Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch — and Ideology for Dinner

On my drive into the Caffeinated Press office this morning, I flipped around the FM dial, searching for nothing in particular. I settled, grudgingly, on the local Michigan Public Radio channel, wherein NPR’s Weekend Edition was already in full swing.

Apart from some brief news about Sen. Bernie Sanders and his trek to South Carolina, the segment I heard featured the host speaking to an academic about the allegations of a rape culture at St. Paul’s, the elite boarding school that has prepared many of America’s top political and financial leaders.

The part of the interview that caused an involuntary, Spock-like eyebrow raise came when the guest asserted something to the effect that all of the stakeholders at St. Paul’s must band together for a “discussion” about ways to stop male upperclassmen from treating “girls like currency” in their competition to “score.”


So let’s stipulate two things from the outset. First, that St. Paul’s — a 150-year-old institution that only recently allowed the admission of females — consists of teen-aged students from the upper-upper-crust of American society. And second, that if the stories about the schools are true, the school’s culture permits or even celebrates young males targeting even younger females for sex, yet there’s been only one allegation of rape. And that allegation is disputed.

Two points follow.

The first, and the more minor, point is that there appears to be a curious disconnect between the broad, left-leaning culture that mocks sexual abstinence training — see, for example, John Oliver’s take on sex ed in the U.S. — and the reaction to what happens when teenagers actually do what the sex educators encourage. Because the salient point at St. Paul’s is that even if older male students seek sex with younger female students, there’s been but one allegation of coercion in an environment where the occurrences of such liaisons is probably very high. In other words: The sex-ed folks say: “Do it, safely, and with consent,” and except for a single reported occurrence to the contrary, the kids seem to have followed their education. So what, exactly, is the problem that requires “discussion?”

Perhaps I’m cynical. But we should not be surprised when the left-leaning consensus is that we should train middle-schoolers to enjoy the fun of sex responsibly, that when those middle-schoolers pass the puberty mark, they’ll behave as they’ve been taught. If one student raped another student at St. Paul’s, then prosecute that occurrence. But to probe a deeper cultural problem? It’s not clear what such a problem could be, given that the students of St. Paul’s by and large seem to stick to the syllabus.

The bigger point, I think, is that the desire for a “discussion” about “treating girls like currency” in a male-on-male competition to “score” speaks to something quite unrelated to the current sexual mores of the students at St. Paul’s. Granted that in today’s ideological climate, any allegation of rape will find a chorus of professionals claiming a deep-seated cultural problem — hey, sociologists gotta pay the bills, too, even if every problem they see is a nail and the only tool they own is a hammer. Put that knee-jerk reaction aside long enough to reflect on just how curious it is that people assume that with the right degree of consciousness raising, we can consistently rise above hormones and instinct to be a New Soviet Man better person.

Peter Drucker said that culture eats strategy for lunch. What he meant was that the collection of habits and pre-rational behaviors that directly affect how people interrelate will always undercut an agreed-upon strategy that doesn’t square with that culture. For example, Microsoft’s strategy of unifying its software under one common codebase was, for a long time, hampered by an organizational culture that tied employee compensation to different internal business units sabotaging the success of other business units to improve their own relative metrics. When that sort of adversarial culture thrives, you have roughly zero chance of achieving a strategy that conflicts with it.

Let’s introduce the Gillikin Corollary: Culture eats ideology for dinner. In other words,  the highfalutin maxims of both the Far Left and the Far Right so often fail in the real world, because the real world is a messier place with a culture much more firmly rooted in the principles of evolutionary biology. The Gillikin Corollary is why both liberals and conservatives are mistaken in their pronouncements on sex ed: The conservatives are wrong because an abstinence-only training program (or worse, a “let’s pretend parents will teach their kids about sex” get-out-of-jail-free card) conflicts with teenage hormones. The liberals are wrong because on balance human males are sexually aggressive and human females are sexually receptive, so training everyone to be a metrosexual contractarian is doomed to failure. We’ve been wired over thousands of generations of pre-history that sexual dominance meant reproductive success and that human social frameworks were optimized for relatively small tribal groups. (See, e.g., the writings of E.O. Wilson.)

To quote Barack Obama: “Now, let me be clear.” I condone neither rape nor cultural norms that subtly compel people to engage in sexual behaviors they might have avoided but for engagement with that culture. If the student accused of rape at St. Paul’s is found guilty of rape, he should be punished.

Yet I cannot help but shake my head in amazement as the folks at NPR look at the story out of St. Paul’s and bemoan the fact that young males at an elite school engage in allegedly predatory sexual practices. Do all the left-wing sociologists and anthropologists out there really think that what they need is the right mandatory consciousness-raising program and that with it, a quarter-million years of evolution will therefore dissipate into a warm and loving enlightment completely untethered to hormones and pre-rational instinct? That a half-day seminar about “no means no” will perfectly empower testosterone-driven, highly competitive teenage males to default to asking, “May I unbutton your shirt now? May I kiss you? If your BAC is above 0.05, can we wait until we both can provide informed consent? Are you OK if we always use condoms until marriage?”


The culture of an elite school serving elite families revolves around succeeding in a socially competitive world. That’s the culture. And a strategy of sexual egalitarianism will never thrive as long as that culture — and its supporting cast of hormones and instinctive behaviors — continues to imperfectly align with it.

I suspect there are ways to more effectively frame sexual education for both males and females — but those methods must be rooted in the human condition as it is, not as we’d wish it to be.

So for me, the most fascinating part of the whole St. Paul’s story isn’t the “Senior Salute” or the rape allegation; rather, it’s the putatively earnest belief that something like the “Senior Salute” could have been avoided with the right combination of training, seminars and consciousness-raising events. It’s pretty obvious that left-wing nostrums about hyperinformed and explicit consent are just as untenable as right-wing nostrums about virginity until marriage — and they’re both off-base for exactly the same reason.

Culture eats ideology for dinner.

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