The singer Adele stoked controversy this week by appearing in a Carnival outfit, complete with Bantu knots — a style traditionally worn by people of African descent — and a bikini top with the Jamaican flag. Predictably, the Twitter mobs jumped immediately, with many in the media calling the singer out for cultural appropriation and cultural insensitivity.
Interestingly, the response from people of African descent was not uniform. Patterns emerged in the identities of her critics and defenders, with criticisms overwhelmingly coming from black Americans, while black Britons defended her outfit as an appreciation of Jamaican culture as well as a way of celebrating her birth neighborhood of Tottenham, which is home to one of the largest diasporas of African-Caribbean people in the world.
While normally I would just ignore this kind of controversy or put it down to the idiocy of the cancel culture that both the left and right engage in, I’m working through Cristina Bichierri’s The Grammar of Society this week with my undergrads and it struck me that something more interesting was going on than first appeared.
Classical liberals can sometimes (myself included) fall into the trap of emphasizing Hayekian local knowledge in terms of economic knowledge, such as scarcity on the ground or crop conditions. But as most of us also know, there are lots of other forms of local knowledge that matter a lot too, which is why I find Bichierri’s discussion helpful. Particularly relevant here is her argument that all norms are local in nature. People use norms as heuristics to help them navigate complex social situations with some predictability, relying on the expectations they have about what others around them are doing and adapting based on reciprocal expectations about what people are or should be doing. But these norms themselves require extremely local knowledge about what people in this particular situation or this particular context are doing or expect others to do.
What’s fascinating about the internet and the cancel culture it seems to engender is that at the same time it brings people together from all over the world, it decontextualizes those people, removing them from their local situations and all the relevant facts, norms, and guideposts they used in the moment to determine what to do. Given the nature of the Internet there’s almost no way to avoid this decontextualization, the loss of local knowledge and local norms. This decontextualization makes it very likely that we will make errors about why someone behaved in a particular way.
But decontextualization is dangerous for an even more foundational reason Bichierri discusses. It doesn’t just lead us to make factually incorrect judgments about what other people are doing. It also makes it more likely that we will make a fundamental attribution error when we judge other people. People are not only calling Adele out for something that appeared to be completely appropriate in the social context in which she lives (and in fact is a sign of solidarity with the people of color in her community), but they are also jumping to conclusions about her essential nature, with anonymous users in more than one location discussing her as a “typical white woman” as though wearing bikinis of the Jamaican flag is just what we expect white women to do. One black American journalist concluded on Twitter, “this marks all of the top white women in pop as problematic”, again signaling that Adele’s behavior was not in fact a nuanced reaction to local norms during a celebration of culture but in fact a function of her essence as a white woman. Bichierri’s discussion asks us to take more seriously the way in which decontextualizing people’s behavior makes us even more likely to make these kinds of fundamental attribution errors, leading to even greater levels of polarization and cultural anger.
None of this means celebrities don’t sometimes (perhaps often!) make very stupid decisions. It also doesn’t mean we can’t praise or blame people, which would seem to be an important function in a free society where we want to avoid state coercion as much as possible. But praise and blame are most likely to be accurate and most likely to be effective when we know the people involved, have existing relationships with them, and understand the norms and general context of the situation they are reacting to. Both Bichierri’s and Hayek’s emphasis on local knowledge ask us to use caution when engaging in shaming of those we do not know, whose motivations and goals remain opaque to us. It is in effect, a call for both humility and humanity, which we could all use more of these days.