Cultural semiotics – whatever works is the rule

Cultures are made of and held together by semiotics. They are formed and exist within self-referential semiotic networks or matrices.

Semiotic cultural matrices exist solely because they work. This is why virtually all of the world’s cultures are based on falsehoods.

It doesn’t matter if something is right or wrong as long as the people within a culture keep buying the story. Once they stop buying it, the culture disintegrates or changes.

Disintegration has been the fate of almost every culture that ever existed and there is little or no chance that any culture in existence today will survive for long.

Some culture can reasonably claim contiguity with an ancestral culture dating back thousands of years, but the two are never the same. In that sense, all of us can claim contiguity with “our” cultural pasts, just as we can claim genetic contiguity with the past. It is unlikely, though, that you would recognize any of the cultures of your distant ancestors, let alone want to be part of them or even like them.

The simplicity and falsity of culture can be seen in almost anything that communicates to large numbers of people, but especially when the thing being communicated is emotional.

An example in today’s USA might be the use of the word “offense” or “offended,” as in “I am offended by what you just said.”

If the speaker said something clearly offensive, like cussing out your mother, most of us would dismiss them as drunken fools and be done with it. Some of us might want to fight, but I bet no one would say, “I am offended by what you just said!”

Being “offended” is a semiotic that carries a special meaning and a special charge. It usually comes as a surprise to the speaker, causing them to hesitate and wonder what they have done wrong. It almost always seems to require an apology and the admission that the “offended” party stands on higher ground.

But how can you “offend” without doing so knowingly? I might not like it when you stepped on my toes, but I would be a fool to feel offended if you did it accidentally.

The truth is when most people claim to be “offended” they don’t really mean it. What they mean is “you failed to show me respect in the way I demand.”

That is a very different semiotic. It often works like an ambush or a trump card that gives the listener control of what has happened and will happen next. Reason should prevail in these instances, but it rarely does because the “offended” thing works better.

Rather than “offend” anyone by illustrating this point with some recent examples from the news, please recall your own. Imagine occasions when you have heard or read about someone claiming to be “offended” by what someone else said or did. Short of direct insults, which are rare, the “offense” will almost always reduce to “failure to show respect” for some code of speech or behavior that the speaker did not know.

Being “offended” is a powerful charge that amply reveals the tackiness of cultural bonds, for it works even among people who otherwise think of themselves as reasonable.

 

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