It’s the culture stupid

I forget which book it was (I know Thomas Sowell has written about it some but I think there was someone else that did a better job) that I read a couple years back that talked about the culture of the southern United States and how it affected violence. Thanks to rhodeskc I have another, shorter, source for the equivalent information. I have some relatively minor disagreements with the author on some points but the following I have no quibbles about:

… immigrants, who populated what I call Greater Appalachia, came from “an economy based on herding,” which, as anthropologists have shown, predisposes people to belligerent stances because the animals on which their wealth depends are so vulnerable to theft. Drawing on the work of the historian David Hackett Fisher, Nisbett maintained that “southern” violence stems partly from a “culture-of-honor tradition,” in which males are raised to create reputations for ferocity—as a deterrent to rustling—rather than relying on official legal intervention.

More recently, researchers have begun to probe beyond state boundaries to distinguish among different cultural streams. Robert Baller of the University of Iowa and two colleagues looked at late-twentieth-century white male “argument-related” homicide rates, comparing those in counties that, in 1850, were dominated by Scots-Irish settlers with those in other parts of the “Old South.” In other words, they teased out the rates at which white men killed each other in feuds and compared those for Greater Appalachia with those for Deep South and Tidewater. The result: Appalachian areas had significantly higher homicide rates than their lowland neighbors—“findings [that] are supportive of theoretical claims about the role of herding as the ecological underpinning of a code of honor.”

Another researcher, Pauline Grosjean, an economist at Australia’s University of New South Wales, found strong statistical relationships between the presence of Scots-Irish settlers in the 1790 census and contemporary homicide rates, but only in “southern” areas “where the institutional environment was weak”—which is the case in almost the entirety of Greater Appalachia. She further noted that in areas where Scots-Irish were dominant, settlers of other ethnic origins—Dutch, French, and German—were also more violent, suggesting that they had acculturated to Appalachian norms.

But it’s not just herding that promoted a culture of violence. Scholars have long recognized that cultures organized around slavery rely on violence to control, punish, and terrorize—which no doubt helps explain the erstwhile prevalence of lynching deaths in Deep South and Tidewater.

Honor/shame based societies tend to be violent. Muslims will kill their own daughter/sister if they bring dishonor to the family. Certain African-American cultures will get violent if they are “dissed”. In the book I read it said they acquired it from the slave-holder culture they evolved from. The majority of the slave holding white culture dropped that attribute in the last 150 years but a large proportion of the former slaves have not. What clinched the argument for me was that certain language patterns related to the honor culture could be shown to exist in Scotland and Ireland then traced to the Southern slave owners and still exist in “black English” long after they had disappeared in the U.K. and whites in the U.S.

The anti-gun people like to point out the higher rates of violence in the south and claim it is higher rate of gun ownership that accounts for this. Of course they ignore the high rate of violence in places like “gun free zones” Chicago. The truth is that it’s the culture that creates the violence, not the guns. And as long as there are those that insist all culture is equal and that we respect diverse culture, as long as it isn’t that yucky gun culture, we will have violence cultures and have to deal with the problems.


20 thoughts on “It’s the culture stupid

  1. Belligerent? I don’t think so. That amounts to asserting that a desire to protect your property is equivalent to a desire to commit aggression on others.
    This is nonsense, but it is what you can expect from “property is theft” socialists.
    The correct statement would be that herders, and for that matter any other person who doesn’t live by parasitism, is inclined to be protective of property rights and willing to defend those rights against thieves. And this is proper.

  2. The other problem is that it seems like utter wild guessing to pick a single aspect of people’s life (herding) as “explanation” of a difference in level of violence. How did the authors control for the 10 million other variables?

  3. Paul,

    You are eliding the meaning of “belligerent.” I can be utterly non-belligerent yet be active and forceful in asserting my rights as they are actually threatened.

    Belligerence is going beyond that, it is taking opportunities to -find- offense where none is objectively offered. It is -choosing- to deliberately or reflexively misunderstand sarcasm or irony to pick a fight and establish or maintain dominance.

    Witness Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull” when he is, well, raging, about his wife allegedly cheating on him with damn near everyone. His brother Joey sarcastically says that next Jake will be accusing him of sleeping with his wife. LaMotta’s immediate response isn’t to recognize his brother’s attempt to point out how unreasonable he’s being, it is instead to state “-You- been f-ing my wife?!” and attack his brother.

    That’s belligerence, it has no relation to even-tempered defense of one’s rights and is indeed a cultural trait.

    • “elided”?
      Your definition of “belligerent” sounds reasonable to me.
      My point was something different, though. The quote was “…came from “an economy based on herding,” which, as anthropologists have shown, predisposes people to belligerent stances because the animals on which their wealth depends are so vulnerable to theft…”
      This seems to translate to these points:
      1. Appalachians are more belligerent than average.
      2. Herders are more belligerent than average.
      3. More in general, property owners who have a reason to be concerned about theft of their property are more belligerent than average.
      I don’t agree with this. #1 sounds like an elitist looking down on “those rednecks”. #2 and #3 amount to the claim that a righteous desire to protect your property is equivalent to unjustifiable aggression (as you defined “belligerence”). Not so. If someone confronts a cattle rustler with a shotgun, that’s justifiable use of force, not belligerence.

      • You’re assigning moral values to what are non-moral supportable statements about historical and sociological observations.

        #1 is simply stating the background of one of the primary settler groups of Appalachia. The Scots-Irish immigrants came from herding honor cultures which, world over, share certain characteristics in terms of how they deal with others.

        That isn’t “negative”, just necessarily different from usually more passive agriculturalists. Ranchers and farmers have always thought and behaved differently, that’s not really controversial.

        #2 is the same sort of observation. If your wealth is mobile and can be easily taken from you, you have to be more active and aggressive in protecting it. Raiders can trash some crops, but it takes a great deal of time to do permanent damage. Thus hiding in your walls until the raiders run out of food and time is a viable practice (read Victor Davis Hansen on ancient Greece). Contrast that to a culture whose wealth and survival has legs. You can’t lock them behind walls and you can’t watch every cow over hundreds of miles every moment, so you -need- to be active and aggressive against potential threats and if you catch them it makes cost-benefit sense to whip the living tar out of the thieves so they are too afraid to come back. That necessary aggression infuses all parts of a culture and remains even after you give up the herding; unless your culture -has- to integrate into less touchy ones (lace curtain Irish) and take on their attributes. As long as you can “keep among your own kind” you will see your responses as normal and see no need to change.

        #3 So, it isn’t “property owners” but “owners of certain -kinds- of property” that historically were more aggressive.

        Most of us no longer have to defend herds of easily rustled livestock, nor is our own wealth increased by taking those of others, so the remnants of the pastoralist’s -over-aggression (which also ties in to an extant with increased acceptance of taking from the other guy, horse stealing was a -sport- in ancient Ireland) has become even more out of place.

        In most of modern America, if someone bumps into you on the street, you don’t respond with threats, but “excuse me”, even if you aren’t at fault. If someone makes a comment that could be taken two ways, you don’t assume the worse one on the off chance they are trying to diminish you. That is seen as over-reaction, unnecessary to actually defend one’s rights and property.

        It is a reasonable observation to note that the remaining sub-cultures who -still- reflexively respond to what aren’t -real- threats at all as if they are real threats, defaulting to anachronistic honor society over-violence instead of measured responses sufficient to solve the problem, can be correlated with the locations of increased violence in our society.

  4. I believe the book you were trying to think of was “Black Rednecks and White Liberals”. As I recall, it was quick, interesting read–almost as interesting as the looks I collected when carrying it around.

    • That was a great book but it wasn’t the one I was thinking of. Sowell did a great job (as usual) with that book. But the book I was thinking of reported on some actual psychology experiments done that measured the response to being “disrespected” versus various U.S. cultures.

  5. So in other words, with respect to Col. Jeff Cooper, “Get rid of the guns, and you’ll still have a culture-of-violence problem. Get rid of the violent culture, and you cannot have a gun problem.”

  6. Pingback: SayUncle » I don’t get it

  7. Did the authors not consider that many of those immigrants left their homelands because of English policies, headed for the Appalachians to get far from the (then royal) authorities, and kept the “institutional environment” weak because the authorities were bitterly resented? Another reason for a weak “institutional environment” and more tolerance of violence might be that, in the 1790’s, the Appalachians had recently been the frontier. There’s more to it than ancestors having an economy based on herding. Disclosure: both sides of my family are from the southern Appalachian area, and I grew up hearing sarcastic comments about mistaken generalizations about the area.

  8. Try this one: Albion’s Seed

    The book claiming to analyze US regional behavior from 11 supposed immigrant or native origins and the Tuft’s article condensed from that book are a joke.

    There’s yet ANOTHER book proposing we’ve 9 cultures too…

    These things come out every few years. The 4 culture model proposed in Albion seems a bit closer in my mind to interpreting what WAS a pattern of cultures in the USA- before electronic media and the automobile mixed the melting pot largely beyond recognition.

    I’ve a Scots-Irish name, my ancestors relocated to the inland areas of the East coasr, and I’ll take a claidheamh mòr to anyone who suggest I’m violent because of THAT. I have other motivations.

    • You’re almost always a true Scotsman if you use a claymore against your detractors, but we’ll all be sure if you toss a caber at them.

      • And here I thought caber-toothed cats were extinct.

        (bada-bing! with the log-roll, er, drum-role, ah, well, you know what I mean)

    • You’re almost always a true Scotsman if you use a claymore against your detractors, but we’ll all be sure if you toss a caber at them. While wearing your kilt.

      (Scotch-Irish here, which means I get to make jokes about heritage)

  9. Interesting but I think that other factors would contribute as well.

    As far as the language portion, I would be curious if a persons vocabulary could identify a propensity to violent actions. not an exact science of course.

  10. An anthropologist (maybe Elizabeth Marshall Thomas in Warrior Herdsmen ) once stated flatly that “pastoral cultures are always violent.” It comes down to the race to see whose flock gets to the waterhole or good grazing first, etc., plus the fact that livestock is so easily portable — the loot from your raid moves itself.

    If so, it does not matter whether the herders are Appalachian or East African or whatever.

  11. Honor cultures have similar, intertwined, issues, which the “11 Nations” article notes.

    Bowman’s “Honor: A History” is a decent exploration of why many in “the West”, with many of our tribally-based honor cultures having long been “civilized” (Christianity focusing Chivalry on protecting the weak, etc) have such a hard time understanding Middle Eastern tribal groups for whom defending honor with violence is reflexive.

    The whole “bombing remotely is perceived as cowardice” idea is on solid footing, for example. That it can preserve life on both sides isn’t relevant from a perspective of traditional honor and respect for personal bravery.

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