The Overculture vs. Reciprocity, Redux

In western societies (like all societies), people have fundamental and largely unspoken assumptions about how the world is supposed to work and how we are to behave.

Subscribers to these assumptions believe that they are inherently entitled to certain rights, for example, and that governance should protect these rights and enable redress if they are violated: something called justice. They assume that sexually exclusive life commitment by two partners is the default and only “real” relationship format, which is known as monogamy. They view men as superior to women in a wide variety of ways, and that women exist primarily to advance the wishes of men, a system called patriarchy. They accept hierarchical authority to set behavioral rules and the policing power of governance up to and including the usage of violence to enforce them, an arrangement known as the social contract. They view other cultures as inferior to their own, and believe it acceptable to subjugate and exploit them for their cultural resources and homelands, which is colonialism. They view darker-skinned people and people of non-European extraction with suspicion, if not hostility and/or contempt, which is racism. They assume that an acceptably “normal” relationship is between a (cis-gendered) man and a (cis-gendered) woman, which is heteronormativity. They assign particular qualities, behaviors, interests and even colors as “belonging” to one gender or another, which are gender norms. They agree that the exchange of labor ultimately benefiting an investor class for the means to acquire life necessities like shelter, food and health care is a valid and normal transaction, and that they are entitled to whatever they can afford with money, which is capitalism, and that to loyally and diligently engage in this exchange is both a moral good, which is celebrated as the work ethic, and will lead to economic and status advancement, which is meritocracy. They are uncomfortable and insecure about sexuality and pleasure, which leads them to condemn those who openly enjoy and celebrate them, condemning them as immoral hedonists.

And they accept and presume a dominating and exploitative relationship with the Earth and its creatures: that they are here for human use, consumption and control. This is an assumption so deeply sown into our culture’s beliefs that we don’t even have a word for it: it is hard for us to imagine any alternative.

There are other tenets of the implicit societal paradigm, but these will do for the discussion I write about today. As you can see, the implications of these core beliefs are profound for the societies that hold and perpetuate them, and for the people who are oppressed because of them.

I am not saying that these beliefs are good things, nor that many people don’t resist some of them. Most of them are extremely problematic. But these are the assumptive subtexts that establish the framework and “set the table” for how we relate with one another and organize our society.

A shorthand term for this is the Overculture: a set of implicit assumptions and rules that we learn as we grow up and behave in accordance with (by and large) under the assumption that they are what must be subscribed to so we can function as a society. These mutual implicit agreements extend to every right we assume to be our own. They are not “endowed by a Creator”, nor are they folded into the laws of physics.

They are cultural. And not all cultures share them, which means they are not inherent in human nature.

They can be changed.

As we can see, many of the beliefs promulgated by the Overculture are rooted in falsehoods and baseless prejudices. And certainly many of us fight hard to cleanse ourselves of some or all of these tacit beliefs, which can in some cases make it very hard to live in our societies, particularly for those victimized by the bigotry encoded in our social assumptions or who refuse to trade the time of their lives for the benefit of capital. The struggle to advance the status, well-being, dignity and justice afforded to the people oppressed by these beliefs has carried on for centuries and continues today. It is work we are all called to be a part of.

Making change–in ourselves, in our societies–requires examples of how we want to be. And the values that have dominated the world are not it (let’s face it, the totalitarian, obedient approach of the Chinese Overculture, for example, is no better than that of the West).

So we have to look to the cultures of people who have been steamrolled, erased, oppressed and suppressed by the Overculture. We have to look to indigenous people.

In her must-read book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes both as the botany doctorate she became and the member of the Citizen Potawatomi tribe she was born. And from the latter perspective, she talks a lot about reciprocity: a baseline assumption that we are born not with rights, but with responsibilities to one another, to future generations and to the Earth of which we are a part.

There is so much folded into this radically different cultural view, and much of it dovetails perfectly with Atheopagan Principles: there is humility. There are social responsibility, responsibility to subsequent generations, and pleasure positivity. And most significantly, there is reverence for the Sacred Earth.

The Overculture is insidious. We grow up submerged in it, watching our parents and everyone around them behave according to its edicts and absorbing its beliefs like hot water infusing steeping tea. But it is essential, both personally and socially, to rigorously interrogate the assumptions we make about our rights, our responsibilities, and our expectations and opinions of one another.

The vision of Atheopaganism is a world without many of the tacit assumptions of the Overculture: without the bigotry, without the narrow-mindedness, without the exploitative relationship with our planet. A world in which we assume the best of one another, celebrate and cooperate with the biosphere to mutual benefit, and we lift one another up, living with more joy and celebration.

It’s an attainable world. But to get there, we have to understand our assumptions and work to transform them.

It’s a start to be able to look at ourselves, our actions and the world around us and see all the ways people are behaving as if the assumptions of the Overculture are true. Then, we can begin to change ourselves and challenge the culture around us.

So-called Western civilization has succeeded wildly by some measures, particularly as measured by its aggressive expansion to dominate Earthly territory*. But it has done so on the backs of subjugated and oppressed people and the degradation of the very Earth itself. It is neither just nor sustainable, and its axioms are not a formula for human happiness generally, but rather for the inflated luxury of elites.

Here in late-stage capitalism, it’s becoming obvious to more and more of us that the Overculture is not serving us: indeed, that it is killing us and the planet of which we are a part. Let us be the leading edge of transformation of both ourselves and our societies.


*Many defenders of the Overculture argue that modern medicine and technologies are achievements of the capitalist system and that overall human life expectancy and quality of life have been increased by them. I should point out that it is reasonable to believe that societies other than capitalistic ones would have developed advanced technology had they not first been subjugated and cast into servitude by imperial powers. As it is, those who serve the resource demands of capitalism live in squalor and suffering throughout the world while relative elites enjoy the fruits of their labor.

Now, would some technologies and means of production have been avoided for the sake of harmony with the Earth?

Of course. As should be.

7 thoughts on “The Overculture vs. Reciprocity, Redux

  1. Great points here. I agree, especially in regards to monogamy (I practice ethical/consensual non monogamy). But not sure exactly how the reciprocity of the tribe you mention above is all that different than meritocracy. Or has different aims. There still seems to be an assumption that a bill may come due or that we might {gasp!} receive something we did not in fact deserve or earn by simply “being”. A quid pro quo to life. I obviously disagree, feeling every life is worthy regardless of how much they give back to the community and especially despite the fact that someone above them could and should humiliate them if they don’t play along. That is what the word humble has come to be used for. The same sort of capitalistic exchange that should happen in but one social construct. Sure, if you’re going to be here on earth, you have to summon your desire to survive every day in order to stay alive, but there should be a balance between what is expected and the willingness to just let someone be and take care of them when they express that they are in need. you speak of is all that much different than meritocracy. There still seems to be an assumption that a bill may come due or that we might {gasp!} receive something we did not in fact deserve or earn by simply “being”. A quid pro quo to life. I obviously disagree, feeling every life is worthy regardless of how much they give back to the community and especially despite the fact that someone above them could and should humiliate them if they don’t play along. That is what the word humble has come to be used for. The same sort of capitalistic exchange that should happen in but one social construct. Sure, if you’re going to be here on earth, you have to summon your desire to survive every day in order to stay alive, but there should be a balance between what is expected and the willingness to just let someone be and take care of them when they express that they are in need.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Atheopaganism, Cultural Appropriation and Creating New Culture – Atheopaganism

  3. Pingback: Atheopaganism, Cultural Appropriation and Creating New Culture

  4. “And they accept and presume a dominating and exploitative relationship with the Earth and its creatures: that they are here for human use, consumption and control. This is an assumption so deeply sown into our culture’s beliefs that we don’t even have a word for it: it is hard for us to imagine any alternative.” I think a lot of that is summed up with the term anthropocentrism: the (mistaken) belief that humans and their interests and preferences must always be centered and privileged, and that no other organisms should ever be so. Anthropocentrism can justify cutting a stand of old-growth forest for the sake of profit for a few investors (and a handful of dangerous, unsustainable jobs for the working class). Deep Ecology and related philosophies, echoing many indigenous traditions and worldviews (the “old growth cultures” that evolved in situ over millennia), hold some antidotes to anthropocentrism, including the principles of reciprocity so beautifully illuminated in Kimmerer’s work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great comment–you’re saying exactly what I mean here.

      I have to say that there are aspects of Deep Ecology that are really problematic, however, such as the push for a “return to the Stone Age” on the part of many of its members, which is deeply ableist and essentially tells people like me who depend on modern medical technology to survive that our lives don’t matter.

      If there is a way out, it is through and beyond, not by going back. But we must certainly learn things that “Western Civilization” forgot under centuries of Christian domination and resultant discounting of the Earth.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I really appreciate that you’ve listed (some of) the assumptions so clearly. I have had a general awareness for most of my life (even as a teenager raised among conservative and unquestioning adherents of the Overculture) that there is something awry with the dominant worldview in modern Western society.

    But whenever I try to write about it or clarify my thoughts and feelings around the subject, I find myself unable to spontaneously or concisely extract the details of my disagreement with these assumptions. I sometimes feel I need a history degree (or philosophy or political science or all three!) to fully understand why I have such a problem with our dominant culture.

    This also makes it somewhat difficult to know where to start when it comes to changing the beliefs that arise out of these assumptions. It’s the only investigation I consider worthwhile though, and I appreciate that you’re looking into this as well. It’s good to feel connected with like-minded folk.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think it’s hard for many of us to “step back far enough” from the assumptions we were raised with to see that they are there. I’ve only been chewing on this for about 35 years, so I’ve figured out a thing or two, but I’m sure there are aspects of the Overculture I still can’t see. Like its elevation of scientific/factual knowledge as more important than cultural knowledge, for instance.

      Liked by 1 person

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