Friday, September 13, 2013

America's Two Cultures

Back in 1992 when James Davison Hunter published Culture Wars: The Struggle to Control the Family, Art, Education, Law and Politics in America, he was careful to note that America was not really divided into two distinct cultural camps, but rather what he was writing about were culturally extreme minorities (the "orthodox" and the "progressive") at either end of the a continuum in which most Americans fell on a middle ground.

Several excellent pieces of sociological research, as well as personal observations, lead me to think that today's America is far closer to a "culture war" today. There is less middle ground and more polarization. Facebook has been a fertile ground for observing that culture war. Between my husband (also a sociologist) and myself, our combined Facebook circles encompass significant numbers of people on both sides of the culture war. 

One striking example of the differences between the two cultural camps are two quite different apocryphal stories (below) currently circulating on Facebook. Both have been posted by people on my personal Friends list (with well known political and cultural biases) in 2013. The persons circulating these stories appear to believe them to be true stories.  However, a quick search of debunking websites such as TrueorFalse and Snopes make it clear that both stories are considered fiction or hoax.  There is no basis in a fact (no recorded incidents) for the conservative version of the story on the right below. The progressive version of the story on the left below is a variation of a story that has been circulating on the Internet since 1998. The original 1998 version places the incident on a British Airways flight out of Johannesburg and may possibly, but not necessarily, be based in fact. But the current version presented as a contemporary story in the United States is fiction.

Liberal Apocryphal Story
Conservative Apocryphal Story
A 50-something year old white woman arrived at her seat and saw that the passenger next to her was a black man. Visibly furious, she called the air hostess. "What's the problem, ma?" the hostess asked her "Can't you see?" the lady said - "I was given a seat next to a black man. I can't seat here next to him. You have to change my seat" "Please, calm down, ma" - said the hostess "Unfortunately, all the seats are occupied, but I'm still going to check if we have any." The hostess left and returned some minutes later. "Madam, as I told you, there isn't any empty seat in this class - economy class. But I spoke to the captain and he confirmed that there isn't any empty seats in the economy class. We only have seats in the first class." And before the woman said anything, the hostess continued "Look, it is unusual for our company to allow a passenger from the economy class change to the first class. However, given the circumstances, the commandant thinks that it would be a scandal to make a passenger travel sat next to an unpleasant person." And turning to the black man, the hostess said: "Which means, Sir, if you would be so nice to pack your handbag, we have reserved you a seat in the first class..." And all the passengers nearby, who were shocked to see the scene started applauding, some standing on their feet. SHARE IF YOU ARE AGAINST RACISM A 50-something year old Muslim man arrived at his seat on a crowded flight and immediately didn't want the seat. The seat was next to an elderly white woman reading her Bible. Disgusted, the man said, "I cannot sit here next to this infidel!" then summoned the flight attendant, demanding a new seat. The flight attendant responded, "Let me see if I can find another seat. "After checking, the flight attendant returned and stated "There are no more seats in economy, but I will check with the captain and see if there is something in first class. "The flight attendant returned, stating "The captain has confirmed that there are no more seats in economy, however there is one in first class. It is our company policy to never move a person from economy to first class, but being that it would be some sort of scandal to force a person to sit next to an UNPLEASANT person, the captain agreed to make the switch to first class." Before the irate Muslim man could say anything, the attendant gestured to the elderly woman and said, "Therefore, m'am, if you would so kindly retrieve your personal items, we would like to move you to the comfort of first class as the captain doesn't want you to sit next to an unpleasant person." Passengers in the seats nearby began to applaud while some gave a standing ovation. I say, can I get an Amen to that!

The two stories share the same structure. As a liberal social scientist I see them as carrying quite different messages.  From my perspective the story on the left decries racism, while the story on the right reinforces negative religious stereotypes.  However, as a sociologist I am also fully aware that the conservative friends would most likely interpret the meaning of the two stories quite differently. Conservative friends would be likely to say that the story on the left reinforces negative racial stereotypes (all elderly white people are racists), while the story on the right decries obvious religious bigotry on the part of Muslims. 

The two cultures in America not only tell different stories, but we interpret each other's stories in very different ways.