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!

Pessimism and Emotional Hedging

In Greek mythology, Cassandra was given a dual gift and curse: that she would accurately predict the future, but that nobody would believe her prophecies. She became a tragic figure when her prophecies of disaster went unheeded. In modern usage, a Cassandra is usually just a pessimist: somebody who predicts doom and gloom, whether people pay attention to them or not.

We know that people are generally rubbish at accurately predicting risk; they seem to constantly over-estimate just how often things will work out. This is usually due to either the planning fallacy or optimism bias (or both; they’re very closely related). However, while that is by far the most common mistake, and certainly the one that’s gotten all the attention, the opposite is also possible. Yesterday I caught myself doing just that.

I was considering an upcoming sports game and found myself instinctively betting against the team I typically cheer for (that is, I predicted they would lose the game). However when I took a step back I couldn’t immediately justify that prediction. The obvious prior probability was around 50/50 – both teams had been playing well, neither with strong advantage – and I am certainly not knowledgeable enough about that sport or about sports psychology in general to confidently move the needle far from that mark.

And yet, my brain was telling me that my team had only maybe a 25% chance of winning. After much contemplation, I realized that by lowering my prediction, I was actually hedging against my own emotions. By predicting a loss, I was guaranteed an emotional payout in either scenario: if my team won, then that was a happy occasion in itself, but if they lost then I could claim to have made an accurate prediction; it feels nice to be right.

With this new source of bias properly articulated I was able to pick out a few other past instances of it in my life. It’s obviously not applicable in every scenario, but in cases where you’re emotionally attached to a particular outcome (sports, politics, etc) it can definitely play a role, at least for me. I don’t know if it’s enough to cancel out the natural optimism bias in these scenarios, but it certainly helps.

The naming of biases is kind of confusing: I suppose it could just be lumped in with the existing pessimism bias, but I kind of like the idea of calling it the Cassandra bias.