How Culture Works

November 22, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Some sociology profs give an assignment that requires students to go out and prank someone. It’s called a “breaching experiment,” but basically, it’s pranking. And as I said in the two previous posts (here and here), despite the reasons professors give for the breaching assignment, it doesn’t really offer a lot of insight into the process of norm breaking and social control.

In the real world, culture and social control are much subtler and more powerful. Look at the experience of journalist Alif Batuman. Her parents are Turkish, but she grew up mostly in the U.S. She goes back to Turkey, and true to her Western ways, she does not wear a head scarf. That’s OK, sort of. Turkey is not Iran. There are no religious police enforcing some law about head scarves. But . . .

Because I spoke Turkish imperfectly, smiled a lot, and often travelled alone, I got a lot of lectures from men, particularly taxi-drivers. Some were secularists; others, those with the most religious paraphernalia in their cars, didn't try to make conversation. That still left many outgoing, casually Muslim drivers who took the time to explain to me how great the head scarf was — how it was “actually a beautiful thing.” For a woman to cover her head, they said, was in fact a feminist gesture, because it made clear she was demanding respect. There weren't the same misunderstandings as with a woman whose head was uncovered.
    I usually didn’t reply. . . But once, when a driver pressed me particularly jovially for an opinion, I said something like “I think all women should be respected. It shouldn’t depend on their hair.”
    The driver replied that I was absolutely right, that of course women should be respected, and that the head scarf was the best way for women to remind men of this necessity for respect. Men, after all, were worse than women: they could sometimes forget themselves, and then unfortunate things could happen, “even”—he said in a hushed voice, adding that he didn’t like to mention such things in front of me—“even rape.”

The driver probably does not see himself as an agent of social control, a head-scarf cop. He’s just offering – along with his view of what the scarf means – a bit of advice. She is breaking a cultural norm, and he is advising her about the ways of the local culture.

Batuman continued to go without the headscarf, mostly because of her feelings about the Erdoğan, the president of Turkey, and his religious anti-feminism. “Patriarchy — I could never forgive Erdoğan for saying those things about women. And, because he said them in the name of Islam, I couldn’t forgive Islam, either.”

Later, Batuman goes to an archeological site in Urfa. Again she encounters those little questions and comments that let her know she is breaking the norms.

I seemed to be the only unaccompanied woman at my hotel. When I told the clerk I was staying for six days, he almost had a heart attack. “Six days?” he repeated. “All by yourself?” . . . All the time I was in Urfa, whenever I saw any member of the hotel staff in the halls or the lobby, I always received the same greeting: “Oh, you’re still here?”

She is a walking insult to the local culture. It’s not a huge insult, but it’s more than a “micro-aggression.” Her intent is not to insult; she just wants to be herself. The local people for their part are tolerant – or at least not repressive. But they are also not helpful, warm, and accommodating to this stranger. (Sort of like Parisians back in the 20th century.) In the gender-segregated restaurant, the waiter watches the TV and seems to ignore her. When she smiles and waves to the women at another table, they do not wave back.

But culture is not just a matter of negative sanctions. A smile too is a form of social control, positive and pleasant. It tells us we’re doing the right thing. And because it is pleasant, it nudges us to want to continue doing right things. 

One day, when I had been visiting Abraham’s cave, I forgot to take the scarf off. Walking back through the park, I almost immediately felt that something was different. I passed two beautiful young women in scarves, walking arm-in-arm and laughing about something. When I looked at them, they looked right back into my face and met my eyes, still smiling, as if we were all in the presence of a great joke. I realized that no young women had met my eyes or smiled at me in Urfa till then. As I walked on, I felt a rising sense of freedom, as if for the first time I could look wherever I wanted and not risk receiving a hostile glance. So I kept the scarf on. And then I went back into the city.

This isn’t a scientific study; I didn’t try it multiple times, or measure anything. All I have is my subjective impression, which is this: walking through the city with a head scarf was a completely different experience. People were so much nicer. Nobody looked away when I approached. I felt less jostled; men seemed to step aside, to give me more room. When I went into a store, a man held the door for me, and I realized that it was the first time anyone had reached a door before me without going in first and letting it shut in my face. Most incredibly, when I got to a bus stop shortly after the bus had pulled away, the departing vehicle stopped in the middle of the street, the door opened, and a man reached out his hand to help me in, calling me “sister.” It felt amazing. To feel so welcomed and accepted and safe, to be able to look into someone’s face and smile, and have the smile returned — it was a wonderful gift.

This is how culture works. And we are all its agents, gently steering people into doing things the right way.

The quoted passages are from Batuman’s article “Cover Story” in The New Yorker, Feb. 8 and 15, 2016.

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