Dominant Culture Denies Its Dominance

There is a certain kind of awareness that many, if not most, people seem to lack.

It is a social awareness dealing with the dominant culture. I suppose this type of awareness is likely a learned ability that few ever learn for it probably offers few advantages, especially on the social level. People who question the dominant culture tend to be ignored, dismissed or sometimes even punished.

The opposite of this social awareness of dominant culture isn’t simply a lack of awareness but often an active denial of awareness (although maybe a subliminal awareness of what is being denied). It’s obvious what is being denied from an outside perspective and yet if you are too far outside you might not notice the incongruency. Standing on the edge of the dominant culture, part way in and part way out, offers the perfect position for this kind of social awareness.

* * *

So, what is being denied?

The person fully within the dominant culture often defends the dominant culture by denying that it is the dominant culture. That is how dominant cultures work. The dominant culture is able to maintain its dominance by maintaining its invisibility, well invisibility to those within the dominant culture anyway.

A reality tunnel can only be taken as reality by disallowing the reality tunnel to be seen for what it is.

* * *

Here is the example that got me thinking about this today. It is a comment by Alan Lichtenstein to the Wired article ‘Why Do Some People Learn Faster?’ and the following is the relevant part of the comment:

“Intelligence is overrated.  However, hard work is underrated.”

I read all the responses to this comment (19 responses by my count). Only one person disagreed with the statement that “Intelligence is overrated” and no one disagreed with the statement that “However, hard work is underrated”.

This is relevant because Wired magazine is very much a part of American mainstream media and hence a part of American mainstream culture. These readers seem to be typical mainstream Americans and their opinions representative of the dominant culture.

In order to discern the beliefs, biases and assumptions of the dominant culture, just look at what the Mr. Lichtenstein’s statements imply. Who is overrating intelligence and underrating hard work? Certainly not Mr. Lichtenstein and the typical mainstream American who agrees with him. The comment is based on an assumption that most Americans overrate intelligence and underrate hard work, but that is obviously not true.

In fact, the very opposite of what Mr. Lichtenstein says is true, at least in America:

Intelligence is underrated. However, hard work is overrated.

America has always had a strong strain of anti-intellectualism and hard work is one of the central tenets of American culture.

If hard work was any more overrated, it would be treated like a religious belief. In some ways, it already is a religious belief. Others (such as Max Weber) have noted that American’s work ethic is rooted in Protestantism. Many have argued as well that America’s anti-intellectualism is also rooted in Protestantism or Christianity in general.

* * *

Here is the basic point that I’m making (stated as a generalized truth):

You know what the dominant culture affirms by what those in the dominant culture deny.

* * *

I’ll give two other examples, one related to the media and the other related to religion.

* * *

First, there is the conservative allegation that the mainstream media is liberal.

As a liberal who doesn’t identify fully with the mainstream, I’ve noticed that this conservative allegation typically comes from people who are in the mainstream media, who regularly watch the mainstream media, or who are generally a part of the mainstream. When I check out alternative media, it is much more rare to come across this conservative allegation or else its more common to hear the opposite allegation.

The fact that this conservative allegation has spread so widely should make one suspicious of its veracity. If the mainstream media actually were liberal, those in the mainstream media wouldn’t allege others are too liberal in order to prove their own conservative credentials.

It’s like when Republican presidential candidates attack each other as being too liberal. No objective person would take this as evidence that the Republican Party has become a liberal party. Once again, the opposite is true. The GOP has instead gone to the far right.

The liberal media allegation also demonstrates the difference between mainstream and average. The mainstream often doesn’t represent the average for dominant cultures often originate from and are enforced by a dominant elite. The mainstream media acting as gatekeepers is an example of this. Even as the mainstream media attacks the mainstream media as being too liberal, the average American is more liberal than mainstream media. So, relative to the average American, the mainstream media certainly isn’t too liberal.

The conservative allegation that the mainstream media is too liberal acts as an implied denial. It denies that the mainstream media is too conservative. Hence, it denies that the corporate ruling elite who owns and operates the mainstream media (and who influences politics more than any other demographic) is too conservative. Furthermore, it denies how liberal average Americans are by refusing to acknowledge that the mainstream media doesn’t represent average Americans. The allegation implies that the mainstream media is more liberal than the average American when in reality the complete opposite is true.

* * *

Second, religious Americans are always complaining about being victims.

This is ironic considering how much power they wield. Atheists don’t have lobbyist groups that are as wealthy and influential as the religious lobbyist groups. No admitted atheist or agnostic (or any other variety of non-Christian) has ever been president of the United States. If a candidate doesn’t regularly declare or somehow clearly demonstrate their Christian credentials, they won’t even get nominated as a candidate for either party.

Conservative Christian’s denying they have power is evidence of how much power they have.

America is the most religious nation in the West and probably the most Christian nation in the world. A large part of US policy is determined by conservative Christian beliefs: obstruction of legalizing gay marriage, constant attacks on women’s health clinics because of abortion, undermining of health care reform partly because of abortions and birth control, continued funding of abstinence only sex education, the largest prison system in the world built on a conservative Christian punishment mentality, “In God We Trust” being placed on our money at the beginning of the Cold War, our constantly attacking Muslim countries and our massive support of Israel, and on and on.

The rate of religiosity such as church membership and attendance is higher in America now than when the country was founded. Atheism may be growing, but it is still a tiny percentage of the population. The majority of Americans continue to claim to believe many standard doctrines of contemporary mainstream Christianity, including such bizarre beliefs as the story about Noah’s Ark being real (even many Christians in the first centuries of Christianity didn’t take such Old Testament stories literally).

* * *

These examples create an odd picture of American culture.

Most Americans are liberal Christians with a strong work ethic. However, Christianity is shrinking the most among lower class whites and the most religious demographic of all is that of minorities, although the upper classes are also more religious than lower class whites (the more educated an American gets the more religious they become, thus disproving the higher education system is dominated by an anti-religious liberal elite).

So, the average and below average white American is actually less Christian and more liberal than Americans in the upper classes. Meanwhile, the white upper class complains about liberalism and secularism, and also the white upper class complains about minorities despite minorities most strongly representing the religiosity upper class whites proclaim as the moral highground.

The dominant culture continues to be dominated by upper class WASPs. This is so despite the fact that atheists and minorities are two of the fastest growing demographics. Dominant culture by its nature attempts to maintain the status quo of power, wealth and social order.

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2 Responses

  1. I have a similar line of thinking at that sticks with a generalization of the irony point you make in the early part. There’s kind of a completely non-philosophical treatment of this idea in a business context by Edward Tenner called “Why Things Bite Back” that is seriously astounding in it’s breadth of application in the real world.

    I’ve enjoyed foraying around your site: more importantly, I’ve learned a great deal, and I’m grateful to you for putting so much work into all these ideas. It’s unfair and simplistic to characterize yourself as uneducated and overread, of course: the former is only, I assume, true in a formal and collegiate context, and the latter is impossible. You range afield of, let’s say, Jung’s work, which puts the psyche in the center, to take stabs in a lot of directions. It’s not possible to do that well within a formal, PhD-centric life. I was just talking to a new PhD. who reminded me of that, and renewed my gratefulness at being free of that life: she was clearly quite constrained at what she spent her time on. It was her *business* to stick with something, make it interesting and complete long past her period of interest- and then do it again. There’s little ranging about in that. So your presence doing this, and doing it well, is extremely rare- and I thank you for it.

    • The one thing from this post that fascinated me the most is some of the data I summarized at the end. I think I’ve discussed that data in other posts somewhere, but I forget where. Anyway, the one piece of data that was counter-intuitive was that the more educated people become, the more religious they become. I’d love to try to figure out why that is the case. I can think of a few possible reasons, but they would only be guesses.

      I just read your post. I could see how it relates to my post here. Irony would be another way of thinking about it. Any position taken to an extreme would often tend to betray or undermine the supposed principles or values of that position. I’ll have to give that some more thought. It’s an interesting way to think about human behavior.

      I’m glad you enjoyed your foraying. It may be unfair and unrealistic to characterize myself that way (by the way, I characterized myself as under-educated, not uneducated; an important difference), but there is some truth to it, depending on how one defines education. A more accurate way to put it is that I’m under-educated in terms of the formal higher education and over-educated (is such is possible) in terms of the informal self-education.

      I totally get what you say about the limitations of a professional career in academia. I don’t think I could handle that. I represent certain extremes of both the advantages and disadvantages of liberalism. On the positive side, I’m intellectually curious to such a such a degree that it is practically an obsession. I’m fairly creative and original in my thinking, capable of putting information together in unique ways and thus creating new interpretations. On the negative side, I’m a typical messy and disorganized liberal. I lack a strong sense of responsibility and self-control. I’m definitely low on ‘conscientiousness’, almost to a debilitating degree.

      There is one thing I always feel like adding to discussions such as this. My intellectuality, although manifesting as liberalism, was taught to me by my conservative parents. Interestingly, my dad did take the path way of becoming an academic and taught as a professor for many decades.

      This last point got me thinking about another issue we were discussing. It is true that most academics identify as liberal, but in terms of traits this might play out differently than the average liberal. I suspect that academics, whether conservative or liberal, would rate fairly high on ‘conscientiousness’. So, liberal academics are probably stronger on this trait than the average liberal. It takes a lot of the abilities associated with ‘conscientiousness’ to do well in the constrained career of academia. I’d love to see how academic liberals would rate differently on personality traits, specifically compared to the average liberal and also compared to the liberal who is below average (at least in education).

      This is one of the reasons I don’t think academia is quite as liberal as many think it is. There is a difference between self-identified labels and positions on political issues, and a difference between both of these and how one is measured on personality traits; there is of course some correlation between all of these, but the correlation is imperfect. Despite the average American self-identifying as a conservative (although actually more self-identify as moderates), the majority of Americans support liberal positions on key political issues (i.e., issues that tend to divide along ideological lines). Similarly, despite the average academic self-identifying as a liberal, they may not fit the profile of the average liberal and so may not be representative of liberalism in general.

      In particular, you won’t tend to find the most strongly liberal-minded in academia, for the simple reason that strong liberal-mindedness would buck against such a constrained environment where there are tons of organizational rules along with tons of social norms and expectations. You’ll more likely find the strongly liberal-minded in the creative arts or else simply shunted off into the periphery of society. Being strongly liberal-minded tends to create such idiosyncratic thought and behavior that such people are forced to look for some minor niche to satisfy their tendencies and allow for their inadequacies. The most strongly liberal-minded probably would end up as hermits, as the homeless, in the insane asylum, or in prison (especially the latter considering the liberal tendency to experiment with drugs, specifically of the illegal variety).

      In case your interested, I have a post that discusses one reason why liberals in academia would be different:

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