Cultural determinism is the belief that culture rather than nature or biology determines who we are at emotional and behavioral levels.
In the early twentieth century, departing from Western and founding beliefs, American social science adopted the belief that the individual and human nature are entirely socially constructed by society or culture—cultural determinism.
In mid-century, as foreseen in The Lonely Crowd (1950) by David Riesman, the social character of Americans began to change to “other-directed”—by the feelings of the social class or group to which they belonged—a form of cultural determinism. But a national character and the traditional ideal of national unity and assimilation of cultures remained.
Over the last half of the twentieth century, an already entrenched cultural determinism turned to the novel concepts of multiculturalism and diversity, in which the identity and interests of marginalized oppressed groups became a regnant cultural belief that first captured the academy and then American society.
Multiculturalism is generally defined as the existence, acceptance, or promotion of multiple cultural traditions within a single jurisdiction, usually considered in terms of the culture associated with an ethnic group.
In the early 1970s, the Ford Foundation chose multiculturalism—over our traditional meritocratic and assimilationist ideals, including progressivism—as the model for a future America. It implemented a vision of America as a conglomerate of separate and disparate races, ethnicities, and subnational cultures, in which individuals were defined by their group membership. Their idea was that diversity and group identity rather than unity and national identity should become America’s overriding ideals. It saw that the university had become the battleground in the effort to force multiculturalism into the intellectual and educational life of the country, and it facilitated that objective.
A major influence on the evolution of that multiculturalism came from the late Italian cultural Marxist Antonio Gramsci when the translation into English of his Prison Notebooks (1971) brought his ideas of cultural determinism (Gramsci’s own term was “cultural hegemony”) to America. John Fonte explains that, like Marx, Gramsci argued that “all societies in human history have been divided into two basic groups: the privileged and the marginalized, the oppressor and the oppressed, the dominant and the subordinate.” Gramsci expanded Marx’s ranks of the oppressed to include women and minority groups, as well as the economically marginalized. In Gramsci’s ideology, “white males replace capitalists as the oppressors and women and minorities replace workers as the oppressed.”
In Gramsci’s Marxist philosophy, “cultural hegemony” is the domination of a culturally diverse society by the ruling class who manipulate the culture of the society. Gramsci’s battle cry for his marginalized cultural groups was first to “capture the culture” by gaining influence or control over the institutions through which consciousness was formed and public opinion was shaped: schools, universities, art, and the media. Later, the marginalized groups would become dominant through political power, with civil society being a major battleground.
Gramsci’s ideas of cultural determinism were embraced by the Academic Left as endowing the intellectual with the revolutionary role in overthrowing the hegemony of the dominant traditional American culture. In The Rise and Fall of the American Left (1992), John Patrick Diggins illustrates Gramsci’s Marxist influence using documentation such as The Left Academy: Marxist Scholarship on American Campuses (1984), which announced that “its initial results are evident throughout the academy.”
Marginalized-victim group multiculturalism soon swept through public education, turning teaching further away from knowledge and towards advocacy of social justice for oppressed groups. Political correctness became the dominant ideology of both subjectivity and behavioral determinism—and of the academy, the media and Hollywood. One had to observe the new moral absolutes: diversity, reproductive choice, tolerance, sensitivity, and sexual orientation, which quickly became mandatory.
Cultural determinism through multiculturalism features relativism rather than reason or truth. The concern of multiculturalism is not economics or material welfare, but recognition or esteem; it is not income but identity, dignity, and recognition (compulsory external affirmation of victim groups by their oppressors); it is not Western capitalism but Western culture that oppresses. Political economy is replaced by identity politics. Multiculturalism focuses on the welfare of identity groups. Last, oppression is viewed as a relatively permanent feature of human life, stemming directly from a psychological drive for esteem and cultural hegemony, or something like Nietzsche’s will-to-power.
Multiculturalism holds that only cultural artifacts and particulars such as ritual, superstition, kinship ties, dress, diet, and sex are important. The transcendent ideals, abstract ideas, and traditional wisdom of Western civilization that informed America’s Founders have been replaced by the superficial detail of everyday life. Like the Greek Cynics, present-day multiculturalists argue that wisdom comes from habits of daily living, not from knowledge or tradition. Multicultural trivia are thus as valid and important as knowledge. Cultural relativism results in a race to the bottom rather than to excellence and advancement in a society or individuals—one principal reason for the debasement of our children’s education and capabilities.
Multiculturalism presents the historical account of America as the story of subjugation of oppressed groups, which is “rooted in the work of Marxist historians and social scientists,” notes Peter Wood in Diversity; The Invention of a Concept (2003). A review by a panel of distinguished historians in 2004 found social studies textbooks to be “mostly a disgrace that, in the name of political correctness and multiculturalism, fail to give students an honest account of American history.”
After the 1970s, universities turned to proportional representation of ascriptive groups. In Part III, of his essay, “Domestic Faction in a Republic,” George Seaver explains that multiculturalism “found that civic virtue imposed unacceptable hierarchies, privilege and oppression in society.” Virtue became a construct of the individual or cultural group, “with no significance of one over the other. Hierarchy was abhorrent, and any attempt to impose one led to ‘privileging’ and oppressing the ‘Other’ in society. The antidote for such privileging was “social justice,” for the group, not the individual.
Not only American history but the history and literature of Western civilization have largely been extirpated from college undergraduate education in the name of multiculturalism.
The diversity ideology became the formal successor to multiculturalism and now holds the academy in the iron grip of cultural determinism that dominates academic as well as administrative life. Diversity holds that assimilation into the mainstream—the traditional and successful American multicultural process—is “oppressive” and “coercive,” observes Wood in Diversity. Thus, the pursuit of diversity is held to be both practically good and personally redemptive, if not virtuous, despite a conspicuous lack of any evidence of its claimed benefits. “In just a few years, diversity became America’s most visible cultural ideal….a cliché that promotes group stereotypes and undermines any real diversity of ideas and individuals….[and] validates only a narrow hierarchy of difference, asserting the principle that people are, above all else, members of social groups and products of the historical experiences of those groups….Diversity as it is practiced today is anti-individualist and at odds with America’s older ideals of liberty and equality.”
There is evidence that diversity has had a quite negative, not positive, effect on society in at least the short- to medium-run, in a five-year project by noted Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, who considers that diversity can have long-range benefits for society. His study, involving 30,000 interviews in 41 U. S. communities and presented as his 2006 Johan Skytte Prize Lecture, found that social solidarity and social capital are actually diminished in ethnically-diverse communities: people trust each other less, including members of their own groups; reciprocity, altruism, and cooperation are rarer; confidence in local institutions is weaker; friendships are fewer; and there is less happiness—regardless of age or income level. Putnam is concerned that his findings may underestimate the effects of diversity on social withdrawal.
This should not be surprising. More than two millennia ago, the Greeks and then the Romans first replaced group and tribal rights with individual rights—based on objective principles applicable equally to every individual citizen. In every age in the development of Western civilization—in Greece, Rome, the High Middle Ages, the Renaissance and Reformation, and the Enlightenment—advances were sought to rise above and supersede the ethos and power of groups, tribes, or clans, to free the individual from subordination of his interests to those of the group, whether religious, economic, social, political, racial, or ethnic. The identity-group diversity ideology is not new and has failed repeatedly throughout Western history. Thus, America was founded on the Western concept of the dignity, worth, and autonomy of the individual.
What does Putnam recommend based on his study’s findings? He urges renewal of the American tradition as a successful immigrant nation. That means creating new, cross-cutting forms of social solidarity and more encompassing identities. The study notes that America has done this through popular culture, education, national symbols, and common experiences. Putnam advocates policies explicitly designed to foster a shared sense of citizenship and mutual obligation to speed assimilation, including English-language training. “Our national motto—e pluribus unum—reflects precisely that objective,” concludes Putnam, “namely to create union out of diversity.”
Ironically, Putnam recognizes the need to return to the American ideal before our academic and college-educated elite led us into the cul-de-sac of identity-group diversity ideology: one people speaking a common language (English), ultimately living in harmony and with a common civic identity and sense of unity through consensual assimilation. Tragically, Putnam’s conclusion in E Pluribus Unum that the nation needs once more to “create union out of diversity” continues to be ignored.
Identitarianism and the Arts
Another manifestation of cultural determinism is the “identity politics” of the left or “identitarianism,” which has had a destructive effect on the contemporary arts, described by Sohrab Ahman in The New Philistines: (Provocations) (2017). Ahman argues that the classical liberal West has supported and required a rich interior life and an education heightening our ability to learn from others. At the same time, individuals can express and make intelligible their own interior life and experience, what some term an “expressivist” account of identity. Classical liberal culture “insists there is something in each of us, something unique and immutable, that can’t be reduced to group identities such as race, nationality, gender, sexuality” and that “great art has long made it its business to articulate that irreducible something.”
Identitarians reject individuality, the interior life, and any sense that individuals can, in real and profound ways, communicate themselves. Despite the verbiage, they “celebrate individual difference, so long as you are different in the same way.” In the end, identitarians’ rejection of classical liberalism requires them to reject human persons as they actually are in their concrete individuality, reducing everyone to a caricature of some presumed mass identity, an identity that must never be translated, expressed, or welcomed by the dominant culture. Every group generates and controls its own unique “narrative” that is entirely incommensurable with any others, an absolute relativism of standards.
“This way of thinking about art denies individuality and agency to these groups. They become political types, stand-ins for political causes…rather than individual souls…” The power of art, let alone its beauty, is lost, and the really human things are squelched. Identity politics “can’t grapple with individuality, with things of the soul, with the inner life—the very things that draw us to art in the first place.”
Identitarians reduce everything to “a script imposed by power relations.” Not only masculinity and femininity, sexuality and love, but also judgments about beauty and worth, goodness and truth. Further, since everything is reduced to the “performativity” of power, any sense of art forming or expressing the inner life of the soul is nonsensical. In the end, there is no inner life; everything serves the external political demands of social justice.
And from cultural determinism’s roots in psychological identity and oppression as a permanent feature of life, social justice today has a new meaning to the academic left. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues as follows in an interview by Bari Weiss in an article in The Wall Street Journal:
The left…has undergone an ideological transformation. A generation ago, social justice was understood as equality of treatment and opportunity….Today justice means equal outcomes. “There are two ideas now in the academic left that weren’t there 10 years ago,” he says. One is that everyone is racist because of unconscious bias, and the other is that everything is racist because of systemic racism.” That makes justice impossible to achieve. “When you cross that line into insisting that if there’s not equal outcomes then some people and some institutions and some systems are racist, sexist, then you’re setting yourself up for eternal conflict and injustice.”
Cultural determinism’s idea of unending oppression underlies the new concept of social justice.
The cultural determinism of Modern thought in today’s academy—multiculturalism and diversity driven by identity and interests of marginalized oppressed groups—have led academics towards cultural trivia and administration to dogma and dictatorship. The spread of identity politics through American society is divisive. The academy has a clear indicator that its diversity ideology is divisive, yet it refuses to acknowledge the objective evidence. Instead, it continues the frantic quest in search of still more victim groups on whom to bestow compensatory privileges and entitlements. Thus do such concepts of social justice continue to generate eternal conflict and to accelerate the debasement of higher education.
The next article will examine relativism vice virtue in Modern thought.
This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.
The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).
Image: Public Domain
 “Cultural determinism,” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org. Nigel Barber, “Why Cultural Determinism Is Not Science,” Psychology Today, 29 November 2012.
 David Riesman, with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney, The Lonely Crowd: A study of the changing American character, Originally Published 1950, Abridged Edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961).
 “Multiculturalism,” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org.
 Karen Ferguson, “Domesticating Development: The Ford Foundation and Establishment Multiculturalism, 1965–1975,” Conference Paper, Annual Meeting, American Studies Association, 4 February 2009, www.allacademic.com. Charles Sykes and K. L. Billingsley, “How the Ford Foundation Created Multiculturalism,” FrontPage Magazine, 9 January 1994. Alan Charles Kors, “Thought Reform 101: The Orwellian Implications of Today’s College Orientation,” Reason, March 2000, www.reason.com. Fonte, “Culture War: Gramsci vs. Tocqueville,” 15–16. James Pierson, “The Left University: How it was born; how it grew; how to overcome it,” The Weekly Standard, 3 October 2005.
 John Fonte, “Why There Is A Culture War: Gramsci and Tocqueville in America,” Policy Review, Heritage Foundation, December 2000–January 2001, 15–16.
 “Cultural hegemony,” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org.
 Fonte, “Culture War: Gramsci and Tocqueville,” 15–16.
 John Patrick Diggins, The Rise and Fall of the American Left (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1992), 295. Bertell Ollman and Edward Vernoff, The Left Academy: Marxist Scholarship on American Campuses (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982, 1:1.
 George Archibald, “Textbooks flunk tests,” The Washington Times, 28 March 2004.
 Peter Wood, Diversity: The Invention of a Concept (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2003).
 Robert D. Putnam, “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century,” The 2006 Johan Skytte Prize Lecture, 15 June 2007. John Leo, “Bowling With Our Own,” City Journal, Manhattan Institute, 25 June 2007. Jason Richwine, “A Smart Solution to the Diversity Dilemma,” The American, Journal of the American Enterprise Institute, 12 August 2009. Dora L. Costa and Matthew E. Kahn, “Civic Engagement and Community Heterogeneity: An Economist’s Perspective,” Conference on Social Connectedness and Public Activism, Harvard University, May 2002. Daniel Henninger, “The Death of Diversity,” Wonder Land, The Wall Street Journal, 16 August 2007.
 Press Release, “Harvard’s Robert Putnam Spotlights Immigration Discussion Ignores Crucial Need for Social Integration,” Harvard Kennedy School, 18 June 2007.
 Sohrab Ahmari, The New Philistines: (Provocations) (London: Biteback Publishing, 2017).
 Bari Weiss, “Jonathan Haidt on the Cultural Roots of Campus Rage,” The Wall Street Journal, 31 March 2017.