This is the part of the book where Malcolm Gladwell writes about Harlan County, Kentucky. He proposes that the Scotch-Irish people who moved here and to other parts of the South, because of their herding cultural heritage, were quicker to respond to threats than more agricultural people. The logic is that herders live in remote areas where they enforce their own law. Sheep and cattle can be stolen more easily than crops, so to save one's wealth, one needs to be known as someone who will attack quickly. He calls these "cultures of honor." We aren't just talking about the Hatfields and the McCoys in Harlan County. He lists a lot of different family feuds in the area.
When one family fights with another, it's a feud. When lots of families fight with one another in identical little towns up and down the same mountain range, it's a pattern. (p.249*)
Understanding the many feuds in this region, he tells us, requires us knowing some history.
The backcountry states - he lists Pennsylvania's southern border, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, North and South Carolina and the northern parts of Alabama and Georgia -
"were settled overwhelmingly by immigrants from one of the world's most ferocious cultures of honor. They were 'Scotch-Irish' - that is, from the lowlands of Scotland, the northern counties of England and Ulster in Northern Ireland.When they got to the US, Gladwell writes, they found a similarly remote environment in Harlan County.
The borderlands - as this region was known - were remote and lawless territories that had been fought over for hundreds of years. The people of the region were steeped in violence. They were herdsmen, scraping out a living on rocky and infertile land. They were clannish, responding to the harshness and turmoil of their environment by forming tight family bonds and placing loyalty to blood above all else." (251-252*)
Gladwell recognizes that he's moving into touchy territory.
I realize that we are often wary of making these kinds of broad generalizations about different cultural groups - and with good reason. This if the form that racial and ethnic stereotypes take. We want to believe that we are not prisoners of our ethnic histories."The simple truth is . . ." Hold on to that thought for later.
But the simple truth is that if you want to understand what happened in those small towns in Kentucky in the nineteenth century, you have to go back into the past - and not just one or two generations. (255)
We've gone through period of strong racial and cultural stereotypes. We're more enlightened as a whole, but there are still plenty of people stuck in old stereotypes or picking up new ones to match newer immigrants (who are both subject to, and bring their own, prejudices.) Any time someone discusses groups of people like this there is a likely backlash. Often with good reason. How many violent people does a community need before we say everyone in that community has that trait? What if only 10% of the people in Harlan County fit this herdsman culture? Would that be enough to push whole communities into never ending feuds? Does that mean that everyone else wants to participate, or do they just have no choice? It's interesting to explore these ideas, but it's pretty hard to prove that my great-great-great grandfather's behavior determines mine. Though I do think there's plenty of evidence that behavior does get passed on genetically. And if a community stays intact, it is easy to understand how behavior is passed on.
But since the Scotch-Irish also were a big part of the migration to the rest of the South, Gladwell goes on to say this heritage explains some Southern behavior.
"The triumph of a culture of honor helps to explain why the pattern of criminality in the American South has always been so distinctive. Murder rates are higher there than in the rest of the country. But crimes of property and 'stranger' crimes - like muggings - are lower. As the sociologist John Shelton Reed has written, "The homicides in which the South seems to specialize are those in which someone is being killed by someone he (or often she) knows, for reasons both killer and victim understand." Reed adds: "The statistics show that the Southerner who can avoid arguments and adultery is as safe as any other American, and probably safer." In the backcountry, violence wasnt for economic gain. It was personal. You fought over your honor." (pp. 253-4*)That's a pretty sweeping generalization. I think the idea is interesting, but that Gladwell is too quick to reach conclusions. There just isn't enough evidence. And is he only talking about white Southerners? I don't think, for example, that the black population of the South has much Scotch-Irish blood. Does 'both killer and victim understand' mean both the white lynch mob and the black victim understand it's because they are white and he is black? While it might seem obvious to Gladwell, it would be helpful for this reader had he clarified his scope when writing things like, "pattern of criminality in the American South."
I think it's human to want an explanation for things that don't make sense. It's also human to take the first plausible explanation and stop looking further - especially when such an explanation allows us to keep our general world view. (In fairness, Gladwell is challenging a US general world view - he's arguing that timing and culture play as big a role in individual success as the individual's own hard work.)
So it's tempting to take a neat explanation like cultures of honor to explain Harlan County feuding and the Southern trend to murder friends and relatives rather than strangers. Is there an unspoken implication that the herdsman culture of the Scotch-Irish made slavery a natural development? Just another form of herding? After all, slaves were seen as less than human. Gladwell didn't go there, but why not? How does culture of honor explain segregation and lynchings? Was this too touchy for Gladwell to discuss? (In the epilogue he does talk about the advantages of lighter skin color among Jamaican blacks and how his successes are based on his forebearers' lighter skin.) Or is this too much of a leap? If this is too much of a leap, why not the whole argument? I haven't read the sources Gladwell cites. Maybe they have a lot more evidence to support the claims they make.
Gladwell, too often says things like (quote - p. 255 - above) "The simple truth is . . ." The truth about human behavior over generations and across continents, is never simple.
In the same paragraph he says:
"The "culture of honor" hypothesis says that it matters where you're from, not just in terms of where you grew up or where your parents grew up . . . That is a strange and powerful fact." (p. 356*)From hypothesis to powerful fact in 50 words or less.
I'm just saying that claims like this need to be treated cautiously. Things are much too complicated than these rather neat A caused B explanations.
If being of Scotch-Irish background so significant, maybe the Census Bureau should put Scotch-Irish among its race choices. Caucasian is just too limiting. Whoops, I'm making my own leaps.
I said in one of the previous posts that while I have problems, the many case studies raise very interesting ideas to consider.
The previous Outlier posts were: