Personal Issues #2: The Culture of Not

An attempt to explain a amorphous culture that defines my past.

Over this summer I took a trip to California for a research conference, visited Disneyland to celebrate my partner’s graduation, and visited her family. After I got back home I was in a state of consternation. During my trip, I experienced several different cultures — familiar, design, professional, and others — but upon reflection, I realized where my troubles lied. I could not define a culture either familiar or otherwise for my hometown of Savannah. This was wrong, I knew it. After all, everyone knows about Southern Culture, everyone knows what it means to be Southern and to be a Southerner. But the more I tried to describe the culture of my past I couldn’t find a solid descriptor. That is until I realized something. The culture of my past is a culture of not; a culture that used negative space to define its shape without having to define what exactly it is.

Already I can feel the specters of my past swarming up from my unconscious screaming counters to my mental argument, but I must ask: Does it matter? My past is my past and these memories sure are defensive of such a simple idea. Maybe it is because, much like the rest of my past, they are created from nots: “you’re the good son,” “you don’t air dirty laundry,” and “family comes first.” But those are actually defined statements with clear understandable meanings, right? Well strap in, my past is one where context, and the lack thereof, plays a key aspect of everyday life.

To dip into language studies for a moment: Language and Culture are inexorably tied. To understand one is to better understand the others. This holds true for foreign languages, hobby cultures, and societal culture. Why do I say this? Because the culture of not might be based on the American English language, but it is one that relies heavily on context and implication. On what is being implied by the words, not what is being said. This combination of language and culture causes many of my present day hangs up, all due to the ill-defined space created by these nots. For example, the high praise I received from my high school coach at my final football banquette: “You’re not strong, you’re not fast, you’re not athletic, but you follow directions.” Explicitly, this reads, at best, like a backhanded compliment. Implicitly, and with the proper context, he was attempting to compliment my intelligence and ability to adapt to the strategies during the football season.

The example above is why I struggled during my trip. The places I visited wore their culture on their sleeves. And even still, digging into these areas revealed more explicit subcultures. There was a definition to them. Something I could point to or explicitly state what was the core or part of the area. However, reflecting upon my past I couldn’t do that without needing to explain implicit asterisk of each example. The stories from my past, when shared, bring gasps of revulsion from listeners unable to understand just how, what seemed normal during the occurrence of the story, could be commonplace. If I ever meet you in person reader let me regale you with how I learned that “Love is Like a Crockpot.”

So how do I explain where I come from, what I was raised in, and what shaped the first two decades of my life? How you do paint with negative space and get a clear definition? You cannot, and this willing obfuscation is purposeful. This haze of meaning is likened to that used by H.P. Lovecraft to describe “indescribable horrors beyond time and space” in his various works. However, whereas Lovecraft used this negative space to attempt to describe things unknowable to man, my past used it for duplicity, deception, and control.

Perhaps the best way to show this is the phrase “Southern Manners”. Now to those without context this recalls people pulling out chairs, polite society, and saying all their Sirs and Ma’ams. To those with context, you know Southern Manners as being two-faced; appearing to care and be polite then immediately turning around and undercutting the very person your hosting. Examples of this permeate my past, to list them all would be too laborious and time consuming for everyone involved. And it shows in the culture. The south is a people of “not this.” It has the appearance of civility without the need to be civil. Best still, this negative space creates a hard control structures where those with clearly defined characteristics unwelcomed or unwanted by the community can be ostracized and push away.

A control structure that is great for creating “teaching moments,” as my family and school use to say. Moments where, because you are not describing something explicitly, you are allowed lots of wiggle room to exasperate and manipulate people. A simple version of this is the old stereotype of the used car dealer. The dealer sells you a junker by telling what is fixed or needs repair, but never any of the good or negatives of the car. Then, when you drive off and it breaks down a week later, the dealer can defend themselves by claiming they you never asked about X, Y, and Z problems when you bought the car. Now, this is a simple trope example, but with a bit of imagination, dear reader, I’m sure you can think of much simpler and commonplace uses of such a technique. Such as politics.

Yes, let us deal with the elephant in the room. Politics in the South. The culture of not is one of politics. Which, with the context of the tie between culture and language, seems fitting: Both rely on duplicitous language and propagation of self-constructed mental ideals without concrete definitions. But there is more such as dog-whistle politics. I’m sure at some point in the past few years you have heard this term being discussed. To those not in the know, dog-whistle politics is a means of using coded language to target specific subgroups in an address to a larger group of people. To put it another way, it uses selective, explicit terms to provide implicit understanding to those with the context to understand. So next time you hear a Southern politician talk about “returning to the good old days of the past” make sure you take into context who and where he is speaking. To most individuals of the previous generation, the “good old days” means the ill-remembered Roaring 50’s. However, to a certain sub-group, the “good old days” are the even more distorted and “idealized” time of the Antebellum era.

So, what does all this rambling mean? Well, unfortunately, I can’t tell you. See, the evanescent nature of the culture of not serves as a defense against understanding. I must rely on the same tactics of implication to try and provide context to the issues. At which point I can be rebuked, or in a more common move gas-lighted, by defenders with a simple, “No, you miss understand.” So, therefore, I penned this blog to try and put to paper my understanding and feelings, while also trying to provide context for further exploration of this topic. I haven’t figured out my past or where I came from, but I will continue to dredge my memories to see what I can find.