If you’ve been following news of popular culture, you’ve probably encountered news and commentary about Whoopi Goldberg’s statements on the television show The View concerning the Michael Vick / dogfighting issue. If not, you can read one news account at this link:
Here are two quotations from the article:
“He's from the South, from the Deep South ... This is part of his cultural upbringing," Goldberg said of the Atlanta Falcons quarterback, whose recent fall from grace has been one of the most stunning in the history of U.S. sports.
“For a lot of people, dogs are sport," Goldberg said on the show. "Instead of just saying (Vick) is a beast and he's a monster, this is a kid who comes from a culture where this is not questioned."
I’d like to address Goldberg’s comments in two ways, first in terms of the factual veracity of her claims, and second in terms of a more theoretical issue, the relationship between individuals and culture.
Goldberg’s first statement is reasonable enough – there are specific contexts in the south (and other parts of the country – when doing ethnographic field work in the El Paso/Juarez/Las Cruces area, I encountered allegations that specific sites in one southern New Mexico town were dogfighting sites) where dogfighting is part of the culture. But there’s no place in the south today where dogfighting goes unquestioned – in fact, there’s no place in the south today where most people don’t find it reprehensible.
I’m more interested, though, in the assumptions at play about the relationship between culture and the individual. Goldberg presents Vick as simply a product of his culture. (I’d like to be clear that it’s not clear to me if Goldberg’s intent in doing so was to justify or defend Vick, or simply to contextualize him.)
Culture plays a strong role in influencing all of us and in shaping the ways in which we think and make decisions. That’s largely what cultural anthropology is all about, and I’d be a very strange anthropologist to say otherwise. At the same time, culture doesn’t determine the individual, nor what individuals think and choose to do. (For example, culture doesn’t produce identical individuals.)
If claims like Goldberg’s are meant mainly to contextualize Vick, then I disagree with some particulars but have no basic quarrel about the types of claims being made – Vick isn’t a monster but a human being whose decisions were shaped in part by his cultural context.
If Goldberg’s claims (or anyone else’s similar claims) are intended to justify or defend, then there is a problem, for such a defense only works if the individual couldn’t have decided and acted otherwise on account of the cultural context – something clearly not the case here. Just as culture doesn’t dictate the terms of an individual’s existence, it can’t justify the individual.
Similar sorts of claims could be made about other individuals in the South’s past. Imagine if I or anyone were to say of Bull Connor (or Orville Faubus, or any other famous southern white racist of the civil rights era):
“He's from the South, from the Deep South ... This is part of his cultural upbringing,"
“For a lot of white people, blacks are just inferior."
"Instead of just saying Connor is a beast and he's a monster, this is a kid who comes from a culture where this is not questioned."
Neither the content nor the form of such an argument would wash with almost anyone today, and though I’m sympathetic with Goldberg’s attempt to contextualize Vick rather than demonizing him (if that was her intent), the form of her argument is problematic.