A Culture of Prediction

Imagine that you are an alien who has landed on Earth by accident. You have the ability, through technology, to look just like a human and to speak any language with basic fluency, but otherwise you know absolutely nothing about any human culture.

You would be absolutely terrified, and rightly so!

I mean, humans sometimes kill each other, right? But what’s more, this doesn’t always seem to be bad! In fact, sometimes we throw people parades for it! Imagine you had no context to understand why. What if you did one of the things that made it okay – even celebrated – to kill you?

The point is that cultural knowledge is a big aspect of safety, in general. It’s not always about life and limb. Think about working with people you’ve been with for at least 10 years, in a company that you’ve been employed by for equally long. You can predict the responses to your actions there much more accurately than when it’s your first day with a brand new job. The (local) cultural knowledge gives you a certain security in your actions.

I once had a conversation with a young man online that had asked for advice about things “every man should do before he’s 30.” I gave him numerous suggestions, and one of them was to attend church, if he hadn’t already. He (and several others) took a good bit of offense to that, as if I were suggesting that they needed to find religion or become born again.

That wasn’t my intent; I wasn’t proselytizing. But the fact that he balked so severely was proof that I was right. If you live in a culture where literally hundreds of millions of people go into the same building every week to discuss their deeply-held values, it would be smart of anyone to go in and listen to that discussion. It doesn’t matter if you don’t intend to share those values (or even if you do share them, but for different reasons, or whatever). What matters is that an enormous part of the culture of America is influenced by that sub-culture, and you’re a fool if you don’t try to give an open ear and open mind to the ideas believed in by like a hundred million of your countrymen.

And not for nothing, but it is impossible – 100% impossible – to craft a coherent argument against something if you aren’t at least as familiar with the source material as those who agree with it. You can scream and wail into the void/internet, you can bounce your ideas off the walls of the echo chamber and score cheap points with people who already agree with you, but you will never ever ever create so much as an ounce of substantial argument if you refuse to engage with what you’re arguing against.

You know why? Because a good persuasive argument relies a great deal on being able to predict the other person’s response to your first point, so you can lead the conversation along the channels of logic and away from fallacy. But if you can’t predict how someone will react to even your first word, you can’t do that.

Culture is prediction, and prediction is power. Pay attention to culture, even if it’s not your own.

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