Culture, Physics, Noise, & Thrawn

I am a big fan of Timothy Zahn’s books about the Star Wars character Thrawn, but one critique I would offer is on the way that Thrawn derives insights about entire populations based on their artwork. It’s a fun part of the stories and I don’t mind suspending disbelief as I jump into the fiction worlds that Zahn has helped create, but culture is too turbulent for the ideas to really hold if you don’t work extra hard to suspend your disbelief. The reality is that culture is ever moving, shifting, and swirling, and drawling large conclusions about anyone and anything from artwork is probably not a good judgement practice.
 
 
In the book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari demonstrates this by contrasting culture with physics. He writes, “every culture has its typical beliefs, norms, and values, but these are in constant flux. … Unlike the laws of physics, which are free of inconsistencies, every man-made order is packed with internal contradictions.” Whether it is our political beliefs, the larger influencing factors that shape our media and artwork, or our individual opinions and mood, there is a lot of noise that influences our cultural products. We all see the world through unique perspectives influenced by where we happen to be at any given moment, what our past experiences have been, and factors that we are not even aware of. Drawing a single conclusion about anything is hardly ever possible, even for ideas and memes that are shared throughout a culture.
 
 
It is not just Thrawn who draws large overarching conclusions about entire groups of people based on their cultural outputs. Thrawn works because it is something we all do. It is easy to watch a sporting even where our favored team is losing and decide that the opposing team’s fans are savage animals. It is easy to see high school kids these days and decide that they are all degenerates based on seeing the way that a few of them dress and behave. It is easy to make broad assumptions and generalizations about people in another country after seeing a tourism advertisement. In each of these areas our own biases, the randomness of who we see and when, and even deliberate propaganda and framing influences the way we come to understand the world. But how people act and behave, how people dress, and what cultural outputs they create constantly change and are not the same between people or even within the same individual over time. Unlike physics, the culture of a people is constantly ebbing and flowing. It is constantly up for interpretation and debate, and constantly influenced by outside forces or appropriations. In a way we are all Thrawn, making grand pronouncements about others, without recognizing just how turbulent culture truly is and how much noise and variability is possible within a culture.

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