On Culturism

This post is the second of what will likely be a series growing out of my thoughts on Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”. The first is here.

Also, this post was extracted from a longer essay that’s still in the works. It’s meant to be foundational more than earth-shattering.

I want to promote a word that I just don’t hear a lot these days: culturism. Analogous to racism, sexism, etc., “culturism” can be roughly defined a couple of different (not necessarily exclusive or exhaustive) ways:

  • discrimination against someone on the basis of their different culture
  • the belief that one culture is superior to others
  • cultural prejudice + power

I want to promote this word, because I want to make a much stronger claim. I believe that all of the different *-isms (racism, sexism, etc) are just second-order mental shortcuts for culturism. And just like everyone’s a little bit racist, everyone’s a little bit culturist.

Now I’ve used “culturism” and “culture” in that claim, but really “behaviourism” might have been a better choice of word if it wasn’t already taken to mean something entirely different. Culture and behaviour is all tied together though, so I’m just going to stick with culturism and note a few places where my usage might not match the intuitive definition.

The easiest way to see how racism is just a shortcut for culturism is to ask an old-school racist what they hate about black people. The answers they give you don’t vary much: lazy, dirty, and rude are all words that pop up. But note that none of those things are actually about skin colour! For the most part, old-school racists don’t actually hate people with black skin per se; they hate people with undesirable behaviours. Does anybody actually want people to be lazy, dirty, and rude? The racist has just incorrectly associated those behaviours with skin colour (“dirty” isn’t technically a behaviour, but hygiene and grooming are both cultural-behavioural).

President Obama is a great example of how this plays out. He was black, but he conformed to the cultural and behavioural stereotype of an upper-class white man. He was not culturally black in any negative way, either in the old-school-racism meaning or in the more modern sense (inner-city gangs, etc). While he still received some negative attention from true racists, in this case the exception proves the rule: people reify their mental shortcuts all the time. It shouldn’t be surprising that if people grow up associating black skin with all these negative qualities, then some of them will forget the original association and just react negatively to black skin. Likewise it shouldn’t be surprising that if a scientist grows up in an environment where that prejudice is normalized, they’ll go looking for explanations and come up with weird ideas like craniometry.

Sexism is a similar story, with the only catch being that it feels weird to talk about men and women having “different cultures”. However, gender roles mean that at least historically, there were different expectations around how men and women would behave. This is all we need to connect the dots. What were the arguments for why women shouldn’t work? Because they were seen as emotional and weak, and those were undesirable qualities for someone who worked. It wasn’t about womanhood per se, it was about a false association between womanhood and undesirable behaviours and properties (women are still, on average, physically weaker than men, but we’ve learned to look at the individual for properties now, which is a whole other essay).

Now if I’ve done my job you’re likely nodding along, or at least willing to accept my premise for the sake of argument. But you may not really see why this would be important. Racism is still racism is still wrong, whatever the exact mechanism.

Here’s a hint at the kicker: even though we’re mostly not racist anymore, we’re still really really culturist. We are still prejudiced against people who are lazy, dirty, and rude. We’re not biased against emotional people only because being emotionally attuned has now become a desirable quality; instead we bias ourselves against people who close off their emotions and act coldly.

This will all tie back into Haidt and his concept of “moral capital” as soon as I finish that essay, I promise!

9 thoughts on “On Culturism

  1. Yes, but your implication is that “culturism” is inherently wrong. Additionally, you add the anti-normative shibboleth of “cultural prejudice + power,” furthering the normative-as-evil trope of the Left.

    1. Oooh we are going to have an interesting time discussing this book. Which comes first, the cart or the horse? The hatred of the outgroup, or the learned associations of the outgroup with negative behaviours (which may not be learned from actual observation of outgroup culture and may in fact be untrue of that culture, OR may not be accurately described as behaviour, as was throwing you off with the idea of smaller stature being part of a “female culture”)?

      Broadly speaking I think I will mostly agree with you and/or Haidt. But I think it more likely that all the isms including culturism reduce to “otherism” more neatly than trying to squeeze traits into culture.

      1. So, call it “otherism” if you will. That doesn’t change the fact that you imply, at the least, that it is an inherently bad thing. By extension you imply that all cultures are both equal and compatible, which is suicidal erroneous. And again, you further imply that the normative culture in a populace is the one who is wrong if they don’t embrace the “other.”

        Nor do you seem to want to address, preferring to deflect instead.

        As for the idea of smaller stature being part of a “female culture” – Nah. It sort of is so. Being physically smaller is a underlying trait that informs their cultural identity.

        But… We do agree that, for the vast majority, the various “-sms,” which includes the modern strains of feminism 😉 – devolve down to culturism / otherism. But then, that’s the foundation of Identity Politics and other dogmatic groupings.

      2. I certainly don’t mean to imply that otherism or culturism is inherently bad (although I would agree that the suffix alone makes it look like a negative connotation). Since culturism has to do with judging behaviours (that individuals may choose to buy into or not, unlike their traits), it absolutely can be ethically motivated. From what I’ve seen and read of Haidt, I believe he also takes a pro-culturism-in-many-circumstances view? I haven’t read The Righteous Mind yet though. I predict that the author of this blog post also was not trying to imply that culturism is necessarily wrong, and that clarifying that position will be part of the longer essay he refers to.

        PS: wasn’t trying to deflect- my original post was in response to the blog post, not to your comment. Sorry if I posted it in the wrong spot 😉

      3. Ah, and my mistake as well. For some reason – not a good one – I thought you were the author of the post. That’s what I get for replying via an app instead of going back to the site itself.

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