An Ambivalent Culture

Being a fairly notable anglophile myself [1], I am listening to an audiobook right now that covers British culture during that awkward period from the mid-90’s to the mid-20’s when I grew up from a teenager to a young adult.  Among the more notable aspects of the book so far (I am about 3/8 through with listening to it at present) is the way it talks about the British as an ambivalent drinking culture.  An ambivalent drinking culture is one that has certain negative stigmas towards drinking and drunkenness but also a simultaneous belief that drinking is a necessary social lubricant for socially awkward and repressed people.  Being a somewhat socially awkward and immensely repressed and restrained person by nature, my own family history involving alcoholism has overwhelmed whatever sort of ambivalence I have towards the personal use of alcohol, although I find myself drawn to songs that deal with the melancholy of drinking and the search for self-medication to overcome at least for a while the feeling of grim despair about intolerable pressures and a life that seems to be going nowhere.

A few years ago, I told a coworker of mine that I was a person of deep ambivalence in my own feelings about people and things.  My coworker did not believe me, for she had seen my own particularly strong feelings expressed through ferocious critique and did not realize that the fierceness of opinions of one kind hid a deep undertow going the opposite direction.  Admittedly, ambivalence is not an easy feeling for me to convey, given that much of my ambivalence in life results from the combination of a strong will to do what is right, even in particularly difficult or unpleasant situations, along with particularly strong longings and feelings that result from painful and unpleasant experiences or that pull me in areas I know to be immensely dangerous.  It is ambivalent to want to do what it right and to be good and to know that one, by nature, is not necessarily a good person.  It is ambivalent to be polite in person and in communication and to feel a great deal of frustration and anger about the behavior of others.  Such ambivalence is at the heart of my own existence.

In many ways, ambivalence is often at the heart of a culture.  Let us, for example, imagine the fiercely patriotic areas of South Carolina and Virginia during the revolutionary generation.  These people risked their life and property in order to seek independence from Great Britain, and some of them wrote moving and poetic speeches and documents defending the legitimacy of their rebellious acts in ways that still inspire patriotic Americans today.  Over and over again, in the face of the corrupt discourse of imperialism and the corrupt domestic politics of Great Britain that allowed for rotten boroughs, the disenfranchisement of “new” cities and colonies and Catholics and the vast majority of citizens, they declared the equality of man.  Yet their fierce rhetoric did not, and certainly does not, disguise their ambivalence in two essential ways.  For one, they desired to be seen and respected as elites themselves, not exactly equal in all respects with the citizens they led.  For another, many of those who spoke out the loudest about freedom were themselves slaveowners who denied the freedom of those who labored on their own plantations and in their own mansions built on the blood and sweat and toil and tears of the oppressed.  Our generation has within it contrary tendencies both to praise the rhetoric and to lament the imperfect conduct of the same esteemed founding fathers of our country.

Whatever our own proclivities when it comes to judging the ambivalence of others, we ought to be sensitive to the fact that all of us live ambivalent lives as a result of being human beings.  We all see ourselves as far more noble and consistent with our ideals than we are in actuality.  We judge ourselves by our intentions and judge others by the results of their behaviors.  We clearly see the flaws and shortcomings in others that we turn away from when looking in the mirror in incomplete self-examination.  Even when we recognize that we have much to be ambivalent about, we have a hard time expressing that complicated package of ambivalence that we may feel.  We are pulled in different directions by different currents, trying to steer our ships and avoid being wrecked on the reefs that surround those destinations we are striving to reach.  Sometimes there are no safe harbors in the storms of life.  How can we be just to ourselves and others in the face of these mixed emotions, and how do we convey those feelings without being cruel or unkind to those whose only fault may be being in the wrong place at the wrong time–too close for us to feel comfortable and too distant to feel intimate?

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/03/24/book-review-the-founding-conservatives/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/12/15/this-is-my-truth-tell-me-yours/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/08/02/book-review-understanding-trauma/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2015/01/28/life-is-like-a-box-of-chocolates/

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About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Christianity, History, Musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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