19thNov2017

Weekend-supplement ethnotyping

Newspaper headlines are increasingly taking the "why" form: "Why such-and-such is so-and-so". Threadbare as it is becoming by now (and patently serving as "clickbait"), it makes good journalistic sense: it raises a topic and at the same time promises an explanation. Two recent contributions to the Dutch Volkskrant show its questionable side in using the form  "Why such and such a cultural group behaves in this or that manner".  

The one that prompted this blog entry was Natalie Hanssen’s piece "This is why Danes are so happy: Be normal", with the sub-header "Don’t ever think that you are better than the others or that you amount to something special" (Dit is waarom de Denen zo gelukkig zijn: vooral normaal doen / Denk in godsnaam niet dat je beter bent dan een ander of überhaupt iets voorstelt); posted 17 November; online here). It adds its mite to the hygge hype by presenting the timeworn Danish cultural meme of Janteloven or “the law of Jante” [a fictionalized small town made famous in a 1933 book]. Not exactly a staggering new discovery - the wikipedia article on the topic has versions in 30 languages; nor so very Danish after all – the Dutch have their “doe maar gewoon” convention, and any small-town mentality will look askance at pretentious neighbours; but hey, don’t be a grouch, it’s good enough, apparently, for some diverting weekend reading.

Ditto for an article that same week: “This is why South Limburg is such a fertile field for populism”, with the repetitive sub-headline: “Writer and presenter Marcia Luyten finds in her native South Limburg the perfect conditions for the emergence of populism”. (Dit is waarom Zuid-Limburg een vruchtbare akker voor populisme is / Schrijver en presentator Marcia Luyten vindt in haar geboortestreek Zuid-Limburg de perfecte omstandigheden voor het ontstaan van populisme); 18 November, online here.). Same syntax in the title (“this is why...”), same intellectual laziness in the argument. Luyten re-hashes a set of tourist-brochure tidbits about the area (Catholic, decayed mining industry, sense of marginalization within the Dutch state) and offers this as a plausible psychological determination to explain populism in the area. With some intellectual pretensions by a repeatedly dropping the name of Tocqueville, who is helpfully glossed as being a "French philosopher". Why thank you Marcia, I guess that means you've got it right.

Invoking received wisdom rather than presenting freshly-gained insights; recycling pre-war local-colour-anecdotes dressed up as sociology; aiming to divert with anecdotes rather than to challenge appearances: such articles, though well-intentioned, evince precisely that intellectual complacency and laziness which is the hallmark of cultural stereotyping. And the crux lies in that "why" word: the shallow, unjustified pretense that we can explain social behaviour by relating it to cultural clichés.

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