Culture and Media Literacy. Truth, BS, and Shibboleths

by | Jan 11, 2023 | 0 comments

                        Culture and Media Literacy. Truth, BS, and Shibboleths

                                                   Huib Wursten, Author, public speaker and consultant. huib


After Donald Trump was chosen as President of the United States, the word “alternative truth” was introduced. In response, Newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post introduced fact-checks to attack these alternative truths.

For Media Literacy, it is necessary to understand both:  the deliberate attempts to mislead people by spreading misinformation and the cultural context of communication.

How does culture affect media literacy

Culture can play a significant role in shaping an individual’s understanding and interpretation of media messages. It can influence how people perceive and respond to media content, the types of media they consume, and their values and beliefs about media and its role in society.

Overall, culture plays a significant role in shaping an individual’s media literacy and understanding of media messages. Therefore, it is important for individuals to be aware of their cultural backgrounds and biases and to consider the cultural context in which media is created and consumed when evaluating and interpreting media messages.

Example: Geert Hofstede on Vietnamese schools and American schools. (Hofstede 2001)

The famous scholar on Culture, Geert Hofstede, found the following message to American teachers after the Vietnam war. When in 1976, children of Vietnamese background went to regular schools in small towns in the USA, the office of Education issued an instruction for teachers “On Teaching the Vietnamese.”

Part of it runs: “Student participation was discouraged in Vietnamese schools by liberal doses of corporal punishment, and students were conditioned to sit rigidly and to speak only when spoken to. This background makes speaking freely in class hard for a Vietnamese. Therefore, don’t mistake shyness for apathy.”

Hofstede showed the cultural bias by proposing a fictional reverse statement: A Vietnamese “On Teaching the Americans”:

“Students’ proper respect for teachers was discouraged by a loose order and students were conditioned to behave disorderly and to chat all the time. This background makes proper and respectful behavior in class hard for an American student. Therefore, don’t mistake rudeness for lack of reverence.”

Is truth a cultural construct?

The research of Geert Hofstede is still the point of reference in the world of evidence-based approaches to cultural comparisons. Six culture “clusters” can be defined based on Hofstede’s research. (Wursten 2017, 2019) A culture cluster is a group of countries with similar combinations of scores on the first four dimensions of Hofstede. These value combinations also lead to a specific outlook toward the world. This value-driven outlook is called a “Mental Image.” The seven mental images we found lead to seven different views on societal and political priorities. Summarizing:  Six of the mental images are shared by more countries. One mental image stands alone: Japan.

Of course, not everybody in a culture accepts the same value preferences. But the dominant culture is setting the standards and criteria for what is called “right” behavior. If others who differ want to “make it” in a certain society, they learn that you had better conform to the standards. In this sense, culture has a gravitational influence on behavior.

An earlier paper explored how the different culture clusters relate to the concept of truth. (Wursten 2015) Different “sayings “used by the dominant culture clusters illustrate and reflect the way truth is perceived.


Contest cultures. (USA, UK, Canada, New Zealand, Australia)

A very influential and revealing definition of truth is formulated by the father of “pragmatism,” William James: “The truth is what works.” This approach comes back in the daily use of language in sayings like: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating. “

Analysis: the emphasis is on inductive thinking and action orientation. This way of thinking focuses on” best practices” in this culture. Practitioners are getting the highest esteem. An argument labeled ” academic” in a public discussion is not a compliment.

Or, like in the case of Obama, it is deadly if your attitude is called “professorial,” In Contest cultures, it is also taking the shape of resistance towards “experts.”

Solar System: (France, Belgium, Northern Italy, Argentina)

Deductive thinking is the preferred approach; The high need for predictability leads to a tendency to look first at all available expert information before decisions are made on actions. Therefore, it is the opposite of the Contest attitude. Being called an “intellectual” is a compliment in the Solar System. Books about all kinds of subjects begin preferably with quotes from proven philosophers and experts from the past—the more abstract, the better. Truth is the result of an intellectual debate. The most representative quote about truth comes from C.P. Colardeau (1732- 1766):

Du choc des opinions jaillit la vérité! By the confrontation of opinions truth comes about!

The dominance of the intellectual process is also reflected by the famous statement of the French philosopher Descartes: Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore, I exist!

Well-oiled Machine: (Germany, Austria, Hungary, German-speaking Switzerland)

Because of the high need for predictability, the cultural tendency in thinking is deduction. It is different, though, from what we see in the Solar System.

The key element is the internalization of the need for structure. Therefore, the most important concept is Planmäßigkeit (need for procedures, consistency, and planning). As a consequence, books in Germany, Austria, etc. are not beginning with “the philosophy of”, like in the Solar System countries, but rather with: “die Prinzipien von” (the Principles of).

The highest societal esteem is given to proven experts. This is visible in their use of titles: Prof., Dr., Dr., etc.

The most representative slogan about truth in this type of culture comes from the 1918 Nobel Prize winner Max Planck:

Die Wahrheit triumphiert nie, ihre Gegner sterben nur aus”. (Truth never triumphs. Her adversaries just fade away.)

Network cultures: (Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland) Equality is the defining value in these cultures. All stakeholders are autonomous and participate in decision-making. Decisions are made based on consensus (the better word is “shared interest”).

Important sayings about truth reflect the feeling that all stakeholders are equal. Two Dutch sayings are examples:

-Truth lies in the middle (Waarheid ligt in het midden)


-Nobody can claim the truth. (Niemand heeft de waarheid in pacht).

In this thinking, there is no objective truth. The only thing to do is to find a consensus between subjective stakeholders.  A famous Dutch methodologist, de Groot, promoted the idea of aiming at inter-subjectivity instead of objectivity.

Pyramid (Latin American countries, many Asian countries, most African countries, all Arab countries, and many countries in Eastern and Southern Europe) and Family (China, India, Singapore, etc.)

Concerning the attitude towards truth in the Pyramid and the Family, a distinction should be made in terms of religion. In countries with a Monotheistic religion (Islamic, Christian, Jewish), the way of thinking follows the characteristics of UAI.  On the other hand, in cultures with a Polytheistic religion or a philosophy of life, people don’t believe in absolute truth. Truth is relative.

This thinking is expressed by: “different time, different context, different situation, different truth”.

As a result, the emphasis is not on absolute values but on personal virtues.

Japan: Japan stands alone. For the attitude towards truth, they share the slogan of countries with a polytheistic background: Truth depends on Time, Context, and Situation. 


Culture and polarization

The influence of MAS dimension:  The dominant values in feminine cultures are consensus-seeking, caring for others, and quality of life. Sympathy is for the underdog. People try to avoid situations distinguishing clear winners and losers. In masculine cultures, the focus is on winning or losing. The sympathy is for the winners. (Hofstede 1998)

As defined above, pragmatism plays an important additional role in decision-makers behavior. The Canadian politician and scholar Ignatieff illustrates this:

“What is right does not always work. What works is not always right.” (see:Morgan 2006)

This thinking has some consequences for the political arena and the way media play a role in the fight to influence the perception of “what works”.

 Truth, BS and Shibboleths.

BS:  Harry Frankfurt, a philosopher from Yale and Princeton, is known for his 1986 publication, On Bullshit,  a philosophical investigation of the concept of “bullshit”. The book was republished in 2005. He wrote: “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much Bullshit. Everyone knows this.”

What it is not”, he argues, “is lying. Both misrepresent the truth, but with entirely different intentions”. A liar is “someone who deliberately promulgates a falsehood”. He or she knows the truth or could lay hands on it – but they certainly aren’t giving it to you. The “bullshitter”, on the other hand, “does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”. BS-ers don’t mind about the truth. The intent is not to refer to facts or truths.” The objective is to discredit “the other side” and to enrage the other side in the meantime.

It is a variation of asking somebody in public: “why do you beat your wife?”. Denying the accusation does not help. Harm is already done. Whatever you say, the suspicion is there!

Part of Media literacy is knowing what is intended and what “effective” reactions could be.                                                                                                                                    On 24 December 2022, Fox television host Tucker Carlson opened his Friday broadcast with a presentation of his “favorite lies” of the year. For example, about the blame for Covid.   Carlson: “If the Chinese military unleashed a deadly manufactured flu virus on the world, Joe Biden would blame you for it and, actually, he did.” Joe Biden told us that people are dying of COVID because you have questions about an experimental mRNA shot that doesn’t really work and whose long-term effects we can’t know. You are the criminal here, not the Chinese government, because you’re “unvaccinated.” You must be punished.”

Dutch historian Beatrice de Graaf (Graaf de 2022) analyzed this behavior: they are like the “bullies in the schoolyard'”. De Graaf’s remedy:  “isolate and fence off.”


In the media, some words or concepts that are basically cultural work as a Shibboleth, a watchword to distinguish the good ones (people like us) from the others. If such a watchword is used, there is no need to listen further.

During the second world war, when the Nazis occupied The Netherlands, the Dutch resistance used the name of a Dutch beach resort Scheveningen as a watchword. No German could use this name with the right guttural pronunciation. So, for the Dutch resistance, it was immediately clear who the good guys were.

It is interesting how some words are used as a watchword distinguishing “people like us” from “others”.

“Woke” is an interesting example. For progressives. It identifies the good guys. “Wokeism” is the opposite, a rallying cry for conservatives, identifying the bad guys. Something terrible. A bit like “socialist”.  The word “liberal” in the Netherlands has such a function. It has the connotation of (American-style) free-market capitalism.

The shibboleths are not used to inform or persuade people. After such a watchword identifying the “other side,” immediately further interest in more information stops. Even fact checks that became fashionable in the Trump era in serious media outlets have limited effect because of the shibboleth function. It is not about knowing the right facts. It distinguishes the good guys from the others

The notion of the Common good in the media

One of the confusing issues in media communication is that some concepts used worlwide have actually a different  meaning in diffrent cultures.                                              One example is Democracy. In a previous paper (Wursten 2019), this was analyzed. Media play an important role. .For instance, in he way the “common good” is defined.  This label is culturally sensitive. The seven culture clusters help us understand how the common good is represented in the media.

The Keywords for how the Common Good/Interest is formulated in the seven culture clusters and who is allowed to do so.

Contest cultures:  Key reference:  well-understood self -interest.  System: Winner takes all (half plus one), competition, level playing field. 

Network cultures:  Key reference: shared interest. System: consensus, equality, equity. Emerging insight

Well-oiled Machine:   Key reference: Principled balanced interest as formulated by experts.    System: deductive, need for systematic thinking and order                                                                                                               

Solar System: Key reference: Common interest (common good) as formulated by the top and as acceptable in terms of the narrow rule of law (including human rights) System: top down, deductive, individual rights, intellectualis

Pyramid:  Key reference: common interest (common good) as formulated by top and as acceptable for the dominant group.   System: rewarding loyalty, security, top down

Family:  Key reference: common interest as formulated by the top of the dominant ingroup.  System: rewarding loyalty, trust, social control (Frequently long- term orientation)

Japan:  Key reference: balanced interest between all (in-group) stakeholders.   System: rewarding loyalty, trust, social control. Frequent consultations Ho Ren So, Megawashi. Constant improvement. Striving for perfection. long- term orientation


Pragmatism versus Cartesian thinking: analysis of a scandal: Sokols Hoax

Above, the difference is described between the Contest way of thinking and communicating and the Solar System.                                  This difference can lead to misunderstandings and irritations if the two cultures are confronted with each other. It can even lead to nasty confrontations.

A nice example is the publication of the book Intellectual Impostures by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont. (Sokal, Bricmont (1999) For a good understanding, first, a little more detail about the cultural issue. It is specifically about the preferences created by scoring high or low on Uncertainty Avoidance.                                                                                                                                                                                       In short: in low UAI cultures, it gives status to explain issues in simple, plain language. The assumption is that you can only explain things simply if you really understand them.                                                                                                                                                                In high UAI cultures, the highest credibility is for “experts” and “Intellectuals”. It gives status to explain issues in academic language. The assumption is that complexity is needed because you deal with profound and difficult ideas.

In 1999 Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont published Intellectual Impostures. It was first published in French as “Impostures intellectuelles“. The authors said the book’s purpose is: “to warn against charlatanism.”  The authors “deconstruct” the notion that some books and writers are difficult because they deal with profound and complicated ideas: “If the texts seem incomprehensible, it is for the excellent reason that they mean precisely nothing.”                                                                                                                                                            They used the work of especially French “intellectuals” like Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Paul Virilio, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Luce Irigaray, Bruno Latour, and Jean Baudrillard, who—were leading academics of critical theory, psychoanalysis, and/or the social sciences at the time of publication.

Like the book’s subject, Sokal is best known for “Sokal’s hoax” in 1996, where he published an article with randomly chosen sentences from the above authors that he submitted to Journals like Social text, a critical theory journal.


It is a necessity to understand the cultural context of Media Literacy. The empirically found fundamental dimensions of culture and the combinations thereof have a gravitational influence on people’s behavior. Self-evidently also on Media Literacy. The Mentat Images create different rules of the game for communication. Without understanding these game rules, getting the real meaning of messages is virtually impossible. Like Johan Cruijff, the verbally creative Dutch soccer star, already said: “you only see it when you know it!”



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Frankfurt Harry, (2005). On Bullshit  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 2005. ISBN 978-0691122946.

 Graaf Beatrice de (3 maart 2022), RTL Nieuws. Poetins mythische wereldbeeld.

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Hofstede, Geert (1998) MASCULINITY & FEMININITY: The Taboo Dimension of National Cultures: Sage publications. Inc

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Wursten Huib (2017) images of culture a perspective to understand misunderstandings in politics business religion &..

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Huib Wursten (2019) Democracy and the need for Autonomy

Wursten Huib (2019) The 7Mental Images of National Culture. Leading and Managing in a globalized World. Publisher Hofstede Insights, Production AMAZON Books ISBN: 9781687633347



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