Cultures Are Not Superior And Inferior

The emphasis on a few behaviors exhibited by a few persons as the essential characteristics of a people reveals more about the observer than the observed.

Much has been made of a recent op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer by two law professors, Amy Wax and Larry Alexander, because they assert some cultures are inherently superior to other cultures, singling out inner-city blacks as inferior. They have added that they are articulating what others believe. To be fair, these two holders of endowed chairs, likewise revile Native Americans unprepared for modernity, working-class whites with substance abuse issues, and Hispanics averse to assimilation. They denounce, among other things, birth control. You have to read their piece for yourself. It is impressive in its anger on behalf of “bourgeoise culture.”

These attitudes are not merely offensive. They are morally wrong. Wax and Alexander should be given credit. They are willing to open a basic debate.

The proponents of free speech always argue that the remedy for “bad” speech is “good” speech. They devote themselves to protecting hate rather than promoting reason. But they are right: the best approach is to analyze the arguments. If they will not offer responses that engage racism, we should refute what is reprehensible. Here are three rebuttals. These take seriously what the authors have to say. (I agree with the authors on one point, that many others agree with them.)

First, there is a difference between behaviors and cultures. We could, and we do, have a consensus that specific behaviors are socially unacceptable. That is the function of law. It draws lines between the permissible and the prohibited.

But to conclude that robbing people should be discouraged, even punished, is not the same as assuming that people of a certain background have a propensity to rob people, whether by nature or nurture. That is the definition of prejudice, to prejudge.

The emphasis on a few behaviors exhibited by a few persons as the essential characteristics of a people reveals more about the observer than the observed. It reflects the great fault of law, if not law professors: the law is abstract, and its teachers too. The causes of behavior, and the contexts that make them intelligible, are stripped away, which makes us caricatures. The consequences of pervasive bigotry also are ignored, the cycle produced by self-fulfilling prophecies about anti-social behavior; I am expected to be a thug, and I understand myself to be a thug.

Second, there is a problem of selective sympathy and double standards. We also might agree that on the whole individuals, even society, are better off by whatever measure we prefer, if they do something instead of its opposite. The trouble is that all of us excuse ourselves, or those whom we like, even as we accuse others, for whatever act we deem blameworthy. If I fail, I can explain why that happened; if you fail, it is because it was your own fault.

Consider the value of the nuclear family. For the sake of argument, suppose that children are more likely to do well if they grow up in families headed by two adults who are in a committed relationship with one another. If anything, the breakdown of the nuclear family could be attributed to “bourgeoise culture.”

But when a black woman struggles as a single mother to raise her kids, she is called a “welfare queen.” She is portrayed as irresponsible, manipulative, or both: according to the image, she was stupid to become pregnant, or she was scheming to obtain government benefits by giving birth. Then a white woman who plans to be a single mother — and her choice is inferred to be thought through with care — is a career woman. Even among those who would humiliate her for her lack of a mate, she does not suffer the same abuse directed toward her black peer.

Third, there is the deliberate imposition of stigma. The attempt to shame people, such as the child whose parents were divorced, is itself shameful. It accomplishes nothing.

No doubt some behaviors are associated with some cultures to a greater degree than with other cultures. The behavior and the culture in some circumstances are identified with one another, not by outsiders, but by those who claim to belong to the community. Yet the distortion and exaggeration of the relationship between the conduct and the culture, compounded by the condemnation of the community, is not likely to produce positive change. It will reinforce the behavior and generate resentment within that culture, especially since the critics often insist they are warning people about their own vices are self-appointed and self-righteous. Their bad faith is exposed by their stereotyping: even members of a group who do not display the traits they disapprove of, nonetheless are discriminated against.

Biased actions are the inevitable result of biased opinions. Here, the intolerance verging on contempt is open rather than hidden. In a democracy, robust discussion is a right and a responsibility. Given our diversity, however, such dialogue depends on respect and equality.

Wax and Alexander are able to proclaim their perspective, because they are privileged in their roles. Perhaps the worst aspect of this matter is that these scholars also serve as teachers. I wonder how they can be effective in the classroom when some of the people whom they are to train as advocates are people whom they regard as wretched.