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!

The Social Animal: Social Negotiation

(This post was supposed to go up last night. Oops.)

Over the last few posts we’ve talked about memes and culture and some of the interesting properties therein. This is the last post on that particular string; hopefully it is the one that ties them all together.

Human beings are intensely social creatures. We are constantly communicating with each other, sharing ideas and generating new ones. Most of us would find it intensely uncomfortable to spend even a single day with no outside contact. This heavy socialization is part of what makes memetics so interesting and so powerful; it is an integral part of how our human lives are structured.

The other side of that coin is the subtle realization of just how much of our lives is the result of that socialization. How many of our deeply-held ideas are socially constructed: are, in fact, memes. Let’s start with a big one: language. People already talk, in an unscientific sense, about language “evolving” as new words are coined and unused words die off. Scholars of language probably already know where this is going, but here it is anyways: any language is nothing more than a meme, or a collection of memes. These memes do evolve (for certain meanings of that word) through exactly the mechanisms we’ve already discussed in previous posts.

And because  this evolution is guided by human consciousness at least part of the time (for example, we can explicitly invent new words for new concepts), that makes this evolution also an exercise in negotiation. People try out new ideas, adopt parts they like and discard parts they don’t. They often then use these parts to synthesize a new idea, and broadcast that back into their social group. This is evolution, but the broader pattern resembles negotiation. The entire process could equally be described in terms of offers, counter-offers, compromises, etc.

I find this duality fascinating. Our ideas, our language, our culture have not just evolved the way they are;  they are the result of hundreds (or thousands) of years of social negotiation.

If you want to change the world, you may have to compromise with it along the way.

Culture, Memetics, and Lamarkian Inheritance

Having covered the brain and the mind, we now take a second sharp turn and head in the other direction, in a manner roughly paralleling our previous discussion of biology. This time, however, we will be discussing culture.

We start the concept of a meme, analogous to the biological concept of a gene. The precise definition of a meme is rather controversial, but the definition suggested by Wikipedia will do well enough for us. In fact, on skimming that article, it makes almost all of the points I wanted to make here. Go read it.

The other topic I wanted to cover here is Lamarkian Inheritance. Although it is no longer supported in biological genetics, it is a useful concept to have since it is in some part the method of transmission of memes.