Quote of the Week: Different Cultures Do Different Things Well

The most sweeping denials of performance superiority [between cultures] have been based on redefining them out of existence as culturally biased “perceptions” and “stereotypes.” Those who take this approach of cultural relativism acknowledge only differences but no superiority. Yet all cultures serve practical purposes, as well as being symbolic and emotional, and they serve these practical purposes more efficiently or less efficiently — not just in the opinions of particular observers but, more importantly, in the practices of the societies themselves, which borrow from other cultures and discard their own ways of doing particular things.

Western civilization, for example, has abandoned Roman numerals for mathematical work, in favor of a very different numbering system originating in India and conveyed to the West by Arabs. The West has also abandoned scrolls in favor of paper, and scribes in favor of printing, in each case choosing things originating in China over things indigenous to Western culture. All over the world, people have abandoned their own bows and arrows for guns, whenever they had a choice. Much of the story of the advancement of the human race has been a story of massive cultural borrowings, which have created modern world technology.

Thomas Sowell, The Quest for Cosmic Justice, pp. 60 – 61

4 thoughts on “Quote of the Week: Different Cultures Do Different Things Well

  1. Nathanael Ledford

    Hi Jen! I’m finally on your site and commenting. This issue first came to me when reading about the Civil War and realizing that there were some things that the North did better such as logistics and manufacturing, and some the South did better such as scouting and travelling light. It might well be said that the Northerners were capable of fighting because it was part of the work they had to do to win, and the Southerners were capable of working because it was part of the fighting they had to do to win. Confederates would often throw away coats during the spring and summer, reasoning that it wasn’t worth carrying all season. They’d find another before winter. Union soldiers made the opposite decision. Their respective mentalities were even apparent in their war cries. Northerners had a deep-throated shout- unlike the rebel yell.
    It also explains why the South oppressed the black people after the war. Because avoiding the shame of weakness was such a high priority in their culture, losing the war to the North created a lot of shame they needed to get rid of. Since a re-match was out of the question, the only other alternative was to find someone else weaker and oppress him. That transferred the shame off of the white South and onto the black people. But if a lying tongue hates those it hurts, what then about an oppressive hand? The white southern hatred for black people followed. The biggest difference between the North and South is that the North had a culture of guilt that sought to avoid the guilt of wrongdoing and focused on a work ethic as the means for a man to prove himself, and the South had a culture of shame that focused on avoiding the shame of cowardice or weakness by being brave, fighting, etc. This was an even bigger difference than aristocracy or slavery- though slavery obviously became the flashpoint because of it’s radical departure from the ideals of the classical liberal model. But the south wasn’t inconsistent in this: they had the right to be free because nobody could make them slaves. I’d like to see them try! Clearly the North’s victory set the stage for our nation moving forward as a unified industrial nation that burst upon the world stage as a leader of the free world to stand against Hitler, Communism, and Islamic Terror. Nor is our story over. We have no other nation to hand the baton to, as the British did to us at the end of the Second War.
    This issue needs to be explored much more. There are a lot of countries that will never be world powers because they don’t have it in them regardless of how large or populous or even rich they are or may become. Think India.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Nate! Thanks for visiting and for the super long comment. I won’t be able to completely respond to all the points you raise, but will try to at least touch on them.

      I have spent a lot of time thinking about this, as you might imagine, with my long-standing interest in anthropology, my cross-cultural experiences, and all the training that urged me not to be “ethnocentric.” And of course, what that even means, and to what degree it’s possible or desirable to achieve it, takes a lot of unpacking. It is a really big topic, fruitful for lots of discussion, but also poorly understood. (By everyone, not just by monocultural Americans.)

      Sowell’s main point in this passage is that cultural relativism (the doctrine that all aspects of all cultures are equally valid) is proven false in part because people adopt practices from other cultures that they perceive to be superior. “Voting with their feet,” as it were. As Andrew Klavan has said, “I’m for freedom. And if the British are the ones who figured out how to bottle it, well … pass the bottle!”

      A secondary point he makes, elsewhere in the passage, is that different cultures enjoy seasons of being superior and culturally dominant. They wax and wane. The center of innovation is in one place in one century, in another place in another century. Of course, this isn’t random. Conditions have to be in place that don’t block that innovation completely. So about never becoming a world power … depends what you mean by that. I think every major culture has had its turn to have an empire (even if just a local empire). The peoples that never had empires, of course, are lost to history and we don’t know their names.

      I once saw Sowell in an interview making the point that the condition of being an underclass is not dependent upon skin color. He pointed out that the Irish have long been an underclass relative to the English. The interviewer said, “Yes, what is up with the Irish?” And Sowell said, “That’s asking the wrong question. The Irish, as far as their culture, are pretty typical of most human beings. The question is, What made the English so successful that they have been able to dominate the Irish? And the answer is that some peoples, as a group, are naturally more interested in the abstract. And this gives them an advantage over other groups.”

      About the shame culture in the South. I once read some popular anthropological text that described it as an “honor culture” and traced it directly to the Scots-Irish ancestors of the white Southerners. I’m usually skeptical of social science experiments, but there was one that was quite funny because it’s like experiences we have all had. They would assign the subject to do a dummy test at a computer. They would assign him an annoying seatmate and see how he would react. The Northern guys (not from an honor culture) would react with irritation at first, but eventually give up and just put up with the annoying behavior. The Southern guys would remain unfailingly polite right up until the moment that they would blow up and be ready to come to blows with the annoying seatmate. “Honor culture” sounds great, but it produces what I, from my point of view as a Northerner, would call “jerks.”


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