11/08/2011 09:18 EST | Updated 01/08/2012 05:12 EST

The Line Between Bigotry and Fair Cultural Critique

Why, when I see other cultures being critiqued, I sometimes bristle, while at other times I welcome it as thoughtful analysis? Because employing a measure of tastefulness and mindfulness and listening to others makes all the difference.


As sudden and dramatic events are wont to do, the release of Gilad Shalit opened a floodgate of emotions. But with it, some polluting discourses floated downstream. In discussing the prisoner exchange, one especially shocking Yedioth Ahronoth article spoke of Israel being "a villa in the jungle, an island of civility surrounded by mean-spirited, wicked barbarians."

Meanwhile, conversations on social media sites included statements about how Palestinian parents spur their children to violence and how Palestinian society is "sick." Cultural denigration was again alive and well.

More subtly, perhaps, my last blog had one HuffPost reader questioning my interpretation of the Palestinian "V" sign. I had argued that for Palestinians, it is a symbol of steadfastness in the face of decades of European colonialism and Israeli occupation. "No," the reader pressed me. "It stands for victory."

Well, of course the "V" symbol does stand for victory. But whose deeper interpretation is right? Is the "V" a collective cry for freedom, or is it a smug acknowledgment of walking free with Jewish blood on one's hands?

The same week Shalit was released, another set of cultural critiques -- far from the vortex of the Middle East -- appeared. Several days earlier, a Chinese toddler was tragically run over by a van and left helpless by the side of the road. Shockingly, 18 passersby left her grasping for life until one woman finally came to her aid. (The little girl died soon after, in hospital).

Writing in the Globe and Mail, Charles Burton explained this particularly egregious example of the bystander effect by describing what he understands to be a widespread culture of mistrust in China owing to years of authoritarian rule.

The same day I was busy batting away what I viewed as bigoted discussions of Arab culture on Facebook, I found myself posting Burton's article on China. This led me to wonder why, when I see other cultures being critiqued, I sometimes bristle, while at other times I welcome it as thoughtful analysis?

To my mind, two elements determine the difference between bigotry and fair cultural critique, both of which we would do well to keep in mind: what I call the platform factor and the listening factor.

First, the platform factor: Where these cultural criticisms take place is important. Is it one ethnic group hosting a speaker who focuses on the shortcomings of a second ethnic group? Or is the context more multicultural, where the marketplace of ideas is better positioned to weed the truth from the chaff?

Better yet, is it a critique from within, where the speaker is attempting to model transformation within her own community? Think Irshad Manji for Muslims, Tikkun Magazine for diaspora Jews, and +972 Magazine for Israelis. Tireless civil rights activists in 1960s America attempted to bring a measure of justice and humaneness to their country, and more recently Bill Cosby has tried to rehabilitate fatherhood within the African American community.

The second element distinguishing salience from slander has to do with listening.

Cultural analysis -- as expressed through fields such as anthropology, sociology, and political science -- enjoys great intellectual legacies, when done right. As any academic worth her salt knows, the key is that the analysis must ring true for members of the culture itself.

In the late 1930s, William Foote Whyte lived in the slums of Boston's North End to write a groundbreaking book detailing the social dynamics of gangs. His participant-observer style served as a model to others.

This is why contemporary area-studies experts make sure that they immerse themselves in languages and locales, creating a space where they can authentically feel and hear the messages around them.

We need to listen to the stories people tell about themselves. We need to understand their narratives. What are their folk songs, their national symbols, the meanings of their names, the tenets of their religion -- as they themselves understand them to be? Westerners should tune into Al Jazeera. Israelis should watch the excellent sitcom Avoda Aravit. Palestinians should read Amos Oz. And so on.

And that's why calling someone a barbarian fails the test. If it doesn't ring true to the holder of the label, it simply isn't.

At the same time, while it's important to really listen to others' messages, it's also incumbent upon us to hear the way our messages are being heard by others.

On Haaretz last week, Bradley Burston showed how everyday Israelis -- even those most devoted to ending the occupation and ameliorating the Palestinian plight -- interpret the "death to Israel" calls being rained so loosely down from various quarters as nothing less than a call for genocide. It's an important plea: whoever uses this kind of language and who doesn't mean to imply the insidious messages that others are hearing, speak up now, or forever hold your peace.

Getting our platforms right -- employing a measure of tastefulness and mindfulness -- and listening to others while also making sure we understand how our messages are being heard -- makes all the difference. Cultures, at their root, are vessels for memories, messages, and dreams for a shared tomorrow. The key is being able to speak to each other in a way that respects different cultural grammars while providing some scaffolding for bridging the gaps.

An earlier version of this article appeared on