September 11th, 2005


Ebony and Ivory

"We all know," goes the song I hate more than all songs ever written, "that people are the same wherever you go, there is good and bad in everyone". Already it offends me, this lyric. Paul McCartney (for it is he, and the song is his duet with Stevie Wonder, "Ebony and Ivory", for those lucky enough not to have heard its one million radio iterations) does not seek my consent for his idea that we are all the same. No, he deems my consent already given; we all know. No fewer than four totalising, reductive tropes appear in that introductory statement: 100% of us know that 100% of us are 100% the same in 100% of the world. Admittedly it would have been more difficult to sing "some of us think that there are significant differences—individual, cultural, racial, and geographic in origin—between the peoples of the world, but that these differences should not be the cause of conflict, anxiety or denial, and that it should always be remembered that moral notions like "good" and "bad" are culturally bound, varying from one society to the next". I'm sure the versatile McCartney-Wonder team, though, with their differing but complementary skills, could have found a way to set that to music.

And then comes the chorus, with its powerfully foolish metaphor. "Ebony and ivory live together in perfect harmony side by side on my piano keyboard, oh Lord, why don't we?" Now, I know Paul McCartney is a bass player, and that bass players don't play chords, but didn't he once sing backing vocals in harmony with John Lennon? Surely he knows that two notes which are the same cannot be in harmony? Harmony depends on difference, yet McCartney has already told us that people all over the world are the same. A piano keyboard in which all the keys played the same note would be incapable of harmony, and yet that's exactly what "Ebony and Ivory", with its concern to erase the anxieties of racial difference, is proposing.

There are good reasons why racial difference causes anxiety. History is not exactly choc-a-bloc with heartwarming tales in which racial or cultural differences become the source of lovely harmony. Genocides have more often been the result. Nevertheless, it's important to remember that cultural difference in itself does not lead to genocide. It's intolerance of cultural difference that does. And this makes "Ebony and Ivory"—a song which denies difference rather than trying to improve our attitude to it—part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Two more factors make us anxious about highlighting cultural differences, and especially cultural differences that correlate with racial differences. One is the dominance of the United States, a relatively recent and synthetic society in which place and race have far less connection than they do in other nations. In America people tend to have a dual identity; they're Italian-American, or Chinese-American. In Italy or China, the vast majority of people still have a single ethnicity; they're Chinese, or Italian. Now, it's not as if Americans don't use racial-cultural characterisation. They're likely to make statements like "My Italian blood makes me impulsive, passionate, argumentative..." But because the US is a pot pourri of racial types, they don't make racial-cultural statements about being American. It wouldn't make much sense to say something like "My American blood makes me polite, pragmatic, imperialist..."

The other thing making us anxious about correlating racial and cultural differences—especially with science—is the psychic scar we bear from the conflicts of the 20th century: our thinking is dominated by Nazism and its spurious science of eugenics, established to prove "objectively" the racial superiority of the Aryan type and prepare the way for the genocide of the Jews. Because the Nazis lost, and history is written by the winners, cautionary tales tend to feature losers rather than winners, and eugenics, or anything superficially resembling it, is the villain of a scientific cautionary tale. But again, because there was bad science determined to establish racial differences for bad reasons, it doesn't mean that all science examining racial difference must be bad. Again we have to remind ourselves that the denial of difference is part of the problem, not the solution. It's not difference itself which is genocidal, but our attitude to difference. If things are to improve, we have first to admit that difference exists, and then work on adopting and spreading a more positive attitude to it.

Science has only recently begun to recover from the taboo on research into racial-cultural correlations which has been the Nazis' long legacy — the peculiar anti-Midas touch losers have to sully by association all they ever touched, and turn it to muck. But the world has changed since the 1940s. In the 1990s, in response to the topical theme of globalisation (which you could call the optimally non-genocidal way for different cultures to interact, a contact based on trade, respect and even a certain exoticisation of the other), universities like Stanford and Berkeley began to appoint academics like Hazel Markus to study Cultural Psychology.

Hazel Markus is particularly interested in differences between Americans and Asians. She gives more weight to cultural than racial factors; Latinos or Asians entering America, she says, will quickly start to think, act and even die like Americans. Research has shown that Chinese living in America will start to look at an individual dominant figure in a picture, in contrast to Chinese in China who tend to look at the relationships between all the elements in the picture. The rate of clinical depression amongst immigrating Latinos will rise from 3% of the population, the rate in Latin America, towards 17%, the rate in North America. Dietary and lifestyle changes will bring Japanese cancer mortality rates up to American levels for Japanese who relocate to the US. Other Cultural Psychologists, though, make explicit racial-cultural arguments. James M. Jones of the University of Delaware argues that "some" black Africans differ from "some" white Europeans in their conception of time, rhythm and orality, for instance. And here the eugenics-anxiety (and also, no doubt, some individualist fear of collectivist understandings) is still evident in his careful use of the caveat-word "some". He's not yet willing to assert, McCartney-style, that we all know that people are all different in different parts of the world in the same way.

Because people are always fighting yesterday's battles instead of today's (yesterday, of course, Japan was fascist, and yesterday, of course, any connection between race and culture was the handmaiden of imperialism, eugenics, and genocide), I'm often accused of being some kind of Nihonjinron Nazi for suggesting that there are distinctively Japanese ways of being, feeling, seeing, thinking. But the Nazis are dead and gone, and their fake science of eugenics is buried deep in the history of quackery and sham. Meanwhile, a new danger has appeared in the world: the danger of a reductive, evangelical, totalising monoculture. It's the New World Order in which we all wear blue jeans and all listen to a radio station playing "Ebony and Ivory", the song in which 100% of us know that 100% of us are 100% the same in 100% of the world. It's not a harmonic world but a monophonic one.

Ironically, since Microsoft is entirely symptomatic of this new monocultural threat which I'm comparing, not-so-implicitly, to Nazism (for its global ambitions, its utter vilification of difference), I'm now going to ask you to use a piece of Microsoft software. Please open Windows Media Player, go to "Open URL" in the file menu, and paste in this address:

You'll find a 25 minute introduction to Cultural Psychology from WGBH/Annenberg's "Discovering Psychology" series, featuring Stanford's Hazel Markus and others. Watch it yourself, and, if you like what it says, talk about it and encourage others to watch it. By establishing cultural and racial difference as something mentionable, valid and worthy of serious academic study, Cultural Psychology shows us that there's nothing to fear from the recognition of differences, even racially-rooted ones. In fact, the discipline gives us the intellectual ammunition we need to slay the dragons which stalk the world today, helping us establish a genuine harmony — one that involves (*gasp*) different notes. Remember, the most famous song by the man who wrote "people are the same wherever you go" says "I believe in yesterday".