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Culture is Conflict

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Photo by Shannon Potter on Unsplash

I recently finished Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens. It really should be used as mandatory reading for school children, but that's not the point of this post.


At some point, he talks about how conflicts between values aren't flaws but an integral part of human culture. For instance, in Medieval Europe, two values were inherently contradictory: knighthood and Christianity. In the same way, in Modern Western culture, the values of equality and freedom are intrinsically conflicting.


He says, "any person within a culture tends to have conflicting beliefs and to debate between conflicting values. It is a basic, essential human capacity." (Hebrew Edition, p. 169, my translation).


I found that interesting because conflicts are the basic building block of stories (and apparently of cultures). There are only two things that every story has to have: a change (otherwise, there's no story, just a description of the world) and a conflict. Usually, the conflict arises from the change. Good conflicts in stories would be not only between the protagonist and the antagonist but between conflicting values in the culture. So, the conflict in the Harry Potter series is between purity (of blood) and equality. The conflict in The Bell Jar is between patriarchy and freedom (for women). The conflict in Neverwhere is between mundane, "normal" life and fantasy—between the superego and the id, if you will.


It's interesting to think about conflict in these terms, especially when American culture (which, whether we like it or not, dictates Western culture at least at the moment) finds it so difficult to hold its conflicts in the psychological sense. It's another thing we should be teaching as part of the curriculum. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."


Perhaps our job is not to decide which value we ascribe to but to try and hold the conflicts in our minds. I wonder if our job as artists is to move on from conflict resolution to a more inclusive approach, to remind us of our basic, essential human capacity.

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