Sometimes American Individualism Limits Our View of the World
America Culture has been noted by its admirers and detractors alike to be one of the most individualistic in the world. Since it's inception, this spirit is seen in world of laws, literature and popular culture. We see this is Thomas Jefferson's idealization of the Yeoman Farmer, Ralph Waldo Emerson's verses on self-reliance and non-conformity and in the rugged individualism celebrated in cowboy movies. Almost unique to the world, Americans believed that men could cast off their old national, religious, cultural linguistic, geographic and economic identities and recreate themselves. So, it is quite natural that most Americans can only analyze culture from the lens of individualism. On one hand, this is very positive, because it helps inculcate a spirit of tolerance. On the other hand, it leads many Americans to overlook the fact that culture is not only manifested in individual behavior, but also in the ways in which groups, communities and nations function. The increasingly strong reservations that most people (thankfully) hold against prejudging individuals, makes it quite difficult for them to make an honest, informed assessment of the beliefs and practices that predominate in other cultures.
Because of the dominant narratives on race and culture, few people can wrap their heads around the paradox that one can befriend and admire individuals of certain cultural backgrounds, while still be weary of the group dynamics that are driven by that culture. Having traveled in the middle east and befriended many Arab, Turkish and Persian Muslim, at the risk of overgeneralizing, I can say that on an individual level, they are among the most warm, hospitable and likable people you will ever meet. I admire the industriousness and entrepreneurial spirit of Palestinian Immigrants, the commitment to education and achievement of the the Iranians and the unbreakable sense of family of the Pakistanis. Clearly, on an individual level, religion and culture have not impeded their ethical, intellectual and professional development. But, on a national level, they have made the establishment of democracy, rule of law and economic freedom very challenging. Supporting evidence for this is found in the fact that Islamic Nations tend to score at the bottom of the Democracy Index, Corruption Index and Ranking of Women's Rights. Because, while individuals are unpredictable, groups dynamics are not. Based on the culture that predominates in a region, we can predict a host of socio-economic outcomes. This is readily apparent when we analyze a global map of corruption, which clearly shows a strong connection between regional cultures and the general level of corruption. For example, the least corrupt nations are part of the Scandinavian, Anglo-Protestant and Confucian cultural spheres. With the exception of Chile and Uruguay, Latin-America scored poorly. And the bottom of the list was mostly comprised of Islamic and / or Sub-Saharan African Nations.
What is the practical implication of the culturalist narrative? We should welcome diverse, talented individuals into our nation, neighborhoods and in my opinion, circle of friends and family. But we should not encourage the formation of large, unassimilated groups who will recreate the very social, economic and political dynamics that led them to leave their nations of origin. The most obvious example is the rise of "honor attacks", homophobic harassment and calls to limit freedom of expression in England, but more subtle examples abound, which we will explore in future posts.