HOW IMPORTANT IS CULTURE?
By John Ray (M.A.;Ph.D.)
How important to us today is the Protestant Christian culture that appears to have been so central in creating the modern world? Most conservatives I know would answer: "VERY important". And Leftists of course would also say that it is important -- but only as something that needs to be eradicated as quickly as possible.
I don't agree with either. I hark back to another important and historic conservative belief -- in the importance of human nature. I think that what is normally attributed to culture is in fact almost all due to genetics. And the studies that are now coming out of genetics research are pretty startling confirmation of that. It is in fact something of a wonder to me that conservatives do very often seem to maintain in their heads two rather contradictory beliefs -- in the importance of culture and in the importance of genetics. It is obviously true that what we are is the product of both but I don't see how conservatives can assert the central importance of human nature (which they normally do) and also give a large role to culture. Anybody I put that point to normally retreats into saying that BOTH are important -- perhaps 50-50 or perhaps 60-40 but that neither can be downplayed or ignored.
But that's not what the evidence shows as far as I can see. I don't want to beat people over the head with genetics research findings (though I think I will in a minute) so let me initially point to some things that are widely known. I am however going to have to offend just about everybody to do so. Take the importance of Christian culture. There is a very vigorous flow of claims from Christians to the effect that it is only America's Christian heritage that keeps America civil. Yet that is patently false. The overwhelming source of uncivil (to put it mildly) behaviour in the USA is undoubtedly the black population -- who are at least as Christian as the whites -- perhaps more so overall. So the source of destructive and disruptive black behaviour is not in their culture. It is in their genetics. Yes. I know all the Leftist tosh about the legacy of slavery suppressing their self-esteem etc but since all the studies shows that blacks tend to have unusually HIGH self-esteem, I am not going to waste time on that one.
I suppose I have just spoken an unmentionable truth that you need to blot out from your consciousness in order to get by in American society today but, unlike Leftists, I think the truth is vitally important and I intend to persist with my lifelong habit of exploring it wherever it may lead. And what we see in the black/white behavioural difference is a huge gap that certainly cannot be attributed to Christianity or the lack of it. It is true that there has evolved in recent years a black "rap" culture which is just about as antisocial as you could conceivably get but the black/white behavioural gap goes way back -- to long before the evolution of rap culture. Rap culture is more an effect than a cause.
And I am now going to mention something else that is going to lose me friends. Most Leftists lead perfectly decent personal lives whether or not they subscribe to any form of Christian thinking or values. I myself prefer to deal with Christians where I can because I think that Christianity does have some effect in keeping people honest but I normally don't know anything about the beliefs of the people I come across in everyday life except that on average about half must be Left-leaning and about half must be Right-leaning. But I have yet to be able to detect any person's politics from just the way they behave. So culture doesn't seem to matter there either.
And it is not just that I lead a sheltered life. For twelve years I taught sociology in a major Australian university -- where most of my colleagues were Marxists of one sort or another. And I always made clear my view that Marx was just an obsolete economist. In the middle of my time there I even wrote a big book in defence of conservatism. So how did my colleagues treat me? With the greatest civility. Even though my views were clearly anathema to them they even used to invite me to some of their parties! So how much difference to everyday behaviour did their cultural beliefs and my cultural beliefs make? None that I can see.
Now let me mention something else. I like Indians. I even have four of them living in my house with me (two Hindus, one Sikh and one Muslim). And if there is any group of people I know who are outstanding for warmth, civility, good humour, patience and sociability it would have to be Indians. Their culture could hardly be more different from my own Presbyterian heritage but their behaviour sets a standard that makes Westerners a pretty rough lot by comparison. If I thought culture was important for making decent human beings I would be recommending that we all take up Hinduism.
To help readers to explore the issues I have raised so far in more detail, I have an article on the role of Christian culture here and two articles touching on the central importance of genetics here and here. Which do you think genetics has more influence on: How tall you are or your political beliefs? You may be surprised at what the geneticists have found.
But some environmental factors DO matter. Culture is not all there is among environmental factors
I received in response to what I wrote above the following interesting email from a man who might well be the "father" of the blogosphere -- in the sense of being the oldest blogger there is. Dick McDonald is in his 70s and is as lively as a cricket.
You said something yesterday about blacks that didn't ring true with my personal experience with the black population when I was a kid. Compared to other kids of the era, I believe I had a bird's eye view of their culture and "maybe" their genes. You wrote:
"The overwhelming source of uncivil (to put it mildly) behaviour in the USA is undoubtedly the black population -- who are at least as Christian as the whites -- perhaps more so overall. So the source of destructive and disruptive black behaviour is not in their culture. It is in their genetics. Yes. I know all the Leftist tosh about the legacy of slavery suppressing their self-esteem etc but since all the studies shows that blacks tend to have unusually HIGH self-esteem, I am not going to waste time on that one."
This statement is valid when you look at today's conditions in the USA. But I grew up in a very different world and I can attest to the fact that "black aggressiveness and self-esteem" were the furthest thing from your mind in assessing "colored people" of that day.
We lived in a whites only neighborhood in West Hollywood, California. But I visited the "black" bars and chicken joints of South Central Los Angeles on a regular basis from 1940 through 1946. I accompanied my father who during that period owned and operated the largest record company in the world exclusively devoted to black singers, Giltedge Records. As Dad's singers were comparable in station to the gangster rapper's of today, they couldn't be more dissimilar.
The blacks I knew personally and culturally were painfully passive and their self-esteem on a scale of 1 to 10 was hovering just above 1. They were depicted in movies mostly as servants. When observed the word "massa" came to mind. They always were portrayed in movies as being frightened of their shadow and that is the way they came across in real life. The only violent minority of that time were the Mexican "Cholo's and they were more "Zoot Suit" than dangerous. Then the streets of South Central were calm compared to the war zones they are today.
At the time blacks were barred from participating in professional sports with whites. So I would say that I had a cat bird seat in watching black genes at work in the entertainment joints where among their own their self-esteem was the highest. It just wasn't there. Then they were as polite as the ever-bowing Chinese of the era and would generally run from any confrontation. They were not fighters then. They also were never angry..
Their transformation here in LA was slow. It started with the spectacular success of Jackie Robinson at UCLA and later with the Dodgers; with UCLA's Doctor Ralph Bunche who climbed the ladder to head up the UN.and Sidney Poitier in "Look Who's Coming To Dinner". Somewhere along the line, their attitudes changed, their self esteem soared and they changed to the super-aggressive anger that instructs us today.
I have to say my university played a big role in the transformation with Bunche, Robinson, Kenny Washington and Rafer Johnson. But the times were passive and so were blacks. The anger had yet to be stoked by the MSM and black opportunist leaders looking for a paycheck or a story. I harken back to Marshall McLuhan's admonition "The media IS the message" or something like that.
You are the expert on genes and culture. I was just an casual untrained observer of the scene. But the "blacks" of my youth are not the blacks of "today". Not by a million miles. If there was such a thing as a dormant gene, it sure got juiced in the last 20 years. It surely was absent or in hiding then.
Dick makes a very good point that is almost never mentioned today: That the oppressive discrimination against blacks that was normal in America up until the 60s did make them very submissive and hence much less threatening to whites. Blacks were afraid, rightly or not, that if they got "uppity", they would end up hanging from a tree. They had learned to "know their place" (at the bottom). So Dick's point about a generally low level of black self-esteem at that time is undoubtedly true. It would be surprising if the oppression which blacks suffered from at that time did not have a severe impact on their self-esteem. American Blacks were very largely a cowed population at that time.
All recent studies (See also here and here and the academic review abstracted at the foot of this article) however show that black self-esteem is now at higher averages than that of whites -- reflecting a recovery to natural levels now that systematic oppression has ended. And with that, of course, the fear of whites has also vanished and something like 80% of violent crime against whites is now inflicted by blacks.
I am not quite as old as Dick and I am also not American so in none of these matters can I speak from personal experience. I can however speak from experience of another very similar situation -- South Africa under apartheid. I was in South Africa in 1979 doing field research into -- would you believe? -- racial attitudes. The resultant research report was published in a widely-circulated academic journal and you can read it here.
While I was there I got to know one of the local libertarians well. He was then and still is someone devoted to using libertarian ideas to improving the lot of blacks. Like most white South Africans at that time, however, he was greatly frustrated by the false and simplistic views foreigners tended to have about South Africa in that era. As part of re-educating me, he took me at one stage for a drive through Soweto -- the big black township just outside Johnannesburg that was already at that time internationally notorious for crime and violence. His first point was to show me that there were no checkpoints or other barriers. You could just get into your car and drive there. And his second point was that it was generally a safe and friendly place for whites to go -- at least during daylight hours. We could get out of the car at will and without fear -- which we did -- and in fact a common response in blacks who saw us driving past was to wave! Which is of course a friendly gesture. I noted the same thing when I took the train from Johannesburg down to Bloemfontein. The train's occupants were almost all white but as it passed various black settlements (with roofs generally held down by rocks!) along the way, the people in the settlements would all come out and wave to us.
Now most South African blacks were then and still are enthusiastic Christians. And Soweto (and South Africa generally) was then and still is a place with enormous levels of black-on-black violence. And in this post-apartheid era you would soon be either dead or very sorry for yourself if you tried to do in any black South African township what Leon and I did in 1979. So the idea that Christianity leads to high levels of pro-social behaviour -- as American Christians often claim -- is as patently falsified among black South Africans as it is among black Americans. That the heavy hand of entrenched white oppression can deflect black aggression away from whites (and perhaps to a degree to suppress it generally) in some eras does nothing to falsify that.
In fact, if it were culture that made the difference, present-day international comparisons would lead us to conclude that Christianity is an antisocial influence. I certainly don't always agree with Kristof but he is right about Africa and religion:
"If on a Sunday you want to attend a lively, jammed full, fervent and life-changing service of Christian worship, you want to be in Nairobi, not in Stockholm," notes Mark Noll, a professor at Wheaton College. He adds, "But if you want to walk home safely late at night, you want to be in Stockholm, not Nairobi."
Nairobi is of course in Africa. But high levels of lawless and violent behaviour are characteristic of African-origin populations worldwide -- no matter what system they live under or what their history is -- so it is in fact clearly black genetics that matter, not their culture.
But if we include in our meaning of "culture" the effective laws and other enforced requirements we operate under, then culture does indeed matter to how we live. In this article, however, I have been using the word "culture" to mean the common rules in our environment that we follow (or not) of our own free will.
Reference: (with abstract)
Twenge, J. M., & Crocker, J. (2002). Race and self-esteem: Meta-analyses comparing Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and American Indians. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 371-408.
Abstract: These meta-analyses examine race differences in self-esteem among 712 datapoints. Blacks scored higher than Whites on self-esteem measures (d = .19), but Whites score higher than other racial minority groups, including Hispanics (d = -.09), Asians (d = -.30), and American Indians (d = -.21). Most of these differences were smallest in childhood and grew larger with age. Blacks' self-esteem increased over time relative to Whites', with the Black advantage not appearing until the 1980s. Black and Hispanic samples scored higher on measures without an academic self-esteem subscale. Relative to Whites, minority males had lower self-esteem than did females, and Black and Hispanic self-esteem was higher in groups with high socioeconomic status. The results are most consistent with a cultural interpretation of racial differences in self-esteem.
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