Mitt Romney recently found out a few things about culture and Middle East diplomacy, but both he and the press missed his biggest learning opportunity.
Romney attributed Israel’s economic success to culture, and suggested that the same factor, culture, explained the Palestinian’s lack of economic success. At least some Palestinians said his remarks were racist, and lots of folks took him to task for ignoring other realities. A few might have wondered why such a successful country as Israel has had massive demonstrations about the economic situation, including 5 people who burned themselves to death in despair over homelessness. Yet. . .
Apparently unnoticed was his real mistake: an essentialist view of culture. He apparently believes that there existed over a long period of time certain cultural traits, both Palestinian and Israeli, that explained their different histories. This is a common view of culture, even if many politicians (across the spectrum) are too politically correct to make the kind of gaffs that Mitt Romney made.
And admit it, who hasn’t thought that “culture” is the problem when it comes to violence, or poverty, or ignorance. We’ve been told the Asians succeed academically because theirs is a culture of study, obedience, and hard work. We’ve been told that there are cultures of shame and cultures of guilt. And we’ve been told that there are cultures that value leisure, (or more positively family time) over hard work. Its easy to blame someone else’s culture for the problems we create.
The problem is that culture as Romney and many others imagine it doesn’t exist, it happens. Culture doesn’t consist of a certain “traits” that are manifest among the participants in the culture. Culture emerges constantly as those in a particular society engage each other and their environment.
Look at Israel. As a nation it is new, the great majority of its Jewish inhabitants migrated there in the last 50 years, with over 25% coming in the last 20 years. They have come from socio/cultural situations as diverse as the US, northern Africa, Western Europe, and Eastern Europe. Their language, modern Hebrew, wasn’t spoken at all until the early part of the 20th century. And again, 25% of them are still learning it. So just what “culture” makes them appear to be economically successful?
Does Romeny seriously think that there are some economically useful common cultural traits among populations so diverse that the all the men in a growing subculture (the Ultra-Orthodox) refuse to do any work at all, and spend their full time in study? Or where a quarter of the population comes from cultures built on the old joke “we pretend to work, they pretend to pay us”? Nonsense.
Israeli culture doesn’t consist of certain positive economic behaviors or “traits.” It consists of a shifting pattern of ways of relating to an emerging social situation that is radically different from that of cultures from which its Jewish inhabitants migrated. The same thing is true of the Palestinians, whose great grandparents could not have imagined the world of their descendants or the patterns of behavior of their descendants that are shaping an ever emerging culture.
What Mitt needs, and indeed all of us need, is not the illusion of cultural knowledge. It is cultural intelligence. If we are going to engage societies whose cultures are in a constant state of formation we all need to learn that the most intelligent thing to do is watch, listen, presume nothing, and yes – don’t tell people who they are. Let them tell you.