Culture, Biases, and Empathy

A few disclaimers before I start:

  1. This is a complicated issue. While I may simplify definitions or arguments for the sake of making a point, I realize the truth is more complex than that.
  2. I’m not completely sure about the conclusions, and this is not a topic that I am an authority on. Still, there are some things that I find so disturbing that I feel the need to say something, even if it is just armchairing.
  3. Culture can be taboo, especially to criticism. I realize this.
  4. I am going to throw in more caveats than usual, particularly because of the first three reasons. The last post I wrote in this area, on the social construction of progress, seemed to strike the wrong nerve even among some of my friends, so I’ll be extra careful here. I feel that I shouldn’t need to make such disclaimers, and hopefully this will clarify understanding rather than confound it.

The topic for today is the criticism of other cultures. In particular, we are very reluctant to criticize even a tiny facet of another culture, and while this is for good reason due to the not-so-friendly history of cultural superiority, I think we have overcompensated in the moral relativism direction and have ended up shielding even the worst culture-specific behaviors from criticism.

Wariness in Criticizing Cultures

As noted in the social progress post, much of our (post-)modern reservation to proclaim objective truths is well intentioned: to prevent future atrocities from happening as a result of the feelings of cultural superiority. The Holocaust comes to mind immediately, and European colonialism is another.

However, to (theoretically) renounce objective truth altogether would go too far. Then on what grounds do we have to say that stoning someone for adultery is wrong? Or rather, how can we criticize a culture that practices stoning as punishment for adultery? Or a culture with the punishment of 200 lashes for the crime of being raped? (Yes, you read that right—200 lashes not for the perpetrator, but for the victim.) We don’t have any grounds to make such criticism on at all, if we subscribe to extreme moral relativism.

Of course, this is an extreme scenario. The average person doesn’t watch a video of a woman being stoned to death and then say, “That’s okay because it’s okay in their culture and we have to respect that.” The reaction is outrage, as it should be.

Cultural Anthropic Principle

I want to take one step back and talk about a peculiarity in the logic of cultural critique: a selection effect on what we are saying. It is similar to an effect in cosmology called the anthropic principle: given that we are observing the universe, the universe must have properties that support intelligent life. That is, it addresses the question of “Why is our universe suitable for life?” by noting that if our universe were not suitable for life, then we wouldn’t be here making that observation. That is, the alternative question, “Why is our universe not suitable for life,” cannot physically be asked. We must observe a universe compatible with intelligent life.

A similar effect is found in some areas of cultural analysis. We have, for instance, many critiques of democracy written by people living in democracies. One might ask, what kind of criticisms do people make within a totalitarian state? The answer might be none: given that a writer is in a totalitarian system, their critique of the totalitarian government may never be published or even written in the first place for fear of imprisonment by the state. The net result is, given that we are critiquing our own political system, we are most likely in an open political system. This seems to answer the question, “Why is political analysis democracy-centric?”

The same principle applies to the criticism of cultures. More intellectually advanced cultures tend to be more open to self criticism and be more wary of criticizing other cultures. So, a culture that is wary about criticizing other cultures tends to be more intellectually sophisticated, and thus often are concerned with epistemological questions of cultural analysis in the first place and can often give a better answer than one that is less self-aware.

Cultural Exclusion, Bias

In any discussion with one person criticizing another culture, the go-to defense is, “You are not from culture X, so you cannot possibly understand X.” This seems to be a very exclusionary argument that implicitly denies the role of empathy. By saying “you cannot possibly understand,” one implies that there is something mysterious that cannot be shared with someone outside the group.

I’m all for people of different cultures to communicate and get along with one another, but the mindset of “you cannot possibly understand” seems to reinforce cultural divisions and deny the possibility for mutual understanding.

Along the lines of “you cannot possibly understand,” a related argument is, “You are from culture X, therefore your opinion is biased,” where X usually equals Western culture.

Of course opinions are biased! But it’s not as simple as biased vs unbiased (and does an unbiased person even exist?)—there is a whole range of biases along different dimensions. To reiterate my favorite Isaac Asimov quote:

When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.

Interestingly enough, the context of this quote (source) is that it was in response to an English major who “…went on to lecture me severely on the fact that in every century people have thought they understood the universe at last, and in every century they were proved to be wrong. It follows that the one thing we can say about our modern ‘knowledge’ is that it is wrong.” Asimov’s response signifies that wrongness exists as not a dichotomy, but a scale. (It is kind of ironic that Asimov was the one who argued that wrongness is relative, to an English major in 1989.)

So yes, we are biased, but that does not mean we should just abandon cultural analysis. As we understand biases more, we get better at working around them and minimizing their impacts. One example is the anchoring bias, which says that if you are trying to guess a number but think of some other number beforehand, your guess will move slightly closer to that other number. For example, in situation (1), I ask you, “What is 1000 plus 1000?” and then ask you to estimate the price of a car, versus (2) I ask you, “What is a million plus a million?” and then ask you to estimate the price of the car. You will give a lower estimate in the first case and a higher estimate in the second case, even though it is the same car! To work around this, try to not expose someone to arbitrary numbers beforehand if you want an honest estimation from them, for instance. (For more on biases, see Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.)

Probably, we cannot eliminate all biases from our minds. But in regards to cultural criticism, bias cannot be used as a disqualifier. In 12th grade history, we had an essay where one of the points was to analyze and contextualize sources, e.g. looking for bias. Some of my classmates apparently had used the “you cannot possibly understand” mentality on the source analysis. Our teacher had to announce in class that “This author is not from country X and therefore must be biased when talking about country X” is not a valid scholarly argument. From my college experience, professors explicitly warn against doing this as well, so to be clear, my argument on cultural criticism is not targeted against academics (who I think are approaching things correctly), but against a popular/cultural sentiment.

This recent Buzzfeed article “Why Muslim Americans Are Giving ‘Alice In Arabia’ Major Side-Eye” is an apt example of this sentiment. It’s interesting that the criticisms are not of the content but of the context—that the writer is a white woman and therefore must be racist and cannot possibly understand Muslims. I won’t say too much more about it here, but it’s pretty interesting and solidly demonstrates the point of this post. It isn’t even criticism of culture so much as even portrayal of/writing about another culture. Which leads me to…

Personal Investment and Empathy

“You cannot possibly understand” as an argument seems to deny empathy. The point of empathy is you can understand someone else. More specifically, we are concerned with intercultural empathy, trying to understand another culture. There are plenty of people who come from multicultural backgrounds and who have adapted from one culture to another, so it happens all the time.

Recently, I also ran into the argument of “you are not personally invested in X, therefore you have no point in talking about X,” which is again a denial of empathy and an affirmation of total self interest. This argument was made in a comment to the social progress blog post, and the commenter ended with the following:

Your stakes in this critical project are low, and you’re yelling that from your desk chair for some reason.

I think the implication was that since I’m not a humanities major, I shouldn’t be interested in talking about the humanities. Really? In addition, this sentiment is simply historically wrong. From a previous blog post:

It is important to keep in mind that when groups do agitate for rights, their practical purpose is to convince whomever is in charge to give them rights. Just looking at American history, we see that every time there is a major social revolution granting rights to a previously discriminated group, the government itself contained extremely few, if any, members of that group.

Abraham Lincoln was white, and so was the rest of the US government when the Civil War occurred. When Congress granted women the right to vote, there were no women in Congress. And when the LGBT community first agitated for rights, no member of Congress of such an orientation had openly declared it.

According to the commenter’s logic, these rights revolutions should never have happened because there was no personal investment for any white member of Congress to support rights for racial minorities, or for any male Congressperson to support rights for women, or for the straight Congress to support LGBT rights, etc.

And according to the commenter’s logic, pretty much everything I talk about should not be talked about. I’ve spoken in the past about LGBT rights and perceptions, women’s rights, and the wealth gap, even though I’m straight, male, and will be working on Wall Street. So why do I write on these topics? One word: empathy. (Arguably, even my atheism-related posts are not really personally invested: I’ve never felt discriminated against due to my atheism. It’s sometimes more of giving a voice to those who are prevented from having one.)

“You are not personally invested in X” is not as common as the other sentiments, but I feel that it needs an explanation. Maybe we are so well conditioned to look for biases that we assume everyone must have some personal vestment/personal reason for doing something. Perhaps it does stem from similar lines of thinking to “you cannot possibly understand.” If you assume that everyone is purely self-interested, then this argument is not as ridiculous, but it’s still shaky at best.

In all, we must be careful in analyzing other cultures, minimize the impact of our biases, and use empathy to even try to understand those whom we don’t normally associate with. And most of all, we need to move beyond “you cannot possibly understand.”

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