Size matters, but it doesn’t make you superior. I’m talking about finch beaks, of course. In the last political campaign we heard a lot about size, but more thoughtful commentators are speaking of evolutionary change or correction. So it seems appropriate to revisit one of Darwin’s original observations of evolution in action.
Finches eat nuts, and they need to break the nuts with their beaks. Depending on the prevailing climate, available nuts are either large and hard or small and delicate. Finches with big beaks are good at eating hard nuts, but they starve to death when the nuts get small. And vice versa. The lesson, as Darwin saw it, is that evolution rather quickly selects for the beak size that fits the available nuts – that is, “survival of the fittest.”
Human beings adapt to their social environment in similar ways. People who are thriving in the current social environment have, [...] Read more
Since the electoral decision of 11/9 (the world will never be the same), John Lennon’s “Love is All you Need” has been looping in my brain. The song seems to sum up liberal/Democratic self-castigations: be more understanding, concerned, and empathic toward the aggrieved denizens of rural America, and it will all be better next time. Or more instrumentally, people who feel really understood are more likely to agree with us.
Well, probably not. In the blunt words of Forseti’s Justice, “…Rural, Christian, white Americans are entrenched in fundamentalist belief systems; (they) don’t trust people outside their tribe, have been force-fed a diet of misinformation and lies for decades, are unwilling to understand their own situations, and truly believe whites are superior to all races. No amount of understanding is going to change these things or what they believe.”
Liberals don’t need to understand Trump voters better [...] Read more
As a US American who spends a lot of time in Europe, I have apparently picked up a tendency to appreciate irony. So along with other Europeans (and even a lot of Americans) I was struck during the US presidential campaign by the irony of a proudly rich and pathetically wannabe elitist guy claiming to speak for downtrodden workers, of a shady global businessman arguing for trade restriction, and of an aggressive bully crying his tweets out.
A really serious irony of the Trump triumph, though, concerns the myth of American exceptionalism. Trump’s campaign was based on the idea of unique American superiority, but it showed that the USA is actually no different than any number of other countries — democratic or totalitarian — that can be manipulated by a clever demagogue.
Trump’s successful slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is clearly an appeal to exceptionalism. It is no accident that Trump speaks of “America” and [...] Read more
The extremist Islamic State is positioning itself against the rest of the world. Since much of that world is Islamic, Huntington's "clash of civilizations" is more clearly than ever before a simplistic and mistaken explanation. There is a clash occurring, but it is not simply a collision of beliefs or ideologies. The clash is a more profound one of epistemological paradigms - specifically, a clash of absolutism and relativism.
ISIS is a vivid example of what Max Born describes as "the most dangerous people in the world - people who think that there is only one truth, and that they possess it." In support of this observation, a recent article in Atlantic presents evidence that ISIS is composed of true believers pursuing an apocalyptic vision in which most of them will be killed fighting [...] Read more
Recent events in France show the limitations of tolerance, and we interculturalists could be suggesting some more respectful and ethical responses to this tragedy.
Paradoxically, tolerance is based on the idea that it would be better for you not to be different. Being like me would be preferable, but I will magnanimously forgive you for deviating from that standard. In return for this preemptive gift, I only ask that you put up with whatever verbal abuse I might direct towards you in the name of "free speech." And, adhering to the Golden Rule, I will allow you (in principle) to abuse me similarly.
Tolerance is not a very stable condition. An imbalance in the tit for tat, an historical injustice unearthed, or a slight increase in demagoguery is enough to tip many people back into rampant prejudice, violent reprisal, and even genocide. Nevertheless, tolerance is touted as the only [...] Read more
To paraphrase H.L.Menken, For every question there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. The question "what is culture?" is particularly conducive to producing such answers. In an earlier blog I suggested that the iceberg metaphor (simile) was one of those: beloved, intuitively sensible, and, at best, inaccurate. In this second installment of the "Culture is not like..." series, I want to take on the grandparent of such similes, "culture is like personality."
Culture is like personality in that both are products of systematic observation or measurement. In the case of personality, individuals are attributed qualities according to consistencies of observation within certain conceptual categories. The observational categories might be bodily humors such as "phlegmatic" or "sanguine," or more abstract categories such as [...] Read more
In his excellent book, The Mismeasure of Man, biologist and science historian Stephen Jay Gould points out the fallacy of assuming that "intelligence" is a measurable entity. I was struck that the same kind fallacy underlies popular approaches to measuring "intercultural competence."
By tracing the history of IQ, Gould shows how observations become things - the process of reification. In the case of IQ, early 20th century French educators were trying to select children for different kinds of educational programs. They observed that some children were more inclined than others to engage schoolwork or solve certain kinds of problems. When they analyzed various measurements of that tendency, they named the constellation of scales that were most correlated with the abilities the "general intelligence factor" (g factor). Initially, g was just an indicator of the abilities, but [...] Read more
With all due respect to theoreticians who continue to use the iceberg metaphor to describe culture, I think it's time to retire the image altogether. Here's why.
Most people with any background in intercultural communication theory agree that culture is not a "thing"; it is the process whereby groups of people coordinate meaning and action, yielding both institutional artifacts and patterns of behavior. We feel it is unfair when anthropologists and critical theorists accuse us of essentializing culture. But many interculturalists actually do essentialize culture by using the objective metaphor of an iceberg.
Comparing culture to an iceberg floating in the sea implies that culture is an actual thing. The 10% above the water is really visible to everyone who looks in that direction, and the 90% below the water is both real and dangerous, since it can sink the unwary [...] Read more