Nick Naylor: Right there, looking into Joey’s eyes, it all came back in a rush. Why I do what I do. Defending the defenseless, protecting the disenfranchised corporations that have been abandoned by their very own consumers: the logger, the sweatshop foreman, the oil driller, the land mine developer, the baby seal poacher…
Polly Bailey: Baby seal poacher?
Bobby Jay Bliss: Even *I* think that’s kind of cruel.
— Thank You For Smoking (2005)
Grid-group cultural theory proposes that there’s a constant and endless argument going on about ‘the facts of the matter’. We look at the evidence that suits our cultural biases – moreover we create the evidence to fit our take on the world.
Recently Fourcultures looked at a book that claims certainty is ‘merely’ a feeling and shouldn’t be relied on when coming to decisions. But isn’t this a very relativistic position to take? Surely there are some facts so sure and incontrovertible that it just makes no sense to doubt them. Intuitively this is an attractive line of thought, but on closer inspection it’s hard to find facts that aren’t in some sense disputed. And the point is that the facts and the values are so intrinsically linked together that it’s nigh on impossible to separate them. Even where the ‘facts’ are not disputed, their implications often are.
DK pointed out a book that seems to take an alternative view about the truth as revealed by science: Doubt is their Product. The author claims to uncover an effective conspiracy of industry-paid scientists and PR workers, whose job is to massage the scientific facts in order to provide benefits to industries perceived to be dangerous.
From this perspective it is already certain what things are bad for us, but some wicked people are knowingly covering up the truth and pulling the wool over our eyes for a living. They are sowing the seeds of doubt among our certainties, and they should be stopped.
There are two ways of looking at this.
The first is to note that Grid-group cultural theory proposes not one but four rival rationalities. What seems dangerous, risky and foolhardy to Egalitarianism, may seem innovative, audacious and safe to Individualism, perfectly managable to Hierarchy and yet another damned lottery to Fatalism.
Doubt is their Product is written from an Egalitarian perspective and assumes mendacity on the part of industry and PR operatives. But Grid-group cultural theory suggests this may well not be so. The alternative is that they may genuinely believe in what they are doing. A great insight into the mindset of Individualism is Frank Furedi’s The Culture of Fear, which argues we should stop worrying over chemical spills and dodgy products and trust human ingenuity far more. Egalitarians who find this impossible to stomach would do well to investigate the theory in more detail. It can function as a method of avoiding cultural bias, by forcing us to examine our own biases, however unpalatable that may be. It’s a way, in Richard Feynman’s memorable phrase, of trying not to fool yourself.
The second way of looking at this is to recognise the dark side of the four cultures. If the theory is a way of trying not to fool ourselves, we must also make sure that we are not being fooled by others.
By recognising the dark side, the theory helps us to recognise methods that may be used to make this deceit effective.
This then is the dark side: the temptation for one solidarity to steal the clothes of another solidarity for polemical purposes.
A classic area where this has occurred is termed ‘greenwash’, where, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing the individualist solidarity adopts the discourse of the egalitarian solidarity (or sometimes the Hierarchical solidarity) without adopting its principles. There is great scope for confusion here. To what extent, for instance, have the oil company BP and the British Conservative Party changed focus as a result of adopting a sunflower or a tree logo respectively? Thompson, Ellis and Wildavsky (1990) call this ‘stolen rhetoric’: ‘the justification of certain behaviour by a rhetoric corresponding to another cultural bias’ (Mamadouh 1999, 404). Mamadouh also identifies ‘stolen strategy’ : ‘when means corresponding to one cultural bias are used to achieve aims corresponding to another bias’.
Whereas Mamadouh considers this kind of rhetoric and strategy ‘dangerous’, (that’s the ‘dark side’ view) it may equally be considered a normal part of the contest between solidarities. As Mary Douglas wrote,
‘A struggle is going on, members of one culture are giving each other reasons for contesting everything that is preferred by the others. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that because a solution is preferred by one party, it will be rejected by the other.’ (Douglas 1999, 411)
The theory of Four Cultures suggests that while we might not like the tactics adopted by our opponents, and while our suspicions of their motives may sometimes (but not always) be justified, there is no way of short circuiting the debate by means of appeals to science, knowledge, facts, truth, certainty – or anything else.
The debate has a point, though. It at least helps us home in on what we’re really arguing about: competing ways of organising our world.