Monday, October 11, 2010

Cultural relativity of another kind

The idea that some cultures may be better or worse than others is enough of a taboo, at least within certain political groupings, that a friend of mine literally gasped when, not realizing just how much of a taboo it was, I said as much in a casual conversation. It was as though he were actually worried about being overheard by the Thought Police (this was in Canada).

So it was indeed a breath of fresh air when another friend referred me to this John McWhorter review of a book by Amy Wax, entitled Race, Wrongs, and Remedies: Group Justice in the 21st Century, in which it's argued that the primary current cause of poverty and dysfunction within black communities is the dysfunctional culture of those communities. Wax clearly recognizes that that culture especially is the result of great historic wrongs, but just as clearly asserts that the only possible remedy for those wrongs now rests within the black communities themselves. Here's the opening paragraph of McWhorter's review:
This book is depressing because it is so persuasive. There is a school of thought in America which argues that the government must be the main force that provides help to the black community. This shibboleth is predicated upon another one: that such government efforts will make a serious difference in disparities between blacks and whites. Amy Wax not only argues that such efforts have failed, she also suggests that such efforts cannot bring equality, and therefore must be abandoned. Wax identifies the illusion that mars American thinking on this subject as the myth of reverse causation—that if racism was the cause of a problem, then eliminating racism will solve it. If only this were true. But it isn’t true: racism can set in motion cultural patterns that take on a life of their own.
I'd only add a generalization to this -- other examples of less functional or even malfunctional cultures in the context of the modern industrialized world might include many aboriginal or tribally-based Islamic communities; on the other hand, cultures that are currently flourishing in the same context might include many Asian or Jewish communities.

But the most important consideration in all this -- what should alleviate a little of McWhorter's depression -- is that, unlike race, culture is changeable, and dysfunctional cultures will evolve into more functional forms in time, as long as  they're not being being continually supported or enabled by the withholding of judgment or making excuses.

But here's Amy Wax herself, in dialogue with Adam Serwer:

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