Day By Day

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Rise of Cultural Sensitivity

In an interview for Canada's National Post Mark Steyn makes an acute observation about multi-culturalism:

I seriously do believe that it's very hard to have a functioning society if you can't make cheap jokes about each other all the time. One of the key signs of a shared culture is if you can all cheerfully abuse each other. In the space of the last five years the multiculturalists seem to have internalized the psychology whereby it's taken for granted that you make whatever abusive jokes you want about Christians, but none of those same jokes can be made about Muslims. Well, the minute you accept that, I think you're doomed.

Read it here.

Well, maybe not doomed. We have long been culturally hyper-sensitive. I remember reading in Bill James' Historical Baseball Abstract that in the early Twentieth Century players' nicknames often focused on their ethnic origins or physical peculiarities [think Chief Bender or Three Finger Brown], but at some point such terms were dropped. Similarly, I can recall in my youth some of the old lounge comedians complaining that they could no longer make the kinds of jokes they had when they were coming up because people were starting to take offense at them.

What we have in such things is a very precise and sensitive indicator tracing a major cultural change.

My sense was that the emergence of such sensitivities reflected or was consequent on the rise of the civil rights movement, but that may not be the case. It might just as well be an indicator of the breakdown of the common culture that sustained high levels of social capital through the great economic and military crises of the thirties and forties. It has also been suggested that minimizing cultural differences was part of the public propaganda effort aimed at preserving national unity against foreign enemies in WWII. If that is the case, then a willingness to joke about national origins reflects cultural insecurity rather than cultural confidence.

And, be it noted, if the perceptual change that prohibits ethnic references precedes the emergence of a politically potent national civil rights movement in the post-war years, we might be looking at a factor that allowed such a movement to grow.

In short the question is raised: "Does cultural change precede, or is it consequent upon political action?" Or, more specifically, "did civil rights activists and federal institutions bring about cultural change in mid-twentieth century America, or did they merely reflect it?"

Just riffing here -- but such speculation might result some day in an interesting, potentially important, and easy, study. Graduate students in history take note.

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