Terence McKenna famously said, “Culture is not your friend.”
This five-word phrase was one of Terence’s most well-known and widely propagated memes.
Terence once defined “meme” as “the smallest unit of an idea that still has coherency.” Of memes, he once said:
“What a gene is to biology, a meme is to ideology. And so our task is to create memes. Madonna is a meme, Catholicism is a meme, Marxism is a meme, yellow sweaters are a meme… Rainbow-colored dreadlocks are a meme. Launch your meme boldly and see if it will replicate—just like genes replicate, and infect, and move into the organism of society. And, believing as I do that society operates on a kind of biological economy, then I believe these memes are the key to societal evolution. But unless the memes are released to play the game, there’s no progress.” [“Memes, Drugs, and Community”].
Terence created a lot of memes, many of which were damn insightful.
“Culture is not your friend” is no exception. It’s a powerful idea. It’s also misleading and (partially) wrong. Here’s why:
1. Terence was too vague.
In trying to compress his idea into the smallest form possible, I think Terence rendered the meaning of his meme somewhat unclear. Let me show you what I mean. Read this longer explanation from Terence of what he means by “Culture is not your friend.”:
“Culture is not your friend. Culture is for other people’s convenience and the convenience of various institutions, churches, companies, tax collection schemes, what have you. It is not your friend. It insults you. It disempowers you. It uses and abuses you. None of us are well-treated by culture.
But the culture is a perversion. It fetishizes objects. It creates consumer mania. It preaches endless forms of false happiness, endless forms of false understanding in the form of squirrelly religions and silly cults. It invites people to diminish themselves and dehumanize themselves by behaving like machines.” [“Culture is Not Your Friend“]
Do you notice the problem with this passage? Terence is saying “Culture is not your friend,” but it seems that the culture he’s actually referring to is a really specific, particular culture—namely, modern Western culture, the monoculture which has more or less swept the globe in the last 200 years.
Terence could have spared a lot of people much confusion if he had said, “The modern Western-based global monoculture is not your friend.” However, as is obvious, such a statement wouldn’t have been nearly as virulent as a meme.
Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps Terence actually meant to express that all cultures are not your friend. Elsewhere, he said:
“We are caged by our cultural programming. Culture is a mass hallucination, and when you step outside the mass hallucination you see it for what it’s worth.”
This quote suggests that he did tend to view all culture as a kind of simulation—a matrix from which we need to unplug ourselves in order to perceive reality as it is.
If this is true, though, it would seem kind of strange, as many of the ideas/practices Terence championed—most notably the use of entheogenic compounds—have been found in many cultures worldwide for thousands of years. So it seems more likely to me that he was referring specifically to modern Western culture, in which case I wish he would have been more clear about his meaning.
Whether or not Terence was referring to all culture or merely to the modern Western monoculture, my next point—and my primary criticism—still applies:
2. Not all culture is hollow brainwashing to be discarded.
This is the biggest problem I have with Terence’s famous meme.
“Culture is not your friend.” sounds really impressive. It’s hyperbolic. It’s all-encompassing. It presents itself as a kind of Red Pill.
“Everything you’ve ever been taught was a useless lie, Neo. Wake up to the matrix of culture. It’s nothing more than a prison. All of it must be overcome.”
This is cinematically compelling, but as an actual theory, I don’t think it holds water.
In practice, cultures are compendiums of millions of ideas, customs, practices, traditions, etc.—many of which are useful, and many of which are dysfunctional, hurtful, and shitty.
1/ culture is your sorta-trustworthy friend
cultures are compendiums of millions of ideas and customs—many useful, many shitty
— jordan bates (@_jordan_bates) December 21, 2016
But, in his haste to alert people to these things, I think he overlooked the many good and useful things which can be found in virtually any culture. I’m not sure if he was intentionally hyperbolic because he felt he needed to counteract a trend toward ignorance and complacency, or if he had really convinced himself that all culture is evil, enslaving, and worthless.
Perhaps you’re now thinking, “Whatever, dude! Western culture is nothing but bullshit. It isn’t your friend! It’s all a useless lie!”
In that case, I guess I would direct your attention to the supercomputer you’re currently using to read this article—the very same one which allows you instantaneous access to the world’s library of information and allows you to communicate instantly with anyone on Earth.
Is that thing a completely useless piece of garbage?
If you think so, I’m afraid I can’t agree. The device on which you’re reading this is just one of an absolute multitude of wondrous technological boons that have arisen as a result of one of Western culture’s age-old underpinnings: science.
Science has allowed us to harness the power of electricity, extend our lifespans by decades, discover the origin of our species, walk on the moon, and see beyond our solar system to grasp the unbelievable vastness of space. I’d like science to stick around, thank you very much.
If you want more examples of ways in which modern Western culture doesn’t suck, consider this passage I wrote elsewhere:
“And let’s not forget that the average [Westerner] has free education, spacious housing, plentiful food and water, a car, electricity, a plethora of modern tools and appliances, heating/air-conditioning, a computer, a smartphone, access to the world’s library of knowledge, a relatively safe community, a massive amount of freedom to do most anything one can dream up, protection by a functioning system of law and order, access to modern medical care, a TV, a video game console, bountiful other entertainment options, and considerable opportunity to improve their lot in life. None of these things should be taken for granted. The fact that we’ve devised complex systems that provide this quality of life for the majority of people… is something of a miracle. Most of these benefits didn’t exist for most of human history. In fact, for most of our ~200,000-year history (and for hundreds of millions of people in the world today), there was no guarantee that one’s basic survival needs would be met.”
At this point you may be thinking, “Yeah, well, well… A lot of the things you listed are material benefits of living in the West! Sure, those things are pretty awesome to have, but we only have them because we’re killing the Earth to get them!”
That’s partially true, but it’s beyond the scope of this article to really dig into the complexities of that line of reasoning. Suffice to say that a lot of brilliant people are currently working on and discovering solutions to make Western civilization sustainable and reduce its impact on the Earth. Furthermore, consider that all of this high technology we’ve developed is our only hope for one day leaving the Earth and expanding our civilization to other planets and beyond. Eventually, we will need to do that, or we’ll go extinct. Sooner or later, there will be another major asteroid collision or some other (natural) global cataclysm, or else eventually the Earth will be engulfed in flame when the sun enters its red giant phase and expands exponentially in size. One day, the apocalypse will come, but we might just avoid it, thanks to the technology that has been developed since the Industrial Revolution in the West.
Furthermore, it isn’t just the material benefits that have arisen as a result of the Western approach to existence that I’m lauding. There are also things like, oh, I don’t know, freedom of speech, basic human rights, freedom of artistic expression, equality of opportunity, the right to a fair trial, etc. Many of the most highly regarded principles ever devised for governing large civilizations arose in the West.
And beyond that, there are also the countless tiny things your culture does for you from the moment you’re born: It provides you with a story about who you are and what everything means that allows you to function in the world before you’re able to start asking your own questions and assembling your own stories. It provides you with a whole slew of bonding and initiation rituals that bring you closer to loved ones, build community, and give you a sense of progressing meaningfully from childhood to adulthood. It teaches you a language that allows you to communicate complex ideas and feelings to your fellow man. The list goes on and on. Cultures do all sorts of incredibly useful shit, and I daresay our lives would be damn confusing and shitty without them.
That last sentence raises another question: Is it even possible for human beings to live without a culture? Unless a human being was abandoned at birth and grew up in total isolation, they would have to be exposed to some kind of culture.
The Sense in Which Terence Was Right
Having said everything I’ve just said, you might get the idea that I’m not a big fan of McKenna.
To the contrary, I totally love the guy. I think he was a genius and one of the most original personalities ever to grace the Earth.
I also, however, think it’s healthy to disagree with one’s heroes sometimes, because if you agree with them on absolutely everything, chances are you’re taking their perspective as Gospel and not using your own thinking faculties to the fullest extent.
There is a certain sense in which I think McKenna’s “Culture is not your friend.” meme is spot-on. It goes something like this:
Culture is not your friend, in the sense that our cultures inevitably dramatically restrict our perspective. Your culture feeds you many stories about how the world works, and if you never learn to pull back the veil and see beyond your culturally-specific stories, you’re going to miss out on a lot. Reality is ridiculously vast and complex, and cultures make it a whole lot more manageable and digestible by compressing it down into tidy little boxes.
But, if you, like McKenna, are someone who is interested in exploring reality honestly to find out how it really is, you have to be able to step outside your cultural box, acknowledge that your culture’s story is hugely incomplete, and question your most cherished beliefs. This is a difficult and painful process, which is why most people don’t do it.
In sum, within the context of truth-seeking and aiming to see reality as it really is, culture is not your friend. It’s an inevitably-limiting consensus reality that must be overcome.
It should be noted that Terence McKenna was vehemently anti-dogmatic and anti-ideological in his work. He insisted that at root he believed nothing absolutely, and that his ideas should be taken more as interesting theories, not attempts to lay down some Incontrovertible Truth.
“Culture is not your friend.” is no exception. I’m sure if Terence were here today he would claim that he never believed absolutely in the maxim, but found it compelling enough to share.
So, on one hand, it seems inaccurate to say that Terence was wrong about this idea, if he didn’t actually believe it. On the other hand, his theory, though fascinating, doesn’t adequately account for the complexity of our world, which is why I penned this critique.
At the end of the day, culture is your sorta-trustworthy friend. Your culture gives you all sorts of wonderful shit, but it also misleads you in some potentially serious and disastrous ways.
The key is to reflect critically on the culture in which you are raised and to aim to decide for yourself which ideas/practices you wish to keep and which you wish to discard.
But stop fretting about all of culture being an intricate system of brainwashing that needs to be entirely abandoned. It’s not. It’s an extremely human thing, and like humanity itself, it has its groovy aspects and its dark aspects.
Keep what is good, useful, and/or necessary; let go of the rest; and may the Force be with you.