The Culture of Law (6): Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat

We’re been talking about how culture derives from a neurological structure created in the brains of the culture’s individual members at impressionable times. Individual brain wiring is transmitted by agreement from member to member, and reinforced by experience. Culture thus neurologically shaped is maintained by the brain’s need for concordance between expectations and experience. This creates a shared cultural belief system that characterizes how the members engage with the world.

This post looks further into the term “belief system.” I Googled it, and the following was one of the more instructive, albeit denser hits:

“Belief systems are structures of norms that are interrelated and that vary mainly in the degree in which they are systemic. What is systemic in the Belief System is the interrelation between several beliefs. What features warrant calling this stored body of concepts a belief system? Belief systems are the stories we tell ourselves to define our personal sense of Reality. Every human being has a belief system that they utilize, and it is through this mechanism that we individually “make sense” of the world around us.”

A culture’s members adopt its belief system not merely as their “personal sense of Reality,” but as a shared belief in how things really are. I.e., the culture’s members don’t just believe similar things about how the world works, they also believe in their beliefs, holding them as their common perceptual and behavioral code.

What happens when a culture’s belief system is threatened, either from within or by outside pressure?

We met Bruce E. Wexler, professor of psychiatry at Yale Medical School, and his book, Brain and Culture:  Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change a couple posts back. He’s the guy who talked about “The importance of a close fit between internal neuropsychological structures created to conform with an individual’s sensory and interpersonal environment at the time of development, and the environment in which the adult individual later finds him or herself.”

Wexler uses his brain-based cultural approach to explain intercultural conflict this way:  “This book argues that differences in belief systems can themselves occasion intercultural violence, since concordance between internal structure and external reality is a fundamental human neurobiological imperative.”

I.e., a culture resists change because its shared brain wiring is guarding its neurological peace of mind.

Wexler’s analysis also applies to intracultural conflict. And, as he further points out, ultimately the battle over culture is about whose brain wiring gets to make the rules:

“This argument thus provides a rational basis for the apparent fact that people fight not because of differences in religion and other beliefs; they fight to control the opportunity to create external structures that fit with their internal structures, and to prevent others from filling their environment with structures and stimulation that conflict with their internal structures.”

All of which explains why “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” — i.e., resistance to cultural change — is always an implied cultural norm. Challenges to a culture’s belief system are always perceived as a case of,

“The devil will drag you under by the sharp lapels of your checkered coat,

“So sit down, sit down, sit down you’re rockin’ the boat!”

We’ll be talking more about rocking the cultural boat. In the meantime, take a couple minutes to give yourself a treat and watch the video. It’s short, from Guys and Dolls.

Author: Kevin Rhodes

Kevin Rhodes has been a lawyer for over 30 years. Drawing on insights gathered from science, technology, disruptive innovation, entrepreneurship, neuroscience, and psychology, and also from his personal experiences as a practicing lawyer and a “life athlete,” he’s on a mission to bring wellbeing to the people who learn, teach, and practice the law.

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