Jonathan Zimmerman: Culture wars ... Beware of presuming sameness

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He recently completed a history of American teachers in the Third World, to be published this fall.]

I don't remember her name. But I can still picture my sixth grade student's frightened expression, when I asked her to give the first classroom presentation that morning.

"Where I come from," she said, in a quivering voice, "girls don't go first."

She was an immigrant from a Muslim country in the Middle East whose family had moved to Baltimore a few years earlier. I was a young social studies teacher at her middle school, fired with passion and idealism. I believed in my heart that schools should respect national differences. But I also believed that we should treat boys and girls in an equal fashion.

So how should I have responded? For years, I've put this question to my graduate students. Most side with the girl, citing her distinct cultural background. By forcing the girl to go first, my students tell me, I would be telling her, and the class, that there's something inferior about her culture. And that's not a message our public schools should transmit.

A vocal minority of students bridles at this approach. Some invoke a brand of liberal universalism: Girls and boys are endowed with equal rights, no matter what different cultures might say about it. Others emphasize America's own national rights and imperatives.

American values

Although other cultures do not award equal respect to girls, this argument says, America does; the Middle Eastern girl came to America, so America has both the duty and the responsibility to convert her to its ways.

I'm always a bit bemused by this debate, which masks a basic consensus about culture itself. Both sides assume that culture exists outside of history; that each person has one culture, and only one; and that we know what it is.

We don't.

In my young student's country of origin, most people probably believed that "girls don't go first." But many thought otherwise. Mideast societies contain a huge variety of attitudes about gender and everything else. Culture collapses these distinctions, tricking us into thinking that all in the Middle East think the same. You know, those Middle Easterners. Always oppressing women; it's in their culture.

A century ago, Americans and Europeans spoke knowingly about civilization rather than culture. Only whites possessed it. The culture concept arose to challenge this racial hierarchy, insisting that every people, including people of color, had a distinct set of values, beliefs and habits. And though you might not share these beliefs and habits, you were enjoined to respect them. They weren't necessarily worse, or better, than yours; they were, quite simply, different.

Stereotypical views

The culture concept revolutionized Western thought, forcing us to acknowledge the huge distortions that a ladder of civilization based on race had fostered. But culture imposed distortions of its own, starting with the dubious idea that everybody in a given culture, or race, thinks in the same way.

This fallacy is richly bipartisan, as we've seen during the recent debates over the war in Iraq. President Bush's newly emboldened GOP critics insist that the culture of Iraq is so different, so authoritarian, so intolerant, so divided, that democracy will never take root there.

We hear much the same thing from Democrats, with a slightly altered inflection: Because our own culture is so different from Iraqi culture, we have no business trying to impose ours on theirs.

They're both wrong. America's war in Iraq might well be misguided, for many good reasons. But culture is not one of them. By making blanket claims about Iraqi culture, the war's critics place 25 million people in the same conceptual straightjacket....

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