The Dark Side of Cultural Theory

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.

6 thoughts on “The Dark Side of Cultural Theory

  1. great post! very complicated to sort these things out–leaves me profoundly uncertain about what facts to doubt.

    for another example of “dark side” strategy: Governor of texas, a religious fundamentalist conservative, shocked many when he issued an order requiring state schools to administer the HPV vaccine to 12 yr old girls. Because fundamentalist religious conservatives in US had been leading the opposition to HPV vaccine — arguing, as CT would predict, that the vaccine is risky (will lead girls to engage in unprotected sex, and thus contract other diseases and becomce pregnant, etc.) — many egalitarians, predisposed to see low risk in the vaccine, lauded him for his courage. Turned out that the vaccine’s manufacturer, US drug giant Merck, had made massive, secret campaign contributions to the Governor; its “dark side” goal was clearly not only to make the vaccine mandatory in Texas but also to manipulate cultural cues surrounding the vaccine & thus to quiet concerns about it. Ironically, when the campaign contributions were exposed, the egalitarian cultural constutency that had applauded the Governor became infuriated — & now *it* too advances the claim that the vaccine is too risky (will cause side effects, they say; Merck, symbol of corp. evil for egalitarians, manufactured viox!)

    Unfortunately, there’s no reason to believe the “dark side” strategy is inherently self-limiting; just turned out to be that time…

  2. That’s an amazing example, DK. Makes me think:
    a) who says the campaign contributions were an undercover operation by evil people? Egalitarians, probably, but does this mean we all have to agree? Maybe Merck staff were acting sincerely in their wish to influence the fundamentalist conservative governor (legal profit maximisation the goal, perhaps, not to mention actually inoculating people). Is campaign funding a worse political tactic than, say, a sit-in? We’re back to the four cultures.
    b) my hunch is that this kind of thing is ultimately self-limiting (and that’s my reading of the CT literature) but exactly when it reaches the limit, I’m not sure. CT has been criticised, I think, for lacking a concept of power. This might be an example: it’s not entirely clear why or how one or another cultural bias would ascend to power or descend from it.

    I’ll have more to say about greenwash and ethics – watch this space…

  3. I’m eager to here your account. Meanwhile, you tell me if this is realistic & feasible — and if it is, whether it is normatively on the mark. I would use a mutual respect principle here: efforts to manage the dynamics by which culture influences perception of risk in order to get a message across are morally acceptable only so long as the message recipients would themselves find those techniques acceptable. They might, in many circumstances: assuming we all recognize (I think we actually do, whether we have read Mary Douglas or not) that we can make assess information about risk (and related matters of fact that bear on our well-being) only with the aid of various resources in our cultural ways of life, then I think we will often want scientific insights to be communicated to us in a way that makes it possible for us to understand and consider it without the psychological pressure to discount it as threatening to our values & way of life. However, where others, aware of our need to use culture to make senes of the world in this way, try to influence us without our knowledge or in a way that we would not consent to were we aware of it — and for the purpose of making us believe something that suits them, rather than for the purpose of allowing us to make what we will of information–*then* that is unacceptable manipulation. On this account, the techniques that can be used to enable us to appriase information and the ones that can be used to manipulate us — the techniques of the “Force” and the “Dark side,” as it were — might be the same. But the context and purposes make a difference, morally speaking. On this view, Merck behaved immorally, b/c it tried to orchestrate cultural cues in a manner disrespectful of those who identified with the Texas governor. I can imagine a public health education policy, in contrast, that openly recruits and employs culturally diverse communicators who genuinely believe what they are saying about the HPV vaccine.

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