The Conflation of Culture and Race; Also Some Thoughts On Multi-Culturalism And Cultural Relativism

The Conflation of Culture and Race; Also Some Thoughts On Multi-Culturalism And Cultural Relativism

I think part of what causes a lot of our trouble in dealing with social issues in this country (USA) and also around the world is rooted in the widespread acceptance of cultural relativism and our general conflation of race and culture.

A lot of the issue comes down to poorly defined and ill used terms. The basic concept of “race” on a more scientific level is relatively bunk. While there are some basic distinctions that can be made between human populations on a genetic level these differences are minuscule and inconsequential when compared to the impact environmental influences, such as education and culture, have on behavior. For the most part, the behaviors that are significantly influence human behavior are so deeply rooted in our past that everyone shares them most significantly in my opinion tribalism and in-group vs. out-group behavior. The culture an individual is immersed in makes up a tremendous portion of that persons broader life experience and has a great deal of influence over their thoughts, behaviors, and beliefs.

I would argue that, with a few extreme exceptions when people are behaving in a racist manner it has more to do with the culture they believe the person they are discriminating against to be a part of than it actually has to do with their race. This is a very important distinction because, if true, it frames the issue in an entirely different light and has implications for intervention strategies and so on. It also has broader implications for multi-culturalism. People make these snap judgements about a persons culture based on their race because that is just how humans function.  We take mental short cuts whenever possible and make guesses and predictions about the everything we ever experience.

There are a few different positions to weigh in on to round out this post a bit. First, the concept of cultural relativism.  There is widespread debate over what this term actually means and some argue that when people say cultural relativism they mean moral relativism.  To honest, I think these two terms go hand in hand as any behavior or moral system being judged is going to be culture specific so while cultural relativism might technically mean something slightly different within the discipline of anthropology saying something like culture specific moral relativism seems somewhat silly to me so I am just going to continue to use cultural relativism as meaning the following:

“Cultural Relativism is the view that moral or ethical systems, which vary from culture to culture, are all equally valid and no one system is really “better” than any other. This is based on the idea that there is no ultimate standard of good or evil, so every judgment about right and wrong is a product of society. Therefore, any opinion on morality or ethics is subject to the cultural perspective of each person. Ultimately, this means that no moral or ethical system can be considered the “best,” or “worst,” and no particular moral or ethical position can actually be considered “right” or “wrong.” from 

Personally, I find the concept of cultural/moral relativism to be laughable at best and potentially damaging to the human condition at worst.  It literally excuses everything and anything as long as it is the cultural norm. Take a few minutes and think about every deplorable institutionalized cultural behavior you have ever heard of and realize that believing in cultural relativism, as defined above, means that these behaviors an acts are perfectly moral and perfectly acceptable because those cultures believe them to be.

Now here is where things get tricky. If you believe, as I do, that cultural/moral universalism is the way to go and that some things are just objectively wrong then some forms of cultural discrimination is almost certainly a good thing, is it not? We should absolutely discriminate against and marginalize cultures that participate in things like female genital mutilation, forced child marriages, the admonishment and discouragement of education, and so on. Cultures that engage in these types of abusive and destructive behaviors have no place in the modern world and we need to stop treating cultures that exalt abhorrent behavior with kid gloves. The people from these cultures need to be loudly and consistently called on their bullshit.

Further, as I mentioned earlier there are some behavioral traits that seem to be innate in all of humanity because they are deeply rooted in our ancient shared ancestry. Among these is our tribal nature. In-groups and out-groups. This evolved for a very good reason. For hundreds of thousands of years the primary social unit was the tribe. The tribe was life. Anyone from outside of the tribe was a potential threat, anyone from within the tribe was a fundamental ally and part of the social protections that made your life possible.  The problem is that we never grew out of our tribalistic nature and it can be seen everywhere. Humans seem to have a complete inability to prevent ourselves from organizing each other into groups based on a huge range of criteria.

For example, off the top of my head here are number of different types of in-groups: family, tribe, town, state, country, county,  school, team of any kind (particularly in competitive settings), fans of any team, regions, religions, fans of any thing (team McSteamy vs Team McDreamy anyone?) culture, race, age, sex, political affiliation and so on and so on.  A person can self-identify as a member of any group and others can and will mentally categorize the people they meet as belonging to certain groups and either being with them (a member of the in-group) or with the “others” a member of one(or more) competing out-groups.  In essence  the phrase “you are either with us or against us” hits home on a fundamental level for the human species.

But alas, all is not lost. The interesting thing about in-groups and out-groups is that they seem to form some kind of hierarchy of importance and different/competing affiliations only become an issue when there are opposing groups of high enough significance in the members personal lives.

For example, in the modern developed world how often do you hear about families going to war with each other? How often do high schools in the United States build a rivalry so intense that they suicide bomb each other to try and gain some type of advantage in the upcoming homecoming game? How often do towns or counties come to blows with each other? These things do not happen, simply because these particular group memberships rate rather insignificant in the members daily lives and day to day functioning. Escalate a little bit and you get professional sports fans where occasionally fights between 2 people or maybe small groups may break out now and then but very very rarely does anyone actually lose their life over being a identifiable RedSox fan in New York City. Once you get to the level of religion, nation, and culture these group identities  can begin to have a higher level of meaning in the members lives and threats to their group are often met with a much greater degree of hostility.

What is interesting to note is that cultures can function in a hierarchical fashion as well. For example, take a look at every major immigration to the United States by a particular cultural group.  At first pretty much every cultural group to come to America was discriminated against heavily once they got here. However, over time those cultural groups began to assimilate into the broader mainstream American culture. Over time the cultural differences between groups became relatively insignificant and while each of the individual cultural groups may have still maintained some degree of self identities eventually they were American’s first and their heritage second. And amazingly various aspects of the individual cultures were slowly adopted into the mainstream primary culture.  For example St. Patrick’s day a very Irish celebration (a group that was horribly discriminated against when they first started coming to America) is now the day where everyone is Irish and everyone celebrates.

Because of the divisive nature of cultural groups I somewhat believe that pushing for multi-cultural-ism is a negative thing.  By all means, certain aspects of existing cultural groups can absolutely be maintained and continued but focusing on our differences is a poor long term strategy.  We should be focusing on our similarities and melding people together on a more fundamental level.

So what needs to happen? Essentially, in my opinion we need to all assimilate into a single primary global culture that takes precedence over all else. We need to identify as one collective whole.  We need to marginalize and faze out those in-groups that are fundamentally divisive like religions and nations and ethnic cultures. Only when someones religion is as important to their daily lives as their favorite baseball team will the serious conflict between world religions stop.  Only when the difference between nation states is as significant as the difference between which high school you came from will we no longer have to fear serious global conflict breaking out. Only once we are one people united behind a common culture and cause will we be at our best.

That’s enough for now, I will try to expand on these topics in a more focused manner in future posts.  Please let me know what you think in the comments or on the blogs facebook page or google+ community page.  Discuss and debate!

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