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#3341: DeGraff on "cultural tendencies" and "stereotypes" (fwd)

From: Michel DeGraff <degraff@MIT.EDU>

Just a few words on the recent discussion regarding "cultural tendencies"
and "stereotypes".   I will agree that indeed both exist.  And there
obviously exist "cultural tendencies" in Haiti like anywhere else.
Haitians are human beings after all, with culture and all.

But the only way to try and decide what is "cultural tendency" is via
careful qualitative and quantitative study, not by anecdotal and
impressionistic observations of the type that are being reported on this
list.  It is exactly this sort of non-scientific and subjective reports
based on limited personal experience that is at the root of racism in the
U.S. and elsewhere.  If such limited sampling of a people's behavior were
enough to determine "cultural tendencies", then one could as easily
conclude that U.S. Blacks and Hispanics (who else?) show the following
"cultural tendencies": they tend to be dishonest, and even worse: they are
gangsters, pimps, junkies, etc... --- just watch your TV evening news for
example.  Then again, the same evening news plus your history books provide
the needed `research samples' (!) that would justify attributing the
following "cultural tendencies" to American whites: power-hungry, liars,
cheaters, paranoid, delusional, megalomaniac and/or sex-obsessed --- just
consider, for example, Jefferson, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and company (all
elected by the American "people", isn't it?).

In this light, Grey's latest posting provides a rather telling case study
where the terms "cultural tendencies" and "stereotypes" are used quite
loosely and misleadingly:

> Cultural tendencies are NOT stereotypes, they are cultural tendencies, or 
> cultural values if you like, they are real and they shape the society.  
> RIGHT!  It's not that people don't lie and steal, or politicians are never 
> corrupt, here in the USA.  It's rather that here it's considered WRONG, it's 
> a scandal, it gets the person in trouble or out of office or something.  But 
> in Haiti, it's considered the elected official's privilege of office to do 
> "magouj pa li"!

Do elected officials in Haiti represent the "cultural tendencies" of the
HAITIAN PEOPLE AS A GROUP???  Have Grey and others conducted any study on A
Grey's line of reasoning, then one should ask whether the likes of
Jefferson, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and (while we're at it?)  Giuliani
represent U.S. "cultural tendencies" ???  

I am sure that everyone would agree that such reasoning makes no sense, but
why then is such reasoning so common when it comes to determine the
"cultural tendencies" of the Haitian people?  Without any OBJECTIVE
measure, such "cultural tendencies" are nothing but stereotypes.  (I myself
wouldn't even know how to start measuring "cultural tendencies", but I am
willing to learn.)

So far, all I've seen in this discussion has to do with facile
"stereotypes" parading as "cultural tendencies".  I haven't seen one iota
of SOLID DOCUMENTATION about the ethnography of the HAITIAN PEOPLE AS A
GROUP.  (Bob Corbett: This is not a request for a footnote, this is a
request for TRUTH.)  Let me stress this so I don't get misunderstood: I am
NOT saying that the impressions reported here are automatically inaccurate
(although I'd like to believe that they MIGHT be until proven otherwise).
But so far there's been no solid ethnographic data being reported that say
anything at all about the "cultural tendencies" of the Haitian people AS A
PEOPLE.  All I keep reading about is anecdotes and impressions by certain
individuals.  Please remember that there's MUCH more to Haiti than the
Haitians that some of you happen to have met or heard about.

Also remember that first-hand impressions (even by the MILLIONS and even by
scholars) do not exist outside the minds of human observers who themselves
have their own sociologically and historically rooted "cultural
tendencies".  For example, do remember that less than a century ago most
writers in the U.S. were also arguing about specific "cultural tendencies"
among women, Blacks, Asians, etc.  And once in Europe there even was a
pretty smart and well-spoken white guy who decided with much acclaim from
his compatriots that a "final solution" had to be found to solve the
specific problem presented by another group's "cultural tendencies".  Even
before that, also in Europe (are we dealing with a European "cultural
tendency"?), another consortium of white guys decided that the "cultural
tendencies" of another group of people (from another continent) justify
shipping them as human chattel (to a third continent!).  Even European
clerics and philosophers (Las Casas and Hegel, say) went along believing
that these "cultural tendencies" were accurate.

If THESE "cultural tendencies" --- about women, Jews, Africans, etc. ---
did contain any "grain of truth", then these "grains" were, and are still,
definitely very hard to swallow.  Those "grains of truths" did not only
bring offense, they brough sin and death. Beware...

In any case, what I find intriguing is that such facile stereotypes are
being promoted by people who call themselves "friends of Haiti".  With
friends like these...

MIT Linguistics & Philosophy, 77 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge MA 02139-4307
degraff@MIT.EDU        http://web.mit.edu/linguistics/www/degraff.home.html