Culture Is a Political Weapon. How Will You Use It?

I recently spoke with Stanford Professor Jill Rosenthal, whose research focuses on the harms associated with people doing aid work without knowing the culture of those they aim to help. At its most simple (and extreme), the problem posed by her work is: how should we make choices about whether to do things for people outside of our own culture?

Her research focuses on international aid. She believes change needs to come from within a culture, and that helping members of another culture requires a huge amount of cultural knowledge.

This poses a problem for all aid.

If doing anything of value for people with a different cultural context involves knowing a huge amount about their culture (and even then having no guarantee of helping without harming) , how do we decide that we should and can help any given group of people?

Americans routinely use culture as a reason for not helping American communities outside of their own. This comes out in statements like “what can you do — that’s just their culture” or “that culture doesn’t value X” (where X is education, preventative health, the rule of law, etc.)

Emphasizing culture when discussing whether and how to help a group of people seems progressive, but is often a conservative tool. I’ve heard people say, in veiled language, that majority black schools in American cities can’t be improved because black American culture doesn’t place value on school.

In my home state of Arizona, people make the same arguments about Mexican immigrant culture.

When I presented Rosenthal with this problem, she suggested focusing on making change in the hyperlocal arena. She said that she thinks people can be allies and make change across cultural divides when they focus on the hyperlocal, which she takes to include a given person’s “monthly sphere of interaction.”

Think corner market, grocery store, breakfast place. What does it mean that the man selling Street Spirit newspaper outside of Berkeley Bowl is in a small way part of my monthly sphere of interaction?

Berkeley Bowl

The idea that acquaintanceship, proximity or routine contact can sub in for shared culture as a prerequisite for effectively helping someone of another culture seems hopeful.

But this idea seems unhelpful in cases where residential and social patterns result in “monthly spheres of interaction” nearly devoid of racial or economic diversity.

In the Bay Area, the constant specter of gentrification makes movement to areas populated by those of a different class or race fraught. Moreover, Americans are routinely called upon to make political decisions that directly impact communities with whom they have no regular interactions.

Unfortunately, Rosenthal’s proposed solution didn’t give me a way to interpret political arguments about culture.

Take political discussions about the connection between culture and class. In a recent article about American discussions of class, the New Yorker quoted an excerpt from the National Review, which described “the white American underclass” as being “in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles.”

The article concluded that American conversations about class remain dominated by notions of poverty as a self-sustaining phenomena, created and reinforced by an accompanying culture. This idea, sometimes described as the “culture of poverty,” has been employed at different times by both the left and the right.

Demonstrators at the 1968 Poor People’s March on Washington.

I still am seeking a way to separate issues that should be designated as requiring “change from within a given culture” versus issues that fall under the umbrella of “everyone can do something about this.”

In our discussion, Rosenthal did mention the idea that there are some things that we can categorize as “structural” and therefore part of the “everyone can do something about this” category.

One issue we both deemed structural is free and reliable access to information, particularly information about one’s rights. The way one might think about putting free information access in the structural category comes out in the distinction between religious and cultural practice on the one hand and cult activity on the other.

Someone I know, who was raised in the Belz Hasidic sect, described it as a “religious cult.” I remember talking to some friends about the controversy behind describing a Judaic sect as a cult — in trying to parse out what we think makes something a cult, we came up with the idea that what is unjustifiable, and therefore cult-like (because we take legal action against cults and regulate them in our society) is the practice of preventing people from freely accessing information.

Simply put: something is cult-like or liable to government intervention when people don’t have free access to information, particularly about their rights and other potential ways of living.

It took my like-minded friend group a while to agree on this one aspect of the distinction between cult behavior and the kind of religious and cultural practice that a liberal state should allow.

For the sake of being the kind of political participant you want to be, try to figure out what you box as a “change needs to come from within X culture” versus an “everyone (including me) needs to do something about this” issue.

Get your friends together and talk about what makes something a cult. Figure out what you want the state to do for you. Make a night of it.

[Thanks for reading. This story originally appeared on If you like what you read, please check out more of Nina’s Ripple stories.]

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