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From Nazi Germany to Middletown: Ratcheting Up the War on Racism
Ruth Benedict (1887-1948), much more than Franz Boas, would define the aims of Boasian anthropology for postwar America.
"Ruth Benedict" by World Telegram staff photographer - Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c14649. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
"Ruth Benedict" by World Telegram staff photographer - Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c14649. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

When Franz Boas died in 1942, the leadership of his school of anthropology passed to Ruth Benedict and not to Margaret Mead. This was partly because Benedict was the older of the two and partly because her book Patterns of Culture (1934) had already assumed a key role in defining Boasian anthropology.

The word “define” may surprise some readers. Wasn’t Boas a Boasian? Not really. For most of his life he believed that human populations differ innately in their mental makeup. He was a liberal on race issues only in the sense that he considered these differences to be statistical and, hence, no excuse for systematic discrimination. Every population has capable individuals who should be given a chance to rise to the limits of their potential.

He changed his mind very late in life when external events convinced him of the need to fight “racism,” at that time a synonym for extreme nationalism in general and Nazism in particular. In 1938, he removed earlier racialist statements from his second edition of The Mind of Primitive Man, and the next year Ruth Benedict wrote Race: Science and Politics to show that racism was more than a Nazi aberration, being in fact an ingrained feature of American life. Both of them saw the coming European conflict as part of a larger war.

This is one reason why the war on racism did not end in 1945. Other reasons included a fear that extreme nationalism would lead to a second Hitler and a Third World War. How and why was never clear, but the fear was real. The two power blocs were also competing for the hearts and minds of emerging nations in Asia and Africa, and in this competition the West felt handicapped. How could it win while defining itself as white and Christian? The West thus redefined itself in universal terms and became just as committed as the Eastern bloc to converting the world to its way of life. Finally, the rhetoric of postwar reconstruction reached into all areas of life, even in countries like the U.S. that had emerged unscathed from the conflict. This cultural reconstruction was a logical outcome of the Second World War, which had discredited not just Nazism but also nationalism in general, thereby leaving only right-wing globalism or left-wing globalism. Ironically, this cultural change was weaker in the communist world, where people would remain more conservative in their forms of sociality.

Ruth Benedict backed this change. She felt that America should stop favoring a specific cultural tradition and instead use its educational system to promote diversity. To bring this about, she had to reassure people that a journey through such uncharted waters would not founder on the shoals of unchanging human nature. This fear had been addressed in Patterns of Culture (1934). Inspired by Pavlov’s research on conditioned reflexes, she argued that people are conditioned by their culture to think, feel, and behave in a particular way. This pattern assumes over time such a rigid form that even a student of anthropology will assume it to be innate:

He does not reckon with the fact of other social arrangements where all the factors, it may be, are differently arranged. He does not reckon, that is, with cultural conditioning. He sees the trait he is studying as having known and inevitable manifestations, and he projects these as absolute because they are all the materials he has to think with. He identifies local attitudes of the 1930’s with Human Nature […] (Benedict, 1989, p. 9)

She argued that such behavioral traits cannot be innate, since they assume different patterns in different human populations and in different time periods of a single population. Our potential for social change is thus greater than what we imagine, being limited only by the range of behavior that exists across all societies. Because we underestimate this potential, we resist social change on the grounds that it would violate a nonexistent human nature:

The resistance is in large measure a result of our misunderstanding of cultural conventions, and especially an exaltation of those that happen to belong to our nation and decade. A very little acquaintance with other conventions, and a knowledge of how various these may be, would do much to promote a rational social order. (Benedict, 1989, p. 10)

In contradistinction to Boas, who believed that human populations differ innately in various mental and behavioral traits, she argued that cultural evolution had long ago replaced genetic evolution:

Man is not committed in detail by his biological constitution to any particular variety of behaviour. The great diversity of social solutions that man has worked out in different cultures in regard to mating, for example, or trade, are all equally possible on the basis of his original endowment. Culture is not a biologically transmitted complex. (Benedict, 1989, p. 14)

In short, humans have turned the tables on evolution. Instead of being changed by their environment via natural selection, they redesign it with the tools provided by their culture. To a large degree, humans create their own environment:

The human animal does not, like the bear, grow himself a polar coat in order to adapt himself, after many generations, to the Arctic. He learns to sew himself a coat and put up a snow house. From all we can learn of the history of intelligence in pre-human as well as human societies, this plasticity has been the soil in which human progress began and in which it has maintained itself. [...] The human cultural heritage, for better or for worse, is not biologically transmitted. (Benedict, 1989, p. 14)

Since human nature is everywhere the same, whatever works in any other culture ought to work in America’s, and this greater diversity should pose no serious problem. This argument would eventually be topped off by American can-doism: if other cultures can cope with some diversity, we can do even better!

Much more deviation is allowed to the individual in some cultures than in others, and those in which much is allowed cannot be shown to suffer from their peculiarity. It is probable that social orders of the future will carry this tolerance and encouragement of individual difference much further than any cultures of which we have experience. (Benedict, 1989, p. 273)

Such social change would be resisted by Middletown—originally a pseudonym for Muncie, Indiana in two sociological studies, and later a synonym for whitebread small-town America.

The American tendency at the present time leans so far to the opposite extreme that it is not easy for us to picture the changes that such an attitude would bring about. Middletown is a typical example of our usual urban fear of seeming in however slight an act different from our neighbours. Eccentricity is more feared than parasitism. Every sacrifice of time and tranquillity is made in order that no one in the family may have any taint of nonconformity attached to him. Children in school make their great tragedies out of not wearing a certain kind of stockings, not joining a certain dancing-class, not driving a certain car. The fear of being different is the dominating motivation recorded in Middletown. (Benedict, 1989, p. 273)


Ruth Benedict wrote well, so well that any flaws are easily missed. Much of her reasoning revolved around the concept of cultural conditioning. Just as a dog will salivate on hearing the tinkling of a bell, if associated with food, so people will come to respond unthinkingly and in the same way to a situation that occurs over and over again. Such behavior may seem innate, yet it isn’t. This part of her reasoning is true, but it is also true that natural selection tends to hardwire any recurring behavioral response. Mental plasticity has a downside, particularly the risks of responding incorrectly to a situation when one is still learning. It’s better to get things right the first time. In sum, conditioned reflexes and innate reflexes both have their place, and one doesn’t preclude the other … for either dogs or humans.

Benedict seems on firmer ground in saying that humans are uniquely able to change the world around themselves. Instead of having to adapt biologically to our environment, we can invent ways to make it adapt to us. It’s this manmade environment—our culture—that does the evolving, not our genes. This view used to be widely accepted in anthropology and has been proven false only recently. We now know that cultural evolution actually caused genetic evolution to accelerate. At least 7% of the human genome has changed over the last 40,000 years, and most of that change seems to be squeezed into the last 10,000, when the pace of genetic change was more than a hundred-fold higher (Hawks et al., 2007). By that time, humans were no longer adapting to new physical environments; they were adapting to new cultural environments. Far from slowing down genetic evolution, culture has speeded it up by greatly diversifying the range of circumstances we must adapt to.

Benedict was right in foreseeing a time when tolerance would become a virtue. Yet, strangely enough, Middletown America is no more tolerant today than it was in her time. Americans are simply obeying a new set of rules, whose first commandment is now “Thou shalt not be intolerant.” People are still fearful of being different from their neighbours. It’s just that the fears have another basis. People are still insulted for being different. It’s just that the insults have changed. “Filthy pervert” has given way to “Dirty homophobe.” Mistrust of the stranger has been replaced by mistrust of those who are not inclusive. Pierre-André Taguieff has described this new conformity in France:

[...] over the last thirty years of the 20th century, the word “racism” became an insult in everyday language (“racist!” “dirty racist!”), an insult derived from the racist insult par excellence (“dirty nigger!”, “dirty Jew!”), and given a symbolic illegitimating power as strong as the political insult “fascist!” or “dirty fascist!”. To say an individual is “racist” is to stigmatize him, to assign him to a heinous category, and to abuse him verbally [...] The “racist” individual is thus expelled from the realm of common humanity and excluded from the circle of humans who are deemed respectable by virtue of their intrinsic worth. Through a symbolic act that antiracist sociologists denounce as a way of “racializing” the Other, the “racist” is in turn and in return categorized as an “unworthy” being, indeed as an “unworthy” being par excellence. For, as people say, what can be worse than racism? (Taguieff, 2013, p. 1528)

It’s hard to believe that the sin of racism did not yet exist in Ruth Benedict’s day. The word itself was just starting to enter common use. At most, there was a growing movement for people to be more tolerant, and even that movement was very limited in its aims. “Tolerance” had a much less radical meaning.

Interestingly, Benedict did touch on the reason for Middletown’s intolerance. In her book, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), she explained that human cultures enforce social rules by means of shame or guilt. You feel ashamed if your wrongdoing is seen by another person. In contrast, you feel guilty even if nobody else has seen it, or even if you merely think about doing wrong. Although all humans have some capacity for both shame and guilt, the relative importance of one or the other varies considerably among individuals and among human populations. “Shame cultures” greatly outnumber “guilt cultures,” which are essentially limited to societies of Northwest European origin, like Middletown.

But how does a guilt culture survive? If a few individuals feel no guilt as long as no one is looking, they will have an edge over those who do. Over time, they will proliferate at the expense of the guilt-prone, and the guilt culture will become a shame culture. It seems that this outcome does not happen because the guilt-prone are always looking for signs of deviancy in other individuals, however trifling it may seem. We have here the “broken windows” theory of law enforcement: if a person tends to break any rule, however minor, he or she will likely break a major one, since the psychological barrier against wrongdoing is similar in both cases. The guilt-prone will judge such people to be morally worthless and will ultimately expel them from the community. Intolerance is the price we pay for the efficiency of a guilt culture.

Today, this mechanism has been turned upon itself. The new social rule—intolerance of intolerance—will, over the not so long term, dissolve the mental makeup that makes a guilt culture possible. Benedict did not foresee this outcome in her own time. Middletown was too set in its ways, too monolithic, too well entrenched. At most, one could hope for a little more leeway for the socially deviant. A few bohemians here, a few oddballs there …

Ruth Benedict saw Middletown as a difficult case, particularly its extreme guilt culture, and she drew on the language of education and psychotherapy to frame this difficulty in terms of long-term treatment:

[…] there can be no reasonable doubt that one of the most effective ways in which to deal with the staggering burden of psychopathic tragedies in America at the present time is by means of an educational program which fosters tolerance in society and a kind of self-respect and independence that is foreign to Middletown and our urban traditions. (Benedict, 1989, pp. 273-274)

They [the Puritans] were the voice of God. Yet to a modern observer it is they, not the confused and tormented women they put to death as witches, who were the psychoneurotics of Puritan New England. A sense of guilt as extreme as they portrayed and demanded both in their own conversion experiences and in those of their converts is found in a slightly saner civilization only in institutions for mental diseases. (Benedict, 1989, p. 276)

By the time of her death in 1948, Boasian anthropology had become fully mobilized for the war on racism. This mobilization had begun in response to the rise of Nazi Germany but was soon extended to a much larger enemy that included America itself, as seen in the increasingly radical meanings of “racism” and “tolerance.” Only a determined, long-term effort would bring this enemy to heel.


Benedict, R. (1989 [1934]). Patterns of Culture, Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Benedict, R. (2005 [1946]). The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Patterns of Japanese Culture, First Mariner Books.

Hawks, J., E.T. Wang, G.M. Cochran, H.C. Harpending, & R.K. Moyzis. (2007). Recent acceleration of human adaptive evolution.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), 104, 20753-20758.


(Reprinted from Evo and Proud by permission of author or representative)
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