January 2, 2013

Race and Culture

Race and culture are two ideas often tightly if unconsciously intertwined in contemporary political discourse. My purpose here is to untangle them.

Race, if it exists at all, is probably not a relevant determinant of anything important in and of itself. In other words, being white, black, Asian – or Jewish or Indian, if you care to parse those particular gradations – probably does not bequeath to an individual anything of much importance genetically. Blacks are prone to sickle-cell anemia, Jews to Tay-Sachs disease, and so forth – but I am aware of no one who has ever made a serious case for the superiority of one race over another based on disease resistance. Cases have been made for the intellectual superiority of one group or another on the basis of various tests (Herrnstein and Murray being only the most recent of many). None of these surveys, not surprisingly, have ever eliminated environmental considerations as a major factor in their results, or probably will ever do so. If you give two individuals intelligence tests and one of them is a university grad student while the other was until recently being raised by dogs, you will get entirely predictable results. Such comparisons, frankly, aren’t even very interesting.

Based on the accomplishments of a few gifted individuals of all races, it is evident that no human group is genetically incapable of high achievement in the mental realm. My intuition is that looking for decisive differences between the races is likely to be not only an offensive pursuit, but also a fruitless one. I believe people should be free to pursue offensive and fruitless questions, but I don’t expect anything interesting to come of that one. My further intuition is that if you could devise a perfect test for intelligence that excluded all environmental factors (first assuming you could decide what “intelligence” even is) you would indeed find that the average intelligence scores of the various human genetic groups would not be identical. Biology doesn’t have equality as a goal, so no doubt if there were some absolute standard of intelligence we would not discover perfect symmetry empirically. However, I believe the variance between groups would be insignificant compared to the variance between individuals within groups. Every group has geniuses; every group has imbeciles. We know that with reasonable certainty.

What I have said above about intelligence I believe to be true of other “mental” attributes – creativity, memory, intuition, etc. – as well. No doubt you could tease out the occasional subtle difference due to long term environmental effects on genetics, but I believe these would be minor. In short, I have no reason to believe that the phenotypical characteristics of race are anything more than superficial. It is important to understand this before we continue.

Culture, obviously, is a different kind of entity. I use the term “culture” in a broad sense, to mean the set of values and beliefs one gets from identification with a particular group. I make no distinction between the terms “culture” and “subculture.” Religions, in my view, are also chiefly cultural entities. While they entail certain kinds of beliefs about the nature of reality, possession of such beliefs help to define an individual culturally. By “culture” I mean that part of us which was shaped by environment rather than by genes, but which is not the product or our uniquely individual experience. If you hate cats because a cat scratched you as a child, that is not a feature of your culture. If you hate cats because everyone you know hates cats, that’s a feature of your culture.

Apart from the gene-environment distinction (or nature-nurture, if you prefer) it should also be obvious that race and culture differ in another important way. To say that one race is superior to another in some non-superficial sense is doubtful, suspect, and probably impossible to prove. To say that one culture is superior to another by some particular specified criteria is, on the other hand, a reasonable claim. There may be no absolute standard of cultural superiority, but it is accurate to say that given any single criteria for achievement, some cultures meet that standard better than others. If this sounds bigoted, consider that Nazism meets my definition of a culture. Any flaccid notion that everyone’s beliefs are good, equal, and compatible has to either embrace Nazism, or artificially exclude it from the cultural sphere.

The question of whether one culture is perceived as superior to another is, in most cases, a question of values. Since the values one has are largely a question of the culture one is a part of, the matter of cultural superiority is also largely circular. If what is most important to you is some belief that only members of your culture hold, then your culture is superior to all others by definition. Cultures are self-perpetuating, self-protecting sets of ideas – memes, if you like Richard Dawkins’ word.1

Very few people look at cultures as abstract entities with particular strengths and weakness. Rather, most of us view other cultures through the lens of our own. If we could achieve an entirely detached perspective, we could see that certain patterns of beliefs and behaviors produce certain outcomes, and that cultures, stripped of our prejudices for or against them, participate like any other entity in the causal universe. Nazism, for example, was an evolutionary dead end – not because it was nasty (many cultures are nasty) but because it brought about its own rapid demise. Conversely, the culture of the Kalahari Bushmen, as appealing or as unappealing as it might be to us, must be given credit for its longevity. Still, if what some Nazis wanted was a Wagnerian opera with a dramatic ending, then their culture was a complete success while the culture of the Bushmen remains a boring failure. Causation is neutral; it offers neither awards nor censures – only outcomes.

The interplay between cultures is a complex thing, but some insight may be had by an analogy. Imagine a culture as an individual, and the interplay of different cultures around the globe as a kind of community. It is easy to understand that individuals have different abilities and different ways of living, that they have various attachments to one another as well as various grievances. It is understandable that individuals compete over the same resources; that they sometimes cooperate and sometimes settle their differences less amiably through force or coercion. Some individuals are relatively productive and independent. Others, for any number of reasons, are wholly or largely dependent on the productivity of others. This far, at least, the analogy between individuals and cultures holds good. To use a relatively non-controversial example, if one considers the American entertainment industry as a kind of subculture it can be seen to exhibit characteristics as outline above.2 It makes a living amusing others – there are no farms or manufacturing plants in Hollywood. It sometimes cooperates with other subcultures by championing their causes. It sometimes attacks other subcultures by demonizing them. During the Second World War, it championed American values we would now consider conservative and it demonized the Japanese. Currently, it champions the left and demonizes conservatives. It gets along very happily with commerce. It buckled under pressure to McCarthyism in the 1950s. Like Congress, the banking industry, and the Catholic Church, is has its own internal customs and traditions, its own brand of self identity, but it could not exist without some other more pedestrian culture to feed and clothe it. A country populated solely by actors, directors, publicists and producers would obviously be unsustainable.

In the contest of cultures currently underway in the United States, and perhaps in Western Europe as well, accusations of racism are frequent. While genuine racism still exists, both among conservatives and liberals, most such accusations are misplaced. True racism entails what we were discussing earlier – a belief that the genetics that make you look a certain way also make you behave a certain way. The Nazis were true racists, as were the many Americans who believed, during the Second World War, that every last Japanese on the planet should be killed, regardless of their upbringing or their citizenship. The Klu Klux Klan is a truly racist organization, as is Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam. Most of what is called racism now, however, is something rather different – a conflict between cultures.

The United States of America is, frankly, an oxymoron. While we are bound together by a thin web of pseudo-communication technologies (like Facebook) and a massive media-driven outpouring of clich├ęs that have taken the place of tradition, we are divided by politics, religion, outlook, values and many other distinctions – most of them more important than race. Race, which used to be a major delineator in and of itself, has, I think, become chiefly relevant as an indicator of a person’s probable membership in a certain culture. Not many people judge a person’s race per se, but rather they judge the culture that most members of the person’s race bear allegiance too. Race, then, has become like any other visible characteristic.

If one sees a large white man in black leather with tattoos and a beard, it is not bigoted to assume he probably rides a motorcycle. He may not, and some motorcycle riders do not fit such a description, but the correlation is close enough that a reasonable person will make the connection. And so it is with race. I have, for example, met uneducated, unsuccessful Jews – but they are few and far between. I tend to assume, on meeting someone Jewish, that I’m meeting a fairly successful, fairly educated person and I treat them accordingly until proven wrong. I don’t assume they came out of the womb with a diploma and well-paying job; I assume they are a member of a culture which values education and material success. Everyone is prejudiced in at least this sense. When we see another human being, we do not see a gray, genderless, raceless object in nondescript clothing. Rather, we see a collection of clues about who and what they are. It is a virtue to be open-minded enough to overrule our initial impressions in light of new information, but it is neither virtuous nor possible not to have initial impressions. It is good to learn not to discriminate in the face of contrary evidence – but it would be absurd never to discriminate on any basis at all.

Very very few of the conservatives that I know are racists. Rather, they are partisans of a particular culture – a culture that most of them are delighted to see minorities participate in. They are not racists – they are just not multiculturalists. While this was obviously not the case in the 1950s, it is the case now. Many in the Tea Party loved Herman Cain, not because they wished to conceal some dark inner racism by pretending to embrace a black man, but because he was one of them – a genuine embodiment of their values. They do not feel compelled, however, to pretend to love the hip-hop culture, which has nothing constructive to offer. They do not hate Mexicans – they hate illegals. Many liberals, on the other hand, are so afraid of seeming racist that they will attempt to throw their arms around any cultural views at all, no matter how restrictive or bigoted, so long as they were not originated by conservative white people. At some point during my lifetime, the tables turned.

1 Cultures are also quite amorphous things. One’s association with a certain culture is not always cleanly definable. I, for example, find myself roughly on the conservative side of most issues. However, I wasn’t born into a conservative family, and I hold a number of positions most conservatives would disagree with. I do not believe in God, I am not blindly pro-military, etc. Even people born into cultures can have certain non-conforming beliefs, and any discussion of cultures in the abstract tends to ignore this. In some sense, cultures are only discussible as stereotypes – and I don’t claim any special exemption from this difficulty.

2 I want to make it clear that I am not asserting that every occupation or every industry is a culture. There is a certain critical mass of common rituals, beliefs, and institutions that are required to make a group of human beings cohesive. I doubt there is a culture of optometrists. While one finds a certain commonality among police officers, there is no police culture at a national level because they lack any organizational institution at that level. The American entertainment industry, on the other hand, is bound together by a limited number of studios, networks, and common unions. Individual police departments can have cultures in a small but relevant sense, but lacking national institutions their cultures end at the city limits. The cultures of corporations are similar in the sense that they tend to dissolve at the end of the work day.

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