Yes, Culture Matters

Imagine two people. One is sure in his bones that he can succeed, but only if he works as hard as he can, gets the best education, and constantly puts off small rewards today for greater rewards tomorrow. The other doesn’t believe his actions will determine his fate, doesn’t work as hard as he can, doesn’t get an education, and consistently chooses the rewards of today rather than waiting for tomorrow. Who is more likely to succeed?

Of course. Our values, beliefs, and attitudes make a big difference in whether we succeed or not. The point is obvious, even banal, when we’re talking about individuals.

But values, beliefs, and attitudes aren’t created by individuals, at least not individuals alone. They are shaped and shared within communities. We call these shared perceptions “culture.”

Does culture make a difference in whether a community succeeds or not? The point would seem to be equally obvious. But don’t you dare say it out loud.

“She told me, Those are the ideas that killed six million Jews,'” recalls Lawrence E. Harrison, director of the Cultural Change Institute at Tufts University. It was 1993 and Harrison was spending some time at Carleton University in Ottawa. He had explained his belief that culture matters to a very senior academic – who told Harrison, who is Jewish, that he was restoring the foundations of the Holocaust.

Fortunately, Harrison was not deterred. In the years since, he wrote or edited several books on the role of culture in development and his views have won over a growing list of academics and political leaders. Some may not accept Harrison’s specific analyses, or they may think he gives too much weight to the role of culture, but the central idea – culture matters – is increasingly accepted by people who think seriously about these things.

But you still can’t say so in public. As Maclean’s magazine demonstrated recently.

In November, Maclean’s published a feature story about the out-sized and growing presence of Chinese and Chinese-Canadian students in Canadian universities. “Too Asian?” the headline read. Too incendiary. Maclean’s was condemned by academics, editorialists, senators, and interest groups. Students protested. City councils in Toronto, Vancouver, and Victoria formally demanded an apology.

As Harrison notes, neither the phenomenon of Chinese over-representation in university, nor the sensitivity that surrounds it, is unique to this country. In the United States, East- and South-Asian students combined make up as much as one-quarter of the student population at major universities even though they are about three per cent of the total population.

The story is the same everywhere. Name a country and chances are you will find a Chinese immigrant community which values education, demands hard work, sacrifices for tomorrow, and succeeds.

We could look at that and see something very positive. And important. Surely there are lessons to be learned. Why would anyone not want to talk about this?

In part, the resistance stems from old history. A century ago, anti- immigrant feeling was inflamed by those who said hard-working Asians were a threat to “our” jobs. Maclean’s played into this, unfortunately. The article – thanks mainly to the headline, which was a quotation – framed the story as white-students-feel-threatened rather than the success story it is. That was insensitive. And dumb.

But there’s something more fundamental at work. To acknowledge that one group’s culture is contributing to its extraordinary success invites an obvious question about groups plagued with social pathologies and failure: Is their culture responsible?

That’s when red lights flash. In polite company, it is acceptable to praise cultures, as MichaĆ«lle Jean and the head of UNESCO did Tuesday in a typical op- ed. Haitian culture is “strong and dynamic,” they wrote. It “is a treasure to be developed.” But cultures must never be compared or criticized. No culture is better or worse. No culture needs to change. They are all strong and dynamic treasures.

But if cultural explanations are rejected from the start, how do we account for the success of Chinese immigrants around the world? How do we explain the dramatically different levels of development in Haiti and Dominican Republica, which share an island? How do we explain the even more dramatic disparity between Haiti and Barbados, which share a history of slavery and colonial oppression? Harrison and other scholars argue Haiti has been crippled, at least in part, by certain cultural values – such as the fatalism promoted by voodoo – that discourage initiative, rationality, trust, achievement, and education.

But just try saying that in public.

To be sure, the “culture matters” line can be put to wretched purposes. It’s handy for those who would prefer to ignore non-cultural factors, such as economic exploitation. Worse, bigots often treat culture as an immutable fact and an excuse for callousness. “Why help Haitians? They’re hopeless.”

As the name of his institute suggests, Harrison’s view is quite different.

He opens his seminal book, The Central Liberal Truth, by quoting Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the legendary Democratic senator. “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society,” Moynihan wrote. “The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”