Don’t reach for your revolver

Hermann Göring is apocryphally reported to have proclaimed, “When I hear the word ‘culture,’ that’s when I reach for my revolver.” Reading our public discourse surrounding the notion of “culture,” I’m disturbed to find myself momentarily sympathizing with the sentiment of Göring’s misattributed quotation.

“Culture” is now reduced to yet another frontier in the backwater battlefield of Internet debate between, for example, those who claim “the only way to break the cycle of poverty is to fix the culture of poverty” on the one hand, and those who scorn any “cultural explanations of inequality” whatsoever on the other.

But we would do well to think more deeply about culture than these Manichean treatments are able to do. It is vitally important today to try and understand what culture is, how it underlies and forms our communities, how we are responsible for acting as stewards for our culture, and how to understand cultures other than our own.

The explicit dismissal of arguments that appeal to culture, as in the case of the Jacobin essay, reveals a lack of appreciation for culture’s relevance as a way of understanding the workings of society that is not uncommon on the left. And in the case of the National Review piece, culture is treated so quickly and superficially as to reduce its profound importance and complexity, a trend I have noticed in other conservative analyses.

Such insouciance about culture from across the political spectrum points to our preference for quantitative and scientific methods of understanding. For example, we are told we can only comprehend the origins of poverty either through the cold economic analysis of class conflict, or instead by appreciating the importance of culture merely as “the upshot of two fascinating new studies” by a team of Harvard economists.

Thinking more seriously about culture than these journalistic examples have done requires seeing, as the American philosopher Stanley Cavell put it, that “the human creature’s basis in the world as a whole…is not that of knowing, anyway not what we think of as knowing.” Dismissing the importance of culture in favor of economic analysis, or appreciating culture merely as a byproduct of phenomena that can otherwise be quantitatively catalogued, comes as a result of seeing the human basis in the world solely in terms of knowing.

What Cavell and other thinkers who take culture seriously want us to see is that humans are more than just knowers. Our existence cannot be explained or understood by means of numbers alone, that way of knowing which seems most widely respected today. And part of the qualitative aspect of our existence is culture, a byword for something like the sum of history, tradition, language, religion, community, law, and the symbolic expressions of the arts, sciences, and humanities. These aspects of our existence are wider and fuller than – though frequently compatible with – the acquisition of knowledge.

So I am very cautiously heartened by efforts such as the Humanities in the Public Square project announced last month by the National Endowment for the Humanities, which intends to “put humanities scholars in direct dialogue with the public on some of the most pressing issues of today.”

I am by no means suggesting humanists are uniquely positioned to be insightful about important public issues – a dubious proposition, as countless counterexamples would demonstrate. And indeed the emphasis in the NEH project on established scholars might skew it towards certain obvious institutional and ideological biases. But I nevertheless think the input of those who study culture, taken in its broadest sense, could only increase the diversity of views in our national conversation, by expanding the relatively narrow confines of the prevalent expert culture, which will always privilege some forms of knowledge over others, and refocus attention on a theme of the most profound relevance.

Against the best efforts of culture’s despisers, we should restore culture’s rightful place as an integral means of social understanding and explanation. When you hear the word “culture,” don’t reach for your revolver just yet.


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