Over at the new Law & Mind Blog, several Harvard Law students have been blogging about about system justification theory. Here is one of those posts, written by first -year student Marty Ehlenbach.
Yale Law Professor Amy Chua’s recently published book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has become a seemingly endless source of fodder for Internet blogs and discussion groups. The book, largely meant to be a memoir, recounts the author’s methods of raising her two daughters; she allowed them limited time for playdates or TV, and describes grueling methods for both study and music practice. When a short excerpt was published in the Wall Street Journal, the newspaper fielded an enormous number of comments (7670 at this writing) expressing a wide variety of opinions on the topic. Even The Onion has weighed in on the subject.
Why does this book seem to resonate with so many people? One possible explanation is that it makes a distinction between a “Western” and “Chinese” parent in a time when many people seem to be particularly sensitive to any sort of cultural comparison. Chua’s stereotypical model of “Western” parenting describes a childhood lacking in any discipline and in some ways signifying a lack of commitment by parents to make their children into the most successful people possible. A New York Times article underscored the idea that there are many different types of skills needed to be a success, and believes that Professor Chua’s parenting style does not appropriately develop “soft skills” like communication and teamwork necessary in most business environments.
Blasi and Jost’s chapter on System Justification Theory (“SJT”) can serve to illuminate certain biases present in the story and in reactions to Chua’s assertions. The author, as a Yale professor, is admittedly a fairly elite member of our society, so she is not looking at the system from a position of disadvantage. The story clearly prescribes a particular path to success and shows an ultimate belief in the “winner’s” mantra as described by Jost:
I am deserving. My group is deserving. And, fortunately, we live in a system that has the wisdom and justice to reward deserving people.
Chua writes that “tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence,” but this idea necessarily presupposes that with excellence will come success. It doesn’t really address the differences in educational opportunities available to many children, but seems to have faith that the current system will treat people fairly by recognizing hard work. Losers in the system are clearly “lazy, unintelligent, poorly educated, or irresponsible” as described by Jost. Jost and Blasi recognize that system justification theory can be used to analyze ideologies like the Protestant work ethic and a belief in a meritocracy: Chua’s entire child-rearing method has aspects of both.
Another interesting connection between Jost’s theory and Chua’s book is the possibility that Chua could be providing ultimate justification for the type of upbringing that she experienced. The article on SJT shows that even on a micro-level, within a particular family, people still use methods of ego and system justification to perpetuate particular social arrangements. Chua herself was clearly raised by fairly strict Asian parents; she describes her father calling her “garbage” at one point when she was disrespectful. One wonders if this book is simply a way to legitimize her own upbringing and defend her willingness to create a similar type of relationship with her own daughters. Chua’s daughter Sophia, in an open letter defending her mother’s treatment, says that she “decided to be an easy child to raise”: the fact that she called it a “decision” could be an early justification for her own upbringing, and might show an early willingness to conform to her parents’ expected behaviors. Many of those commenting on the articles who described themselves as being being raised by parents similar to the “Tiger Mother” also spoke about how much they appreciated their parents’ tough love.
Chua’s story has important implications, I believe, for our legal system as pertains to victims of abuse. I do not mean to suggest that Chua’s methods constitute abuse; her goal was clearly to help her children be successful, and as one article described, shows a fear that success is becoming difficult to obtain in a world of increasing competition and a less than robust job market. This is a legitimate worry. Furthermore, I cannot pretend to understand the complex relationship between another parent and child, because they are quite unique and often complicated. However, recognizing that this justification can satisfy “needs for consistency, coherence, and certainty” as described by Blasi and Jost, and analyzing one woman’s story through this lens, leads one to wonder how the legal system could account for a demonstrable bias towards the status quo. Before a real abuse victim can come forward, she or he must be able to recognize that she does not actually deserve the behavior to which she is being subjected, and SJT posits that this recognition is not automatic. Furthermore, we don’t want to believe that our system is corrupt, but in many cases it is not the most hardworking who become successful, and frequently injustice is neither obvious nor easily corrected.
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Read the students’ discussion of the chapter here.
Related Situationist posts:
- “System Justification Theory and Law,”
- “Patriots Loss = ‘poetic justice‘“
- “The Unlucky Irish: Celtics Fans and Affective Forecasting,”
- “Ideology Shaping Situation of Vice Versa,”
- “Thanksgiving as ‘System Justification.’”
- “Cheering for the Underdog.”
- “A System-Justification Primer,”
- “Barbara Ehrenreich on the Sources of and Problems with Dispositionism,”
- “The Motivated Situation of Inequality and Discrimination,”
- “John Jost on System Justification Theory,”
- “John Jost’s “System Justification and the Law” – Video,”
- “Independence Day: Celebrating Courage to Challenge the Situation,”
To review the full collection of Situationist posts related to system justification, click here.