There was an intriguing essay by Josh Marshall a few weeks back on Talking Points Memo, addressing America’s regional differences.
Back in the 1990s, psychologists at the University of Michigan conducted a study about regionalism and aggression. As is often the case, the “real” study took place before the participants actually thought it was happening. The participants are all white male college students. They are walking down a hall when an apparent bystander thoughtlessly bumps into him while closing a file cabinet and calls him an “asshole.”
This is the core experiment. Does the study participant react with some version of amused indifference or does he move into an aggressive affront response? The experiment showed that participants from the South were significantly more likely to have the latter, aggressive affront response.
This is not terribly surprising for anyone who has studied American history and perhaps for anyone who’s spent significant time in both parts of the United States. The Southern murder rate has always been substantially higher than any other region in the United States. Indeed, New England and the prairie states have historical rates of murder that aren’t much different from those in Europe. The South is the big outlier and within the South Louisiana and to a lesser extent Mississippi are the big outliers, with murder rates substantially higher than the rest of the South. Even as murder rates have dropped rapidly across the country over the last quarter century the regional differential has remained unchanged.
As Marshall notes, the higher homicide rates in the south tend to be tied to “heat of the moment” incidents– the bar fight that escalates out of control, spousal killings and the like are typically outcomes of anger and escalating aggression rather than more generic criminal activities like burglaries or bank robberies.
What accounts for this difference? Why did the culture of the American South evolve as it apparently did?
Unsurprisingly, the best historical explanations for this trace back to slavery, a system rooted in violence and domination in which the privileges and respect for the sanctity of the body are paramount. In such an honor and status bound society the consequences of one’s status being degraded or questioned are severe and thus they are aggressively defended.
File this observation under “connecting the dots”–the complicated effort to understand the origins of our human cultural and social differences, and the roots of so many seemingly incommensurate attitudes and beliefs.
This is just one more illustration of the multiple ways in which America’s original sin continues to shape personal and regional attitudes and affect contemporary politics, as we are seeing in the responses to this disastrous Presidency.
“Know thyself” continues to be our hardest assignment.