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What Is Culture? The Stunning Revolution In Rights

What is culture? This is raw data and analysis on the big-picture evolution of society and humankind.

Here we’ll be looking at the recent global revolution in gender equality and tolerance for abortion, divorce and homosexuality.

In doing so, I’ll debunk the common narratives that are currently clouding our vision. These include:

  • the idea that we’re living in an ever-darkening world,
  • the belief that Western society is trampling on women and gays,
  • the falsehood that no progress is being made.

This is key reading for anyone interested in issues of diversity and equality, and provides a haven from the shitstorm (pardon my French) dominating Western media today.

And I’ll be interpreting all this work from my evolutionary perspective on humankind, which (in my humble opinion) I don’t think Ingelhart had.

This article follows on from my first article on the evolution of culture. I encourage you to read that too.

Let’s jump into Ingelhart’s research into gender equality and tolerance for gays. This is an exquisite analysis into how gender- and sexuality-related norms have changed globally in the last 40 years.

What Is Culture? The Two Crucial Value Classes

Before anything else, let’s talk about Rigid norms and Freedom norms. This is how Ingelhart captured countries’ levels of diversity and equality in his surveys, and they’ll be crucial in this analysis.

These two groups contain norms that go together. As you’ll see, if we score highly on a Rigid norm, we’re likely to score highly on the others.

In his research, Ingelhart asked individuals to score their level of agreement with each Rigid (Pro-fertility) norm on a scale. He then used the aggregate score to decide how tolerant and open that individual was. A society’s overall score is the average of all the scores of individuals in the society.

As you can see, if we support Freedom norms, we value participation, equal opportunities and sexual freedom. If we support Rigid norms, we support the exact opposite.

Interestingly, there is a strong correlation (0.87) between countries’ scores on Ingelhart’s six-item index and their scores on the Gender Empowerment Measure, which gives his index further weight.

Now we’re ready to see his six key hypotheses regarding Rigid norms and Freedom norms.

Ingelhart’s Six Key Hypotheses

1. Rigid norms and Freedom norms are sets of congruent values that appear together.

2. High physical and existential security is conducive to Freedom norms. Countries with high GDP, high life expectancy and low infant mortality are likelier to support Freedom norms, as are the most secure segments of a given population.

3.Life security has risen in last 50 years in developed countries, bringing a values gap between young and old.

4. Levels of per-capita GDP, life expectancy and infant mortality of several decades ago best predict the current level of support for new values in a society.

5. Cultural change can reach a level at which Freedom values become the status quo. Changes promoting sexual tolerance and gender equality are no longer retarded – so rapid change comes.

6. New norms have a major impact on society.

What Is Culture? Ingelhart’s Key Findings On Rights

Finding 1: Level of Tolerance is Closely Linked to A society’s Income Level

The data here come from 99 countries and span the years 1981 to 2009. He used the 2000 World Bank classifications of countries as low-income, lower-middle-income, and so on.

Let’s turn our attention to this graph showing the relationship between income level and tolerance. Ingelhart built this table using countries’ income categories in 2000 and countries scores on each of the six Rigid statements.

There are several conclusions we can draw from this graph:
  • people in high-income countries supported homosexuality, women’s rights and gender equality more than any other group. People in low-income countries support these the least.
  • high-income societies were overwhelmingly tolerant, scoring between 70-90% on each of the six areas measured.
  • there is a clear relationship between a society’s income level and its level of tolerance.
  • it seems that support for one Freedom norm correlated with support for the others: e.g. high demand for equal education opportunities exists in societies with high tolerance for homosexuality (this is backed up by statistical calculations).

To be more precise, Ingelhart claimed that tolerance in these six areas in high-income societies sat at around 80%, compared to 38% in low-income societies.

And more broadly, life security (income level + life expectancy + infant mortality levels) and scores on the Postmaterialist index together explain 73% of the variation in nations’ scores.

There is one conclusion that is patently obvious to me: our levels of tolerance are not random. Intolerance (high support for the six Rigid norms) is completely natural in conditions where we need to focus on simply surviving.

And today’s most tolerant countries were severely intolerant just 100 years ago. As I promised, this data seriously undermines the idea that as Westerns we’re living in an intolerant dystopia.

Key Finding 2: Levels of Tolerance have Radically Increased in Recent Decades

Along the same lines, this second graph below indicates the overall change in countries’ support for Freedom norms over the course of survey years.

Support for Freedom norms increased in 40 of the 58 countries surveryed. And it increased in 24 of the 25 high-income countries. In fact, support for Freedom values increased in all cohorts in all 14 of the high-income societies that were involved in the entire longitudinal survey. We’ll return to this point later.

This final graph goes a long way to validating Ingelhart’s Individual-choice metric and the connection between income levels and tolerance.

Notice the countries that are least tolerant gays not only score very low on the Freedom values measure, but are all either in Africa, Asia, or the Middle East.

What Is Culture? The Norms of Pre-modern Societies

So, by and large, Rigid norms dominate in low-income societies. And Ingelhart realised that almost all societies that survive as independent nations today at one point set rigid gender roles and were intolerant to gays, divorce and unnecessary sexual activity.

This might seem barbaric, evil, crazy and immoral to modern Westerners. We’ve become used to gay rights, diversity quotas and sexual freedom, but Ingelhart has us seriously question the reasoning behind our judgement.

Faced with high infant mortality rates and low life expectancies, agrarian societies required high fertility rates to survive. Practices like homosexuality, divorce and extra-marital sex put a spanner in the works. And women with careers and responsibilities beyond the family also jeopardised the mass churning out of children required to perpetuate the species. Hence the norms that limited women to the roles of wife and mother and that demonised homosexuality and unnecessary sexual activity. This was enforced through strict, fundamentalist religious systems.

These norms still dominate today in many low-income countries. Instead of getting ideological, mounting our high horse and claiming to be morally upright and ethical if we value freedom, by recognising why we hold the values we do, we can better understand those who don’t hold them.

What Is Culture? The Rise of Freedom Norms

So if those Rigid values dominated humanity for so long, how is it that Freedom norms have come to be?

Let’s look at Ingelhart’s broad insights into the rise of Freedom norms before looking at the hard data.

In modern times, we no longer rely on traditional agriculture for our survival. We’re in the information age, where knowledge workers are the best rewarded. In the West, we’re living in unprecedented luxury and have incredible tools at our disposal: medicine, books, the Internet, more food than we need, and so forth. What effects does the move beyond agrarian societies have on the values we hold?

Well, when it comes to values regarding norms related to gender and sexuality, it has an enormous effect.

For one thing, the fertility rate needed to replace the human population has dropped. In high-income societies, life expectancy has almost doubled in the last century. Infant mortality is now a third of what it was in 1950. In fact, we’ve relaxed our child-rearing efforts so much that the birth rate is below the replacement level in some countries.

And our norms have changed too. In 1945, homosexuality was illegal in most West European countries. Now gay marriage is legal in all of them except Andorra, Liechtenstein and Italy.

Ingelhart has found that societies that remained insecure economically and physically throughout his survey years displayed little change: they remained supportive of Rigid norms.

But in other countries, he observed striking changes from one survey wave to next.

Tolerance Through the Generations

Let’s look more closely at Ingelhart’s conclusions on the link between life security (he calls this Existential Security) and Rigid/Freedom norms.

In my previous article on Ingelhart’s insights into value change, we talked in detail about intergenerational population replacement.

In certain countries, post-WW2 generations – beginning with the Boomers – have all grown up under very different conditions to prior generations. This has lead to clear values differences between young and old. As the older generations die off, their values die with them, and the values of the younger generations take over.

This is visible in the Traditional–Secular, Survival–Self-expression, and Materialist–Postmaterialist values shifts.

And it’s also visible in the move from the six Rigid norms to the Freedom norms we’ve been talking about.

From the time Western societies achieved high life security (high GDP, high life expectancy, and low infant mortality) around 40-50 years passed until the legalization of same sex marriage in these countries. This is the speed of intergenerational population replacement – those ‘decade-long time lags’ that Ingelhart so often mentions in his work.

But population replacement doesn’t tell the whole story. The movement towards tolerant norms – the Freedom norms – has gained so much momentum that it’s now outstripping good old population replacement.

The Acceleration of Tolerance

The tolerance tidal wave goes beyond just younger generations having more tolerant attitudes due to their privileges in their pre-adult years and these attitudes slowly replacing those of older generations.

In this type of change, the values of given cohorts remain relatively fixed over time. Each new cohort tends to have values that are somewhat more inclusive than the previous generation. This is Ingelhart’s standard explanation for the big-scale value changes that have taken place since World War II.

But as I mentioned earlier, Ingelhart did observe intracohort change when he measured Freedom values over time. In fact, support for Freedom values increased in all cohorts in all 14 of the high-income societies that were involved in the entire longitudinal survey.

What this means is that the Rigid–Freedom move is moving faster than population replacement – this is really good news. The younger generations are bringing older generations with them in their creation of a more tolerant society.

Ingelhart puts this down to conformist pressure – once a majority support Freedom norms, they force others to play ball. Everyday people could easily lose their job, face expulsion from their communities, and alienate friends and family if they firmly believe in the six Rigid values and express their views.

I also like to think that younger generations, with their inherently inclusive inner software, show older ones the way. They show older generations what modern life is like and how to navigate it. All young generations know is modern life – and in it, phenomena like sexism and homophobia are not only unnecessary, but repugnant.

Ingelhart’s work gives us overwhelming evidence that there is a Great Updraft. We are advancing. Society is going in a certain direction.

The Great Updraft is a palpable, living reality. Collectively we’re inching our way forward, creating a better humanity and a better world as we do.

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