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The Fallacy of the Modern “Culturists” Concept


n. 1. A cultivator.
2. One who is an advocate of culture.

The culturists, by which term I mean not those who esteem culture (as what intelligent man does not ) but those its exclusive advocates who recommend it as the panacea for all the ills of humanity, for its effects in cultivating the whole man.

– J. C. Shairp

What Shairp eluded to was the “Culturist” who, on the positive side saw “culture” as a magic cure for every problem.  But at the same, by implication, the “culturist” blamed every problem on the lack of certain types of “culture” (the good kind), or even held prejudice against certain other “cultures”.

Shairp’s voice of disdain is unmistakable.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Campbell_Shairp

But Shairp was not alone.

In 2005,

  • Elisabeth L. Carter published The extreme right in Western Europe: success or failure? and wrote:



  • All of these right-wing extremist parties can be described as culturist or new racist, as they all emphasize cultural rather than racial differences between groups.


But “cultural” differences from many “culturalists” (particularly in the West) is nearly equivalent to “race”, because the end result is, no one is really categorized according to their “cultural identity”, but rather in effect, EVERYONE is divided into their apparent racial categories.

Granted, “culturalists” are not overtly racial, and some “culturalists” can even be open-minded.  But the stereotypes from “culturalists” are just as wide-reaching and biasing against entire groups, individualism and diversity disregarded.

Take for example, James Fallows who said this regarding the Chinese “culture” that he attributed to the cause the bad manners:

What I do know is that if you exist in this culture, you are shaped by it. I’ve only been exposed to it for a few months, and I’m already responding.

While disclaimed as it is to acknowledge that HE himself is influenced by a “culture”, this statement contains a major logical fallacy.  That being, he meant to prove the existence of a “culture”, by admitting that he was influence by it, and then goes further to imply that others are equally (or MORE so) affected by it.  The premise of this statement was in essence:  I felt the influence of the “culture” after only a few months, thus, it must exist, AND imagine what it’s doing to the Chinese people!!

The fallacy is also circular logic.  If he felt the influence of the “culture”, that’s only his own perception of the effect.  EFFECT does not automatically prove existence of a particular cause!  For example, you can also attribute every problem to God or the Devil with the same exact logic.

The problem is, even James Fallows on occasions have admitted that China is diverse big place.  Then the question is, what is the “culture” of China to James Fallows??  That 1 universal “culture” that all Chinese share?  Or do they share?  (Afterall, rude behaviors are not uncommon elsewhere in the world, even in the US).  If all Chinese do not share some unique “culture”, unique to just the Chinese, then it’s not a “Chinese” culture, is it?

Other “culturalists” are far more generalizing and sweeping in their categorization of social ills with some “cultures”.  (Yes, that sort of linking problems to “cultures” should be hinting what the “culturalists” are suggesting we do about the problems, because well, as Fallows said, “YOU are shaped by it”, so Convert or else.)

If one browse through the comments of some China critic blogs (such as PekingDuck), one will see regularly (and sweeping) assertions about this and that part of the Chinese “culture”, based upon some small (not unique) “kernels of truth” about China, and concluding with a usual summation that the Chinese “culture” is the root of China’s problems.

(so, again, suggested solution:  Convert or else).

At this point, I would like to note the similarity of such arguments to another group of “culturalists”, namely the fanatical factions who led China during the “Cultural Revolution”, who similarly blamed all of China’s problems on backward “culture” in China, and suggested that the only solution was a “Cultural Revolution” where people had to Convert or “else”.  (The “else” is always implied, never specified, but somehow always end up being the same).

Shairp himself compared “Culture” to “religion”, particularly in the form that it does boil down to perception and faith.  If you see God in your life, then you are most likely a believer.  If you don’t see God’s influence, you are likely NOT a real believer.  Same is true for those who view “culture”, either as a magical cure in some forms, or as the cause of all evil in other forms, because the PERCEPTION of particular “culture” defines only one’s FAITH in such ideas, NOT the actual existence of the “culture”.

For another reason, even if “culture” does exist in a group, it is in flux constantly, as the group is continuously influenced by others and outside factors.  For certainly, wealth can change one’s behavior and outlook on the individual level, then if a nation becomes wealthier or poorer, “culture” inevitably changes (very rapidly in China’s economic changes).

Then, it makes no sense to stereotype “culture” of China, if even wealth is not necessarily a good predictor of social behaviors (some rich people have good manners, others not so much).

*What is a good predictor?  What an individual says or proclaims as his/her own belief.  Such “values” are self-professed, and proves much more accurate as predictor of that person’s behavior.

For example, if a person speaks about “culture” like a “culturalist”, then there is a high probability that such a person would be influenced by what he/she considers as “good” vs. “bad” culture, because such a person is behaving according to his/her own declared principles, NOT because someone else made a generalized observation about what the “culturalist” believes in.

More accurate though, a person is more influenced by his/her own past patterns of behaviors, and may go against his/her own declared principles, but individual’s past patterns of behaviors are much harder to track.  (unless you are the CIA/NSA).

*On the note of “Cultural Relativism”:  I think that term can be better termed as “Cultural Uncertainty and NON-uniqueness Principle”.

Why do we say “cultures” are relative, and we compare for example, West vs. East?

It is because the comparison shows that some supposedly Unique “cultural identifiers” are really just inaccurate and uncertain stereotypes.  Classic Example:  “Jewish People are cheap.”  Well, it’s not “relative”, when it’s just inaccurate and non-unique, i.e. there are cheap people everywhere.

We compare sometimes West vs. East, to show that the “cultural” stereotypes are wrong, factually wrong, and the supposedly unique “cultural identifiers” do not exist (and by implication, the attribution of “culture” as a cause of problems is also wrong).

In that regard, the “culturalists” do REACT to criticisms much like “racists” do, particularly clinging onto the “kernels of truth” argument (which as already been proven to be fallacious reasoning in the racism debate).

Elisabeth L. Carter, thus, justifiably compared “culturalists” to “new racists”.  Although “culture” and “race” are superficially two distinct concepts, both are often artificial, fallacious and illogical in the applications to attribute human weaknesses/problems to general groups of people, PARTICULARLY when some people are using “culture” as a mark of identifier as equivalent to “race”.


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  1. Dr John Press
    June 10th, 2013 at 21:01 | #1

    Hi, Nice Article, thank you for hosting the discussion. I do, however, wish to write a couple of rejoinders.

    First, the spelling is “culturist.” After spelling it correctly first, you lapse into “culturalist.”

    More importantly, your argument seems to be that we must look at people as individuals. Well, this is true in personal contacts. And, your argument against essentialism is solid, in this regard. However, the philosophy is called “culturism,” and takes (as we hope multiculturalists do) cultural diversity to be real. That is the issue.

    The percentage of children born out of marriage to whites is around 28%, hispanics 52% and Blacks, 72 percent. This doesn’t mean that individuals don’t differ, in fact this culturist fact proves that they do. This is not a “kernel of truth” argument, it is statistical.

    Also, this is not racism. These numbers fluctuate. The black out of wedlock pregnancy rate in the 1950s was lower than the white rate today. It is because cultural traits are mutable that culturist discussions (unlike racist ones) are profitable.

    But, if multiculturalists persist in calling everyone who mentions the reality of diversity “racist” we can get no where. You didn’t do that, but it is frequent. You did seem to argue that we can’t discuss cultural diversity because individuals vary. I think this argument forestalls important and useful discussions.

    Thanks, John Press

  2. Black Pheonix
    June 11th, 2013 at 06:37 | #2

    Thanks for your note.

    However, I believe the terms are often used interchangeably, in conventional use.

    While I appreciate your perspective on “culturism”, I think that’s not how many people apply the ideology. Perhaps they have twisted “culturism”, or they are not pure “culturists”.

    But as Elisabeth L. Carter noted in her writing, there is a trend of “culturists” sounding like racists.

    *As for statistics, I think the kind of statistics you are illustrating is generalization and highly misleading.

    “Children born out of marriage”, if admittedly different in individual cases, then can be easily influenced by SO many environmental factors, WHY even bother to link to “race”??!

    There are statistics, and there are lies based upon pseudo-scientific statistics based upon plotting some line through a nebulous blob of individual data. (In other words, I question the validity of such statistics, which does not account for the MORE relevant environmental factors).

    I find such discussions/statistics completely unproductive.

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