“The Lewis Model”: Yes, it is your grandfather’s orientalism

Every now and then an article crosses my desktop that brings my palm to my face, my head to my desk, and a labored sigh from my lips.

Business Insider posted an article earlier this September on a model that purportedly “explains every culture in the world.” You see my apprehension.

First, no model can explain everything. If it did, it wouldn’t be a model. Models are representations of reality. You can model reality, i.e. create something similar to or based on reality. Since we’re fallible humans we can’t reconstruct reality, we leave something out, some critical explanatory variable.

In the Lewis model, “every culture” is broken down along a continuum between three different poles. I applaud the use of a continuum and three poles – certainly better than a either/or and a binomial model. As far as I’m concerned that’s where the attributes cease.

First the model, or at least the graphics, seem to conflate states and nations. The former, any student of political geography will tell you, are geographic units with more or less sovereignty over a space of the Earth. They are an institution and a system, in other words, not a homogeneous group of people. The “state” that is France is comprised of the courts, the Presidency, the legislative body, the police, the military, and so on and so forth. Of course, each of these components have a “cultural” aspect to it, but I don’t think this model is referring to that.

So what is it referring to? Let’s start with culture. What is that? Culture, to offer a simple definition, is the milieu of practices, customs, and beliefs learned by individuals over a long period of time. Important elements here are 1) practices, customs, beliefs – for example, don’t stand on the left on the D.C. Metrorail escalator, 2) learned – you are not born with this knowledge, you learn it through observation, practice, and being guided (most typically by parents), 3) individuals – adults and children learn this, for example I learned in my teens not to stand on the left on D.C. Metrorail escalators, 4) a period of time – most of this stuff isn’t learned immediately or after one-go, serious things take years to learn.

States, as political entities, don’t really have a culture. Organizations comprising the state, such as the military, may have their own “culture” but much of this is also generated by the individuals (mostly adults) who bring in their own culture as transplants. That leaves us with “nations”. The great imagined community. The legacy of 15th century Europe (or whenever the Treaty of Westphalia was signed). One immediate problem in the model is we say the U.S.A. is “linear-active”. Does that mean all-Americans? White Americans? Black Americans? Half-Brazilian/half-Arab Americans? Where would they fit in this framework? This model completely disregards multi-culturalism while buying into the lie that is the “nation-state”, the idea that each state is inhabited by a homogeneous “nation”.

Even worse is the variety of generalizations. First there’s the geographic generalizations – “Sub-Saharan Africa” is a category. No joke. An entire continent. Yet, Singapore a small-city state nestled between Malaysia and Indonesia is on a completely different tack than its neighbors. We can differentiate a city-state from neighbors but not differentiate within an entire continent? What about intra-country differences? I would argue that in this framework Southern Americans are more similar to “multi-active” places than Northeastern Americans, who fit the general mold of “linear-active”.

And then there’s the behavioral generalizations. Having lived and learned much of America’s so-called “culture”, I can safely say plenty of Americans (if not every single one I’ve met) violated this model. You know Americans can talk at length, particularly about themselves. You know Americans are emotional (football) and almost never stick to facts (WMD in Iraq!). My point is that these behaviors are so general that exceptions are easily found, and in sufficient quantity to make the results meaningless.

Beyond the complete lack of utility in this project, there is a more troubling aspect. The peddling of Orientalism, that bogeyman that I had (at one time) hoped had been left behind in a storm of progress and reason. Surely we can’t continue to think this way? Evidently, we can – and we will. We will continue to generalized hundreds of millions of people into quaint little categories and boxes. Even better, while we do so, we’ll make ourselves look better than them.

Do you think its any coincidence that the author (a British citizen) has this to say about the Linear-Active category of which the U.S. and U.K. are close to the poles (my commentary in parentheses):

  • Talks half of the time (at least we don’t talk all the time!)
  • Does one thing at a time (methodological!)
  • Plans ahead (rational!)
  • Polite but direct (yea!)
  • Confronts with logic (Enlightenment and the Age of Reason started here!)
  • Job-oriented (yea?)
  • Sticks to facts (Scientific method wo0t!)
  • Result-oriented (quality over quantity!)
  • Sticks to agenda (no diversions, one-track, down to business!)
  • Written word important (contracts! law suits!)
  • Restrained body language (until I flip you off.)

Even the names are borderline derogatory. Linear-active sounds boring, to be honest. Multi-active sounds hyper and unfocused (which it is based on the description). While reactive is just that. I bet if we read the paper we would be able to find veiled references to the influence of climate on these “cultures”. The Mediterranean is beautiful, thus nations there are more relaxed and unfocused.

That these papers continue to crop up in 2013 is truly terrifying. Someone believes this, others reviewed it and believed, and someone will pick this up read it over and say – now that makes sense to me. And it will probably be a German, Swiss, or Luxembourgian – since they’re (apparently) the most fact-oriented.

A serious distraction in Texas: Geographic Education

I saw a story come up in my feeder the other day and I have to say, I was shocked. The title is clearly provocative and the content is vitriolic. The article, from a self-proclaimed “powerful” conservative source (I appreciate the honesty), discusses a “World Geography” class in Texas that dressed students in burqas and were instructed to “no longer call those who commit terrorist acts terrorists [instead they] were to be called freedom fighters.” Finally, the students were assigned to write an essay, based on a Washington Post story, that Egypt’s problems are due to democracy, not the Muslim Brotherhood. Evidently the lesson plan came from a “controversial” electronic curriculum system. The article goes proceeds to give significant words to a vocal critic of the system saying that it “without question promoting the Islamic religion.” The evidence includes teaching that Allah is God, reading selected texts from the Qur’an, and “proselytizing”. The final damning piece of evidence is a photograph that was posted to Facebook (and reproduced below).

The Lumberton Independent School District posted a response to the photo and the uproar and some bits are worth quoting: “[the lesson] informed students to the customary culture of the people in the Middle East”. It then goes on to cite the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills from the Texas Education Agency (essentially, the desired learning outcomes) for World Geography, “Culture. The student understands the distribution, patterns, and characteristics of different cultures.” Of course, this leads that “damning” picture. Or does it?

As the Lumberton ISD response points out, and as we can see closely in the picture behind the students, all three principle religions in the Middle East show up on the white board, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. The principle breakdowns of each religion are also shown, Sunni/Shi’a, Reformed/Conservative/Orthodox, Catholic/Orthodox/Protestant. As for the students in typical Middle Eastern garments, the ISD says that this was only meant to reflect the variations on customary attire.

While I think the dressing of students in garments is questionable (if not stupid, given the easily misconstrued narrative that the picture provides), I agree with the ISD. Its clear from the white board that the discussion focused around religion in a particular area of the globe. This is a legitimate World Geography exercise. What’s harder to explain is the charges of rebranding “terrorists” as “freedom fighters”. While clearly one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist, I don’t think either term should be used at school. Why? Because they’re loaded at this point, they come with a lot of baggage. No one can say “you’re a terrorist” and simply mean “the method in which you fight asymmetrically is to instill terror in the target populace”. Calling someone a “terrorist” is the modern day equivalent of a “communist” in the McCarthy era. Do terrorists exist? Of course they do, a lot do. Are they freedom fighters? I’m sure a lot of them think they area, and I’m sure a lot of the people who believe in their political ideology think they are too. Thus, I think militant would be an appropriate word for a school setting, it captures the violent aspect of the occupation while leaving behind the emotional baggage.

And yes, Allah is God. Allah literally translates as “God.” Though I’m making excuses here, reading selected texts from the Qur’an is rather strange and these allegations aren’t refuted in the Lumberton ISD response. A December 2012 memorandum from the company contests that its detractors are taken its lesson plans out of context and misinterpreting them.

Perhaps the biggest piece of “missing” information is the one reported on the company’s website, which essentially blames Lumberton. They say that while they provided the lesson plan the activity of dressing up the students was “locally developed”.

As for the Washington Post article essay, well that’s just critical thinking. Last I checked the foundations of this country rested on the capacity to think and say what you think, not what someone tells you to think. Being the rogue that I am I argued against the American Revolution in my Texas high school, and may have gotten detention. So if everyone is saying the Muslim Brotherhood is THE problem, which of course they are part of it, somebody else better stand up say that there’s other issues ongoing as well. As usual scape-goating the bogeyman of the day, violent Islamism, allows us to suspend critical thought. However, inhibiting cross-cultural education in Texas’ public schools is a recipe for strengthening ethno-religious stereotypes and geographic illiteracy, but by the same token school districts really need to be aware of what “interactivity” a lesson plan calls for. Unfortunately in the age of information, when a simple picture can launch a thousand protest movements, everything is taken as negatively as possible.