Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The perception of perception: a deeper dimension of culture

A fellow interculturalist has drawn the group's attention to a book by Wayne Baker, Crisis of Values: Reality and Perception. It claims that the problem of a "moral crisis" within US society is merely rhetorical (the distortion of perception) and that, according to the blurb, " America has not lost its traditional values, that the nation compares favorably with most other societies, and that the culture war is largely a myth".

My first reaction is to place such books in their context, which is, at the same time, academic, commercial and psychological. In other words, a book about society is first of all an artifact that belongs to the culture and reflects the culture's values as much as it pretends to analyse them. Just to give one example of how the cultural system works in this particular case: Baker sets himself up as the opposing camp in a general trend (consisting of lamenting the deterioration of values) and cites all the successful publications that have taken what he suggests has become the dominant view. He clearly points them out as the adversary whom he has chosen to combat. He's the brash challenger, the righter of wrongs, the bearer of a contradictory truth. Creating polarity and thereby drawing the spotlight to oneself is a standard feature of US culture (assertiveness, linked to the cult of success and celebrity). Framing discussion not as a deepening dialogue but as a contest between opposites is a standard and respected reflex in US culture. I would even go so far as to call it a "value" (but more of that later).

Having read the introductory chapter (only), I think a lot more could be said about the cultural nature of Baker's book and the institutions involved (academe, the book publishing world, the media and possibly politics). I would suggest that this is the type of exercise we need to do with any and all books that pretend to reveal some new truth about society, or about anything else for that matter: science, literature, economics, etc. This is my suggestion to those who go on to read the book (thank you Barthes, Foucault and Derrida).

All this is to say that I agree with Baker's main thesis, which I take to be less provocative than his expected "perception" of it. US culture is still intact!. But that's something we interculturalists already knew. Fundamental values are never lost. And in every culture, they are constantly challenged (often but not exclusively on the basis of both generations and economic class), which rather than being a sign of weakness or fragility allows them to evolve and adapt to a changing context. Where Baker appears to be off the mark to me is in his failure to see that the rhetoric about "culture wars" in itself represents, not a recent deviation but the manifestation of a fundamental and stable US value. Although he repeats the famous quote from Clifford Geertz about culture as a web, he doesn't appear to approach culture in the sense that Geertz understood it. He claims that his "objective... is to interpret the changing webs of significance spun of values in American culture." But he also says, and even more assertively, "My main concern is moral values--fundamental values about right and wrong, good and evil, noble and base--that live in the hearts of people and are embodied in institutions." That is a far cry from Geertz's "webs of significance". And that places Baker squarely within the culture wars, rather than outside, at an objective distance as a cultural observer. He also seems to fail to appreciate the disconnect in all cultures between "the hearts of people" and "institutions". But that may well be a particular feature of US culture: the fusion of identity between the individual and institutions, real as well as imaginary (i.e. a government "of the people, by the people, for the people"). He actually alludes to this awkward fusion when he appeals to Habermas's theories, but doesn't seem to see the forest for the trees.

In short, I would issue this warning: all discussions of values will be vitiated if we mix or simply fail to distinguish
a) notions of morality that include criteria for determining "good and evil",
b) attitudes towards specific institutions (family, church or religion -- already not quite the same thing -- government, real and ideal, etc.)
c) lifestyle preferences.

Even more risky is isolating one as the key to the others, which Baker seems tempted to do when he talks about his "main concern" (moral values). I'm also far from sure that the World Values Survey gives us a fair picture of what interculturalists or what Clifford Geertz might want to see as "values".

Baker does offer us one bit of information to think about:

"A Pew survey of religion and public life, conducted in spring 2001, found that 55 percent of Americans felt that religion was "losing its significance" as an influence on American life. This figure dropped to 12 percent in mid-November 2001, two months after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but rose again to 52 percent in March 2002, six months after the attacks.21."

This suggests (and I must say my personal experience bears this out) that the confusion between religion and politics in US culture may be deeper than even Habermas suspected. But it also suggests that the Apocalyptic strain of historical hermeneutics, inherited from the Puritans, is still domiinant. That fact alone tells us more about the depth, less of values than of historical fantasies that permeate US culture (a good starting point would be the foundational castration myth implicit in the story of George Washington's chopping down the cherry tree and not telling a lie").

My tentative conclusion, which would only be justified after reading the whole book: Baker's book is in itself an example of how systemically coherent US culture remains today and how well it has adapted, as an economic force, to a changing world in which it is called upon (or has called upon itself) to play an increasingly dynamic role. The question he appears to elude is how that force, once it's in contact with other powerful cultural forces with "values" that draw their energy from other principles (and not only those recognized by the World Values Survey), may evolve both externally -- in conflictual international contexts -- and internally, through real or simply "perceived" "culture wars".

The real problem is both historical and semantic. The semantics concern the notion of "value" and I'm certain that there is little common ground among the various interlocutors, whether they be Baker, his declared opponents (the doom merchants lamenting moral decline), the World Values Survey, Hofstede (who claims that the WVS reflects his own findings), Clifford Geertz or our community of intercultural consultants and trainers. That problem alone would make the book difficult to read for me (I don't find his style very seductive either). As for history, it is as much economic as cultural, a nasty fact we tend to forget after Fukuyama's declaration of the "end of history". So long as the US can control or at least dominate the exploitation and distribution of global resources and markets, the culture will remain politically stable, which means that Baker's thesis is correct and US society will continue to cling to its beliefs (rather than values) about what is right and wrong, good and evil. The war in Iraq may, in the end, be less a question of economic and military overreach (controlling Middle Eastern oil) than a clever distraction intended both to hide and reinforce US domination of global markets elsewhere (especially financial). If that can be managed and military and economic dominance ensured, even at the price of local failure in the Middle East (as in Vietnam), then US "values" will remain stable for a long time to come even as lifestyles continue to conflict, generating the kinds of spectacles where groups or individuals can continually draw the spotlight to themselves, make the news and become celebrities. The "culture wars" are nothing more than a manifestation of one of the organizing principles of the US economy and culture.

In any case, the debate about what we mean by "values" seems to me wide open. It would be nice if we as a group (the interculturalist community) could contribute to a discussion focused a little too tightly on US "culture" and its états d'âme. By taking a broader perspective, we might just possibly manage to impose a definition that is closer to what we know about cultures and human psychology and less tied to the fairly recent historical tradition of nation-states. One senses in the background of Baker's preoccupations that the whole thing is about "America's self-esteem as a nation", curiously placing his contribution in the category of the omnipresent self-help books so dear to the publishing industry. The funny thing is that the same anguished soul-searching has been taking place not only here in France, but also in the UK, Spain, Italy, etc. Perhaps it's simply a general symptom of the waning of political modernism and specifically of the European style nation-state itself.