereas scholarly notions of reality are taught to make a person pessimistic and unhappy.

Where is the love for education? Where is the value in opening up your eyes to seeing the world around you? Where is the drive to make things better? Isn’t bliss better when shared? It’s much easier to share knowledge than to share ignorance, and much better for the world.

Here is another one: “Praise makes a bad man worse.” Really? What about confidence? Doesn’t praise promote confidence? Doesn’t confidence improve people’s morale and ability to produce good quality work? Without praise, the only reward for hard work comes in the form of flat, green pieces of paper with dead presidents and quotes about God plastered on them. Maybe this bad man in question really just needs a pat on the back and he won’t be so bad anymore. Maybe his Mom never hugged him enough? A lack of praise doesn’t shrink a bad ego; it only strengthens the desire for tribute.

When forms of admiration only come in the form of cash, you get proverbs like this: “A poor man is always behind.” So a rich man is always ahead? This hierarchy, when put into black and white, cannot only cause too lustful a material desire, but can also cause mental oppression among less fortunate people.

How much money you have in your pocket may put you behind some things, like payments or other menial monetary things, but it doesn’t put you lower on the ladder of human worth. Money isn’t everything. You can’t be in front or behind of some things in life, you’re just a part of a whole.

Poor or not, people are scattered all over a multitude of scales for all that life contains. Labeling a person for how much they’re worth in dollar signs takes away a person’s worth in wisdom and virtue. There are a lot of people ahead on morals who don’t have much else to give but their knowledge of experience.

The vague nature of the word ‘behind’ and its relation to the proverb’s meaning is seen in many other traditional American sayings, such as “boys will be boys.” So what will they be exactly? They’ll be their gender? They’ll be a sex organ? That sounds tough.

When a mom has to come down into the basement where her third-grader is pelting his friend in the face with a BB gun and has to scream at him to spare his mortal enemy of losing an eye, it wouldn’t be culturally shocking for her to go upstairs to a half-laughing husband who claims, “Boys will be boys!” In context, what that argument means to say is: Boys will rough each other up ruthlessly.

It is non-descriptive and generates stereotypes. If a little girl was to bite her friend’s hand for stealing her mood ring, would her mother say, “Oh, girls will be girls!” to the mood ring thief’s mother? Doubtful.

One proverb irks America as a silent threat. It would appear that it has only good, wholesome intentions in educating; however, this is a lie. “A dog is a man’s best friend,” would seem like an endearing, animal-loving and sweet statement. But, what is actually being said deserves further thought.

This proverb seeks to prove how important the relationship is between a pet and his/her owner. It shows the companionship between owner and pet in such a way that it personifies dogs, giving them human like qualities.

Like best friends, dogs are seen as trustworthy, dependable, loved, special and capable of having bonded attachment. It not only shows the kindling of man to animal, but it also displays what qualities best friends should have.

In a more practical sense, it shows society in a negative light. If man’s best friend depends on him  for everything, for instance food and shelter, doesn’t talk back and is considered property, then what does that say about friendship? It enforces power complexes and hierarchy.

These same hierarchal ladder rungs that our culture has taught us to sit on, as demonstrated by many proverbs, are the same we stand on. If we’re ever going to learn how to climb the ladder as high as we can, we’re going to have to start thinking about the lessons we are taught, and not just as they are, but with full spectrum of thought.

Leigh Greaney is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]