Doesn’t Tiger Mom Know You Can’t Say That?

Amy Chua is the infamous author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which is one of those books I suspect everyone hates but no one has actually read.  I’m a little guilty of that, in that I haven’t read the book but–based on articles by Chua and her daughter–I’m deeply suspicious of the basic premise. Which is that Asian-style parenting (i.e. remote and harsh) makes for better kids. Some of Chua’s stories about her domineering and cruel parenting techniques were downright alarming.

Now Chua is back with a new book, cowritten with her husband, about cultural superiority. As the New York Post covers it, the new book (The Triple Package) outlines 8 enviable cultures who get it right and contrasts them with basically everyone else. (If you’re curious, and I was, the list includes: Jewish, Indian, Chinese, Iranian, Lebanese-Americans, Nigerians, Cuban exiles, and Mormons.) As with Battle Hymn, I haven’t read this one yet. But the vociferous and angry reaction is making me curious.

A friend happened to send me an old essay (from 2004) about What You Can’t Say the other day. It’s all about techniques for finding our own unquestioned assumptions and taboos (because, like fashion, culture is invisible when you’re in the thick of it). Well, no one doubts that Chua has put her finger right on a raw American nerve and, like What You Can’t Say argues, I can’t help but believe part of the reason the nerve is so raw is that her argument isn’t as ridiculous as everyone wants to believe.

Consider Maureen Callahan’s takedown in the New York Post. She claims that Chua leaves Muslims alone because they are “too controversial to warrant a mention.” Whenever you see a combination of high vitriol and low common sense, you should be suspicious. Chua doesn’t address Muslims because “Muslim” is not a cultural group, just as “Christian” is not a cultural group. The criticism makes no sense, especially when you observe that Iranians (one of the 8 elite cultures) are predominantly Muslim.

In the United States we a have a deep and abiding fear of anything that looks like racism, but we’re not always really clear about what exactly “racism” entails, or why it’s wrong. Our paranoid avoidance of the topic doesn’t actually promote tolerance. Just silence. Ever since my sophomore English teacher had the class read and analyze an article defending The Bell Curve, I’ve believed that the best way to handle sensitive topics like this is openly and honestly. But everyone I see rushing to condemn Chua seems to be interested in shouting her down as opposed to countering her ideas, which is why you get arguments as bad as Callahan’s. (Did she even read the book? I suspect not.)

The problem with Battle Hymn, for me, is not that it in asserting Asian superiority it violates a taboo, but rather that I’m skeptical of the evidence. I’ve read a little bit about Asian success in the United States, and one of the observations is that while Asians as a group tend to stand out academically they are curiously absent from the top (like CEOs). Some have attributed this to a culture that emphasizes conformity and obedience over leadership qualities. Maybe Chua’s parenting style is great for raising engineers who can spend their time working for WASP CEOs? Similarly, I’ve read many critiques of Triple Package that question the validity of using immigrants because of selection problems, and that’s a great response, but are we so afraid of the mere idea that some cultures may be better at certain things than others that we’re not actually willing to even have the conversation?

Ultimately it doesn’t make sense to ask if culture A is better than culture B in general because “in general” is too broad a category. But if you identify specific variables (say, college graduation or median income) and are careful with the statistical analysis there’s no reason, in principle, that you wouldn’t be able to identify cultures that stood out and even try to learn what allowed for their success. I’ve got no idea if Chua is just pushing buttons for fun and profit or if she has a legitimate case to be made (no reason it couldn’t be both), but I do think that the rapidity with which her book has been trashed because it violates our current social taboos is both sad and silly.

6 thoughts on “Doesn’t Tiger Mom Know You Can’t Say That?”

  1. “Well, no one doubts that Chua has put her finger right on a raw American nerve and, like What You Can’t Say argues, I can’t help but believe part of the reason the nerve is so raw is that her argument isn’t as ridiculous as everyone wants to believe.”

    Perhaps. But the more likely explanation is that her unqualified offerings ARE ridiculous. Chua has no real background in social science or its methods, and a history of writing trollish, controversial books that drive lots of web traffic. More importantly, the nerve is raw for good reason: the long and inglorious cannon of junk race/ethnic “science” used to justify the oppression, disenfranchisement (and even extermination) of so-called lesser cultures. This is the “science” that Chua now apes in pop fashion for fun and best-seller-profit. Answering the question of how and why some cultures are *intrinsically* more successful than others is important, serious work- work to which trained researchers and scholars have devoted their lives. The anger seems pretty understandable, IMO.

  2. But the more likely explanation is that her unqualified offerings ARE ridiculous

    I don’t think that’s actually a good explanation. Truly ridiculous things don’t merit angry responses.

    More importantly, the nerve is raw for good reason: the long and inglorious cannon of junk race/ethnic “science” used to justify the oppression, disenfranchisement (and even extermination) of so-called lesser cultures.

    That is far more plausible, but it also highlights the problem I’m outlining. It’s a way of saying “I don’t oppose this because it’s false, but because it’s dangerous.” Some dangerous ideas are also true ideas.

    Please note that I’m not saying danger and historical sensitivity and awareness are not relevant, but I’d like to see more clarity in the responses. If the science is bad, critique the science. If the politics are bad, critique the politics. Don’t pass off a politically-motivated attack as science. (In this case, by the way, I think political motives for opposing something could be valid.)

    As for the quality of the research: I won’t speak to that until I get a chance to read the books for myself and/or see some rebuttals that are much, much, much more careful than what I’ve seen so far.

  3. I thought this was a pretty fascinating book review, and I didn’t think it would take too long before something about it showed up on your blog. (Glad you’re back to regular posting, btw.)

    I’m pretty much in agreement with your view that things Chua says may be both true and dangerous. People tend to get pretty butthurt (to use the scientific term) when one group is slated as being superior in any way, but that’s not to say that there’s nothing one group can learn from another. Anyone who’s lived abroad for any length of time can attest to that.

    I do think there are a couple important points that Chua ignores, at least as far as I can gather from the review in the Post. First is the timing of the book as it relates to immigrant populations in the US. The author of the Post article mentions this briefly when she talks about the fact that “the authors either dismiss or outright ignore the large swaths of immigrant groups who built up this country — the English, Irish, Italians, Germans, Eastern Europeans.” I’m not sure that any one of these groups needs to be given an honorable mention or anything, but it does make me wonder what the eight enviable cultures might have been if the book had been written in 1900, or how it might look in 2100. Maybe by then we could see Panamanian, Indonesian, Ghanaian and Tunisian on the list, to name a few.

    Another issue is the size of the population and what I might call a clan mentality, where identifying with group makes a person more likely to want to assist their group members in their professional endeavors. The Chinese ‘guangxi’, which can be described as the importance of your social network, is a pretty big deal in China where there are a billion people that all have the same idea. But cut that number down to 3.8 million, roughly the Chinese-American population in 2010, spread it out over the entire US, and contrast it with all these other people around you that are not Chinese, and it makes for an instant social and professional support network.

    The groups in the list of eight range in size from 6-7 million (Jews and Mormons), 2-3 million (Chinese, Indians and Cubans) and a quarter to a half million (Iranians, Lebanese and Nigerians). They seem just big enough to make an impact but not so big that the benefit of being part of the group is diluted. This isn’t to say that all cultural or national groups in that population range will have the same level of success, but it can’t hurt to have a few hundred thousand kindred spirits on your side.

    This idea was fleshed out pretty well in the Freakonomics podcast about Lebanese-Americans, the “most successful” immigrant group in the world. The host, Steven Dubner, interviews his friend George Atallah, a Lebanese-American, who says that his father became successful in his business by opening up the phone book and giving his sales pitch to anyone he found with a Lebanese family name. Had there been phone books in the 1800s (and phones for that matter) I’m guessing that a last name of Smith might have worked just as well, as long as you weren’t calling the McDougall’s, von Musberger’s or the O’Grady’s. These days all those names might be lumped into the same bucket as their numbers have been too big for too long. But it might be a different story for the Azikiwe’s, Esfahani’s and Chua’s.

  4. Of course ridiculous things merit angry responses! That’s the high art of modern clickbait and book selling!

    Dallas sort of gets at this. Really, Chua, has just mapped traits common to first and second generation immigrant groups and conflated that with entire culture/ethnic groups.

  5. Yeah, I liked Dallas’s comments a lot. I think:

    (1) There may be something to what Chua is saying
    (2) There may also be some serious methodological problems, and those are independently valid. I don’t know, without reading the book, whether or not Chua adequately addresses these points because…
    (3) The political response should really stop conflating bad evidence with moral indignation.

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