Cultural Leveling

In the last couple of weeks, the first commercial flight to Santa Clara, Cuba from the U.S. landed.  While other flights from Miami to Havana had already taken place earlier in the summer, this flight into the interior of Cuba continues to make history as there are now more than 300 flights from multiple airports in the U.S. to numerous destinations in Cuba.  Touted widely are the economic changes that await Cuba and the potential trade opportunities for U.S. companies and businesses.  What has been less discussed are the potential cultural transformations that will occur in Cuba—how Cuba’s values and norms will shift and change.

The social sciences focus a great deal of attention on a culture’s (or society’s) values and norms.  Values function in a variety of ways.  One thing they do is tell us what we, collectively, (that is our culture) hold to be right/wrong, good/bad, beautiful/ugly, etc.  For instance, in the U.S., by in large, we hold the value that politeness is a good thing.  The only way we see evidence of politeness is through behavior.  The norms of a society are our expectations of behavior.  So we believe that politeness is good and we measure this politeness through behaviors.   In our society, we expect people to say good morning, ask how someone is, and respond to that individual.  Right now, we are still in a transition around what behaviors are considered polite or impolite regarding cell phone use.  Cultures do change and establish new norms of behavior around a value.  We still believe that politeness is good; though at the moment what evidence counts as politeness is shifting.  We might ask, “Is it polite to talk on our cell phone in a restaurant?”  “Is it polite to text at the dinner table?”  These questions help us define boundaries of behavior and reinforce our values.  Sometimes it feels as though our values are changing when shifts in behavior begin to occur.  In this case, it isn’t so much what we value that is changing as how we see evidence of those values through our behaviors.  So, before, there was a clear line of behavior around phone use.  Now, as accessibility to phones has changed we are in a period of readjusting what behaviors constitute politeness in regard to phone use; we are deciding what constitutes new norms.

Values do change in cultures, too.  New values are added and others do begin to slip away.  Shared values are crucial to a culture.  Shared values help us to feel integrated and a part of our culture.  When we all believe the same or similar things we feel a sense of belonging and unity.  What we value and how those values are manifested through behaviors identify us and bring us together.  As values change and new norms of behavior are established, we often struggle as a culture.  Ideally this is a give and take process as groups negotiate for a value and definition of behavior.  Yet, as we struggle collectively we may wonder or notice if one group has more influence than others in terms of the way we change those norms.  In our modern society, media always plays a role in shaping new values and norms.  Other entities influence values and norms, too, such as policies, laws and economics.  In turn, one can see how each entity folds into the other with the influence of each magnifying—such as the commercialization of media.

As various commercial flights land in Cuba, many suggest that the influx of capital is a good thing.  Capital brings Cubans a wide variety of products from which to choose. And, this, in turn, is believed to enhance their life.  While in the U.S. having name-brand cereal to choose from may be of importance, for the current populace in Cuba name-brand food is not valued and subsequently buying it matters very little.  Yet, as media opens up and trade policies change, what is valued and consumed will undoubtedly change as that which is available changes.  Some may argue that the change in types of goods matters very little and that the abundance and the abundance of choice is what is significant.  Two things seem important here—one, that the change in products available comes from outside the culture itself and two, that the value of variety and choice (and the subsequent value of competition) gets infused into a culture whose values have been making sure everyone’s basic needs are met.

A direct result of focusing on basic needs, and manifested in Cuba, is the belief of everyone as equal or as every life having the same worth.  Worth is not measured by material goods, name brands, or individual achievement.  Rather, the whole is esteemed by attending to an equal measure of society’s resources for everyone.  Enter the conversation of media.  At present citizens of Cuba do not have access to the global media as we do.  Yes, there are national television stations and yes, there is access to the internet—though only in public spaces and nationally serviced—individuals are not wired continuously.  At the moment there is not a commercial market for cell phone service, internet access or cable television…though all of this is changing as I write.  I understand that media, especially the internet, can offer a democratization of information and access to cultural productions.  For instance, I can now watch the Metropolitan Opera on YouTube.  I no longer need to have the money to travel to New York and purchase a ticket.  Yet, in a culture, like Cuba, where this democratization of goods has already been occurring, what will the effect of global media be?  And, how will the opening of trade change existing values and norms?  Perhaps more importantly, will there be space to manage and control this development?  Or will the influx of the global market via the U.S. and global media produce the same effects that we have seen before?  That is, the loss of a unique culture with distinct values and norms and a cultural leveling whereby the rest of the world looks and acts increasingly like the U.S.?

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