The Importance of Culture Is Underrated

Everyone likes to belong. Whatever it is that you want to belong to, identifying as part of a group is one of the key human traits. Some primarily identify as a member of their family – probably the strongest and most common expression of this tribal instinct in humans – others as a member of certain cultural groups, still others as members of various societies or clubs. Identifying as a member of a culture, however, is currently the most interesting type of this phenomenon, particularly in light of recent reading. Mostly because the presidential election of 2016 has given me much food for thought as regards divisions along cultural lines as opposed to demographic or socioeconomic, I’ve recently delved into two works that treat upon cultural/sociological issues: American Nations and Black Rednecks, White Liberals (finished the former, working through the latter).

These books are written from two very different places, judging by their authors’ tone or unconscious/conscious biases, but oddly enough arrive at some similar conclusions. For example, American Nations is one of the few, recent books I’ve read by an explicitly liberal or even democratic socialist author who admits to the importance of cultures, while Black Rednecks, White Liberals also heavily underscores the role group cultures have played in American history. But where American Nations explores the fascinating impact of the group of Scottish/Irish Borderlanders arriving in Appalachia and parts of other regions and how their fierce independence and revulsion or mistrust of authority have swung either to one side – in fighting with the North during the Civil War – or to the other – their role as key production sites of booze in Prohibition – Black Rednecks, White Liberals takes it a step further, identifying the redneck culture as originating among that group and being passed on to certain segments of black populations in the area, and then being transplanted to Northern ghettos and contributing to the birth of black ‘gangsta’ culture.

(Sidenote: I also have somewhat of a personal stake in this as I’ve been rather intrigued by my own family’s colliding/contrasting origins, given my maternal ancestors are all Swedish, while my paternal ancestry is almost exclusively Scots/Irish/Welsh i.e. Celtic mutt and the mishmash of Appalachia and Scandinavian traits make for a fascinating cocktail to deal with.)

Now, as is common with most such books, I fear that both authors get a bit carried away with what one could call the Gladwell syndrome, where contrarian ideas are stretched too thin to accommodate outlier trends and facts, but the notions presented are useful, and, furthermore, address a key problem I’ve struggled with in many environs: a relativistic attitude toward cultures.

I’m a fan of political civility, one kind of P.C., but not the other, political correctness. I don’t think correctness is very common, particularly when the subjects are human beings. The latter kind of P.C. culture nowadays is producing quite a few problems, as many have noted in diatribes against the wimpiness of current college students or in the sadly frequent backlashes against movements like Black Lives Matter. But perhaps the rather more controversial issue is that nowadays many are encouraged to think of cultures as being relatively equal, or, rather, all different cultures are to be respected.

This is usually generated by a P.C. approach to avoiding clashes about ethnicities or confrontations about behavior but it’s deeply counterproductive. Cultures are nebulous yet very real things, herein defined as a set of traditions and associated values that guide behaviors adopted by a certain group, often related along ethnic or religious lines. And being able to make value judgments about cultures is difficult, since they are often associated with value judgments of ethnicities or religions.

But let’s start off with the base assumption that each individual human being is intrinsically equal in worth, regardless of what extrinsic value – whether economic, social, moral, etc. – they are perceived to or actually possess. Then one can hopefully proceed to recognizing that different groups of individuals that associate along similar cultural lines will tend to adopt behaviors resulting from the shared cultural values that, while in no way changing that intrinsic worth. And then you can arrive at what everyone recognizes even if they don’t acknowledge: certain cultures tend to possess concentrations of more productive and desirable traits than others. Relevant historical examples include the tendency of Jewish cultures – technically sub-cultures – in producing stable families that achieve high levels of education, occasionally material wealth and often many impressive achievements in various fields such as mathematics or science.

It’s not rendering judgments on a whole culture – it’s simply observing some tend to be more productive on average than others in promoting desirable traits. Although broader and shifting from ethnicity to ethnicity, immigrant culture in the U.S. tends to be the same, with determined individuals starting off with little often climbing socioeconomic ladders relatively quickly. In Black Rednecks, White Liberals, the author Thomas Sowell identifies Jewish, Koreans, Chinese, Mexicans, Polish, etc. all as examples of the former, although he ventures to state that the Irish, for example, tended to succeed more in athletic or entertainment endeavors while the Jewish excelled in academic fields more often.

I doubt I would go that far, without more closely scrutinizing the underlying data. But I will say that making value judgments of relative cultural values should be more encouraged nowadays, rather than repressed. In dismissing cultural comparisons, it’s too easy to fall back into “walled gardens” of thought and lazily condemn, say, Trump supporters as ignorant rednecks when in fact many savvy and well-educated people support him for a variety of reasons. When you consign criticism of cultures to the realm of controversy, you are refusing to grapple with the messiness of cultures, which contributes to misunderstanding the good and bad sides of every culture that people consciously or unconsciously identify with, and which has consequently shaped their actions. Analysis of culture is an excellent heuristic for grappling with problems of people and policy, and doing so in all honesty rather than avoiding the chance of uncomfortable confrontation will only help in the future.

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