Jan 30, 2016
A lot of people have tried to kill political correctness. Mostly, they do this by just saying racist, sexist, offensive generalizations. That's not really killing it. That's just ignoring it. To actually kill it, you have to find political correctnesses vulnerabilities and attack those. That's what this episode of The Bryan Callen show does with the help of probably two of the only men on the planet who could do it, Richard Nisbett and Joe Henrich. Though, by the end of this episode, you'll be able to do it too. To be fair though, kill is such an aggressive, violent word and Richard and Joe are both intelligent, sophisticated individuals. So, while Hunter tries to kill it, Professors Nisbett and Henrich gently euthanize it. Political correctness was a well-intentioned idea but it's well past its prime. And that gets to the heart of the true nature of culture. Culture is simply a tool that people develop to survive and thrive in different environments but it is not who we are. Humans are infinitely adaptable and when we move from place to place we change clothing, diet, building styles and as we have moved into the modern world cultures have been quick to embrace technologies like cellphones and cars that give people greater control over their lives. However, when it comes to belief, we have all been guilty of confusing tools with innate qualities of both ourselves and others. The result has been that humanity has gone back and forth between trying to destroy people who have certain ideas and being so appalled by that that we've decided to simply not have an opinion on cultures. In the wake of the Holocaust, it's understandable that political correctness developed. If noticing cultural differences and thinking that they matter a lot leads to genocide, then let's just pretend that culture doesn't matter. Of course, culture does matter. And it turns out it matters a heck of a lot. Actually, the ability to acquire culture is what allows us to adapt to literally any environment on the planet. And when we only talk about technology and institutions we're leaving out a huge piece of the puzzle. Beliefs matter. And in a world where we can't agree on global warming, gun control, abortion or where prosperity comes from that has become increasingly obvious. Islamic terrorism has made that blindingly obvious. While we could have had a nuanced conversation about the effect of cultural differences, intellectual elites have instead poured scorn on anyone who dared to say that culture matters and that some of those cultures might need to change. With the rise of far right parties like Golden Dawn in Greece, the National Front in France and Trump's version of the Republican Party, we are seeing the consequences of that. Ironically, political correctness was designed to prevent fascism and yet it has pretty much brought us back to a significant part of the population getting behind the same xenophobic attitudes. Whether you fear the rise of the far right or you are someone who is fed up with political correctness, we need a new way of talking about culture that talks about specific beliefs, understands why they evolved and recognizes that you don't need to throw out or kill the person to get rid of unhelpful beliefs. In essence, the message of Henrich and Nisbett's work comes down to a very simple idea. Cultures aren't better or worse but they are adaptive. They help individuals thrive in different environments. Of course, the environment of the modern world is radically different from the world that most cultures evolved in with the result that many traits no longer make sense in the modern world. As Professor Nisbett has shown honor cultures are and were adaptive in herding environments with unstable property rights but lead to higher murder rates in the US South (and this interviewer would argue jihadism). On the other hand, the holistic thinking that predominates in Eastern cultures and the analytic thinking that predominates in Western cultures both have benefits and costs. Western thinking gave rise to science but unfettered individualism is unrealistic and impractical when, in reality, besides being individuals we are part of a larger society and share a planet and that in thinking purely selfishly we can end up destroying the system that helps individuals generate wealth. We would do well as individuals and as a society to learn to use both modes of thought. And, finally, as listeners of this podcast know, one of the best examples of a specific cultural trait that needs to be changed is what people believe about intelligence. The belief that intelligence is fixed (as Carol Dweck has shown) is incredibly harmful (and not supported by the latest neuroscience). Furthermore, the whole world would benefit from embracing mistakes more as cultures like Silicon Valley and organizations like the FAA do. We did the whole fascism thing once. It didn't work out well. But the antidote to that is not political correctness. It's honesty. Culture is not who we are. It's a set of tools we use to survive and thrive in different environments. Some of those tools served us in the past and no longer serve us now. It's time we learned to talk about that without threatening to kick out or ban entire groups or flipping out reflexively when someone even dares to suggest that cultural differences might be behind our different outcomes. Culture matters and some traits are more adaptive in certain environments than others. Beliefs are tools. And although they are inside of us, they are not who we are. We can choose the best tool for the job and we should. Actually, we need to. Because, currently, we're very often not using the best tools available. We all need to improve aspects of our cultures. But to do that we need to stop making it or taking it as a personal attack.