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November 23, 2013

THOMAS L. STEIGER: Cultural tendencies are what unite and divide us

For the last 10 days a story has been circulating on the Internet adapted from the original source in Tufts Magazine. The article is by Tufts alum, Colin Woodard, an award-winning journalist. The article is an essay based on Mr.  Woodard’s new book, “America’s Nations.” The premise of the book is not new, that the USA is not one nation but many, but in a scholarly fashion, somewhat rare for journalists, he critiques those previous works and offers his own where he argues that the USA is 11 nations bound, in tension, together.  

Mr. Woodard set out, in part, to explain the remarkably high level of violence in the U.S. by looking at the historical peoples and the cultures the Europeans (and in one case indigenous people) brought with them to the North American continent.  

This essay is not really about Mr. Woodard’s insightful and what appears to be fine synthesis and excellent example of interdisciplinary scholarship. Instead, it is about the reactions of people to his claims, in short, that America is a diverse place, with a diverse history, and these historical and continuing cultural differences explain some things about our society.

What follows is not anything systematic or likely replicable as good science or scholarship, rather, it is just me, reading reprints and synopses of this story and reading the comments section. I am usually more interested in people’s reactions to things than the things people are responding to; I admit it, I am a sociologist.

In general, I see two kinds of responses to the idea that the U.S. is 11 different nations based on the historical cultures that the original European settlers brought with them (and apparently in the case of Scot-Irish folks, some ecological adaptations because of a long history of herding.) The first type of response is pretty much an uncritical acceptance of what is presented. These folks seemed to be of a more liberal stripe and many of them residing in the more (in today’s understanding of these terms) “liberal” nations. The other was just as uncritical a rejection of the ideas presented with weak refutations of the ideas presented, even when those refutations were anticipated and addressed by the author. These commenters seemed more conservative and resided in the more conservative nations.

To boil these two response types down, liberals held to an over-socialized view of humans while conservatives rejected almost the very notion of culture or society.

The pressure for the individual to yield or take on the wider group’s perspective is strong, but not absolute. However, in the extreme, those individuals who hold to a sense of reality or a sense of self that varies too much with the wider group’s, today, are defined as mentally ill. So, why does the individual tend to adopt the perspective of the wider group?

Interaction with others is rewarding and the more intense and exclusive one’s interaction with a group is, the more likely the individual will adopt the perspective of the group. The Internet, for instance, permits both a widening of one’s possible interactions but also a narrowing, to seek out only others who see and think the way “I” do.

The more ”I” see others believe something is true, the more likely “I” will, too. Hence, our near obsession with polls.

The greater the status or power of people who believe something, the more “right” it seems, hence our constant framing of things in terms of original intent of the country’s founders and references to various cultural authorities.

We also tend to think that the people we talk to are a good cross section of “everyone.” So, the more our friends, relatives and acquaintances agree, the more likely we are to think “everyone” believes “this,” hence “this” is right, when all we are doing is essentially looking in the mirror or listening to an echo chamber.

My interpretation of Woodard’s essay is that we can pretty much culturally divide ourselves with how we answer this question: How do you view “human nature?” Are humans inherently good and “perfectible” or are they inherently “bad,” prone to violence and we must be eternally vigilant lest our neighbor take advantage of us. It’s not whether humanity is or is not like this, it’s what we believe because we act on those beliefs.

We will find the evidence to prove our cultural beliefs. We will form policies and institutions that reflect these basic assumptions, hence, forming culturally separate “nations.”

Thomas L. Steiger is a professor of sociology and director of the Center for Student Research and Creativity at Indiana State University. Email thomas.steiger@indstate.edu.

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