Cultural Incompetence

We hear an awful lot of talk about culture and its importance these days.  There are workplace cultures, all kinds of religious cultures, good and bad corporate cultures, and any number of ethnic, sexual, and criminal cultures and subcultures.  According to people who conceptualize the world in this manner, any time people who are like-minded, similar looking, have sexual tastes in common, or are working on a common project come together a culture is formed.  And once this culture comes into existence, it somehow acquires the power to dictate the ideas and actions of those who are part of it.  Believers in this model of human behavior seem to think that one can therefore find out important information about someone just by learning about their “culture.”

Multiculturalism or Individuality

This reliance on culture to explain people’s motivations and behavior underlies the currently faddish theory of multiculturalism, which has generated an entire industry of self-proclaimed experts who conduct “diversity” trainings, write “cultural competency” texts, and “manage diversity” in corporations.  Although it was developed with the intent of increasing understanding among people, multiculturalism in fact only serves to promote inaccurate generalizations and stereotypes about people.  Multiculturalists believe people are simply the products of the various cultures of which they are a part and that learning about other cultures helps people better communicate and work with other people.  But they are wrong.

Each person is a distinct individual, about whom one can learn only by asking, listening, and observing.  Surely, people are influenced by all the other people in their lives.  But that does not mean that everyone exposed to the same kinds of influences turns out the same.  Even within a family where all the children are raised in the same neighborhood, participate in the same religious rituals, speak the same language, and attend the same schools, each will likely turn out quite different from the others.  One becomes an anarchist, while a sibling joins the navy; another prefers homosexual sex, while his sister finds pleasure in heterosexual relations; one is an atheist, and her brother a devout catholic.  If the experience of growing up in an institution as intimate, and sometimes overwhelming, as a family does not determine a person’s beliefs and activities, it is absurd to think that one can learn much of value about any individual person simply by gaining knowledge of their “culture.”

But that does not stop some from continuing to push the idea that cultures are monolithic and that people who are part of them can be expected to think and act alike.  Here in Anchorage a group called Bridge Builders has published a booklet titled Passport to Anchorage.  In it they list what they believe are the habits of members of various ethnic and immigrant groups.  It includes such absurd blanket statements as: women from india do not drink alcohol; displays of affection between filipino men and women are considered inappropriate; and people from laos are frank, open, and friendly.  Since these descriptions are seen as either positive or neutral, people may not be as likely to question them as they would be if people from a certain country were described in more negative terms, but that does not make such generalizations any less stereotypical or inaccurate.  While the authors of this booklet clearly recognize that americans come in all sorts of varieties and flavors, they often fail to see that this is true of people in other countries and among the different ethnic, religious, and immigrant groups within this country.  Indians, laotians, and filipinos vary among themselves as much as americans do, and people from these countries who live in the united states are as likely to identify and be seen as “american” as they are to feel and be considered representatives of their country of origin.

Any sort of sweeping statement about cultural or national characteristics is unlikely to give an accurate picture of an individual person from a nation or ethnic group that is made up of millions of different people.  This does not, however, stop the diversity trainers and authors of books such as the Passport from continuing to promote such nonsense.

Cultural Relativism and Cultural Supremacy

Some believers in the cultural view of people’s behavior do not stop at providing simplistic and inaccurate pictures of individuals.  They use  culture as a means of justifying disparate treatment of people who are considered to be from different cultural groups.  Advocates of this view argue that actions and beliefs that would otherwise not be acceptable can sometimes be justified if they are part of a person’s cultural traditions.

For example, jewish basketball players have sought to be able to wear yarmulkes on the court, practitioners of an american indian religion have argued that they should have the right to use peyote in rituals, and muslim students have sought the freedom to wear islamic headscarves in schools.  Whatever the merits of any of these practices, their advocates do not argue that dress codes or drug laws interfere with individual freedom of choice, and that anyone should be free to dress as they please and ingest whatever substances they like.  Instead they contend that yarmulkes, peyote, or headscarves are of cultural importance to some group of people and therefore members of this group should be allowed to do something other people continue to be barred from doing.  When someone asks for special treatment based on their culture, the clear message is that the traditions of groups are more important and valuable than individuals’ beliefs and preferences.

Although advocates of cultural competence might argue that these are instances where a dominant culture is showing sensitivity to a minority culture, what is actually taking place is that one culture is being valued more than another.  This is inevitable in a setting where people are seen as cultural representatives, not unique persons whose choices are respected just because they are those of peaceful human beings.  If arguments for or against such practices are based on group traditions, the conflict inevitably comes down to one between different traditional—“cultural”—practices.  And only one culture can win in such circumstances.  Favoring the traditions of a minority cultural group is no better than elevating the practices of a majority to a special status and disregarding the needs and wants of those who differ.  Inevitably, someone will feel their culture or group identity has been slighted.

Another result of looking at the world through the lens of culture is that it can lead people to believe some cultures are superior to others.  Often they consider their “own” culture to be the best, but some look around and find another that they think is better in some way: more humane, more eco-friendly, more peaceful, or some such.  But, although various groups have differing histories and current practices, there is no culture that is all good or all bad.  Members of every cultural, religious, ethnic, and national group have engaged in atrocious behaviors over the years.  The european invaders of the americas killed and enslaved indian people, but so did the aztecs and tlingits.  White people have engaged in barbaric wars and attempted genocide, but so have asian and black people. Muslims have murdered infidels and christians have slaughtered heretics and witches.  Women have been treated differently from, and considered inferior to, men in virtually every society that has ever existed.  And most human throughout history have treated, and continue to treat, other animals abominably. Despite these horrid actions, of course, people in every land and of every religion and skin color have also done wonderful, kind, and humanitarian things.  People who favor one culture over another pick and choose the things that they think best represent a culture and tend to ignore (or explain away as unimportant aberrations) the blemishes.

People who believe a certain culture is superior to others will at times go so far as to celebrate certain traditions of one group, while condemning the same practice when it is engaged in by others.  This culturally relativistic view is quite common.  For instance, one of the speakers at a couple of anti-war rallies in anchorage over the last year or so, proudly stated that she was part of a “warrior people,” the tlingits.  She and those of her listeners who applauded her speech did not see the dissonance between this statement on her part and their participation in an event supposedly organized to oppose war.  The implication was clearly that there are good warriors and bad warriors, the tlingits among the former group and the american military people waging war in iraq in the latter.  While the speaker and protestors rightly condemned the murderous behavior of united states troops in iraq, their sensitivity to “cultural” differences led many of them to romanticize the war-like traditions of another group.  This double standard serves only to dilute the anti-war message of such protests and call into question the ethical consistency of the participants.

Some actions are acceptable and some are not, and the fact (or belief) that a practice is part of one’s cultural heritage is not what makes it right or wrong.  What matters is whether it harms other people or restricts their freedom to peacefully live as they please.  Any person who leads a nonviolent life and does not interfere with the freedom of other people should, at a minimum, be tolerated and left alone.  But someone who engages in violent or otherwise coercive activities directed at others should be considered a threat and isolated, boycotted, or resisted by others, even in circumstances where they invoke their culture to justify bad behavior.

Individuals and cultures

Despite claims to the contrary, each human beings is one of a kind.  We each have our own desires, ideas, aspirations and habits.  While we may share some of these with others from the same country, region, tradition, or religion, there are many ways in which we differ from our neighbors as well.  This can be demonstrated just by looking at the people we live or work around.  Each individual thinks and lives in ways that make them different from every other person, even those with whom we allegedly share a culture.  People embrace any number of religious faiths, support various social or political movements, eat different kinds of foods, and engage in a multitude of sexual practices.  But when people are encouraged to view culture as the determining factor in what makes a person who they are, all too many let their own common sense experience of the infinite variety among people be pushed aside.

Those fighting discrimination and wishing to improve communication and cooperation among people of different skin colors and heritages at one time encouraged them not to make assumptions about others based on their complexion or culture, instead suggesting that they evaluate people based on their character and behavior.  We need to return to this outlook and strategy.  The only way to determine what another person believes or does is to engage them on a personal basis and learn about their unique qualities and activities.  While this may not be as easy as sitting in a cultural competency class and learning what “those people” do and think, interactions between individuals, unsupervised by “experts,” can provide real knowledge about others, instead of the inaccurate assumptions and general nonsense offered by the diversity hacks.  Only such personal interactions can lead to the respect, tolerance, and trust between people that is necessary if we are to have the kind of mutualist and voluntary society sought by anarchists.


Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.