Tag Archives: culture

Maybe The South Did Rise Again

Culture matters.

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.

 

It’s The Culture….

The other day, I was at the IKEA loading dock. I’d bought two porch chairs, and was wrestling their fairly large and heavy boxes into my car. A gentleman, probably in his late 50s, was walking by, and stopped to help me. I didn’t know him, he didn’t know me: he saw a woman struggling with something heavy and stopped to lend a hand.

I thanked him profusely, but on the way home, all I could think of was how utterly impossible it is to picture Donald Trump ever noticing that someone was struggling and offering help. (Yes, I know I’m obsessed with our insane and dangerous President…)

If there’s a moral to this non-story, it is that nice people make life better for everyone–that thinking of ourselves as part of a community of inter-dependent members who help each other out– rather than as isolated and besieged individuals– creates a supportive culture that really does “lift all boats.”

And that–strangely enough–brings me to public policy. (Pretty much everything these days brings me to public policy….)

As I was doing research for my most recent book, I looked especially at the way social safety nets around the world are constructed, and then at proposed reforms of the U.S. “system.” (I put system in quotes, because it’s a stretch to call America’s inadequate, costly patchwork of social programs a system.) I concluded that there are two major problems with our begrudging approach to a social safety net.

First, and most obviously, America’s welfare programs are inadequate, purposely demeaning and poorly functioning. There are major gaps in coverage, ridiculous bureaucratic requirements–the critiques are plentiful and easily available.

The second problem is far less obvious. Most of the programs in America’s social welfare system are designed in a way that divides, rather than unites, Americans.

Think about the difference between public attitudes toward Social Security and Medicare, on the one hand, and TANF and similar programs on the other. Social Security and Medicare are universal programs–everyone who lives long enough will benefit from them. Then think of the resentment frequently voiced about more targeted welfare programs: the government is taxing me to support “those people.”

When a tax-supported program or service benefits everyone, it tends to bring people together rather than dividing them.( I’ve never heard anyone protest that they don’t want the streets fixed or the garbage collected because “those people will benefit from a service paid for by my tax dollars.”)

One of the most compelling arguments for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) is that it would be universal.  There are many other virtues to a UBI, as Samuel Hammond of the libertarian Niskanen Center has noted: the structure avoids creating poverty traps; it would raise worker bargaining power without wage or price controls; it would decouple benefits from a particular employer or local jurisdiction; and It would simplify and streamlines a complex web of bureaucracy, eliminating rent seeking and other sources of inefficiency. But it is because a UBI is universal that it is so appealing at a time when Americans are so divided.

Programs that treat all similarly-situated members of a community or polity the same tend over time to support a more cohesive culture; they avoid contributing to racial and socio-economic resentments.

UBIs and/or similarly universal programs won’t turn self-centered and emotionally crippled individuals like Trump into nice people who stop to offer help to strangers. But such policies would go a long way to easing–rather than exacerbating– unnecessary and unhelpful social tensions and divisions.

Americans have always had trouble balancing between too much “I” and too much “we.” Social supports that are universal enable a mean between those extremes: providing individuals with membership in a common polity–the “we”–and liberating them to follow their own life goals–the “I.”

A girl can dream…

Looking Back…..

Three years ago, I was asked to deliver what is billed at IUPUI as the “Last Lecture.” The series is so named because it is intended to be a reflection by an older faculty member, sort of a “summing up” of life lessons learned. (Obviously, it wasn’t my last opportunity to pontificate…) At any rate, I recently had occasion to re-read what I’d said, and was struck by fact that–three years down the road– we are even more deeply enmeshed in the world I described in the final few paragraphs.

I decided to share those unfortunately accurate concluding observations. Happy Sunday…..

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There’s a credit card commercial that says “Membership has its privileges.” Membership in society should have its privileges as well. That’s not necessarily an argument for massive welfare programs or redistribution of wealth. It is an argument for fundamental fairness, an argument that recognizes that we all benefit when inclusive social structures operate in the interests of all of our members.

From time to time, greed and fear obscure the reality of human interdependence. Unfortunately, we seem to be living in one of those times–an era characterized by an intentional refusal to recognize that there is such a thing as the common good, and a willful ignorance of the importance of mutual social obligation.

Addressing that willful ignorance is what social justice requires, but that is easier said than done.

I’m painfully aware that cultural institutions, folkways and intellectual paradigms influence people far more than logic and reason, and that culture is incredibly difficult to change. Structural barriers and ingrained privilege don’t disappear without significant upheavals or outright revolutions.

We may be approaching such a period of upheaval, not unlike the Sixties. When I look around, I see a depressing revival of tribalism, and widespread expressions of a racism I thought we’d moved beyond. The election of an African-American President was a sign of progress, but it clearly lifted a rock—and what crawled out is unbelievably ugly and destructive. The growth in inequality threatens to exceed the inequities of the gilded age, if it hasn’t already, and it is hard to argue with those who look around and see not a republic, not a democracy, but an oligarchy.

When I look at America’s politics, I’m reminded of a 1999 movie called “The Sixth Sense.” The young boy in that movie saw dead people; I see crazy people. I know that isn’t politically correct, but how else would you characterize some of the voices dominating our public discourse? How else explain the “birthers” and conspiracy theorists, the “Faux News” pundits and the websites peddling nativism, paranoia and propaganda? In what universe is Sarah Palin a potential Vice-President, or Roy Moore a state Supreme Court Justice or James Inhofe Chair of the Senate Committee on the Environment? On what planet do people pay attention to buffoons like Donald Trump or Ted Cruz or Louie Gohmert?

If I had to guess why so many of our fellow-citizens appear to have gone off the deep end—why they are trying to stockpile guns, roll back women’s rights, put gays back in the closet, stigmatize African-Americans and stereotype Muslims—I think the answer is fear. Change is creating a very different world from the one most of us grew up in, and the pace of that change continues to accelerate. As a result, we have a lot of bewildered and disoriented people who find themselves in an increasingly ambiguous world; they are frantic for bright lines, clear rules, simple answers to complicated issues, and especially, for someone to blame. People who are confounded by new realities, and especially those who are unhappy or dissatisfied with their lives, evidently need to attribute their problems and disappointments to some nefarious “other.” So the old racist and sexist and homophobic tropes get trotted out.

Unfortunately, the desire for a world where moral and policy choices are clear and simple is at odds with the messy reality of life in our global village, and the more these fearful folks are forced to confront that messy reality, the more frantically they cling to their ideological or theological touchstones.

It may be that this phenomenon is nothing new, that there aren’t really more crazy people than before. Maybe, thanks to the Internet and social media, we are just more aware of them. I hope that’s true, but I don’t know–I only know that a scroll through Facebook elevates my blood pressure.

At the end of the day, what will prevent us from fashioning a social order that promotes and enables human flourishing is continuation of this retreat into anti-intellectualism, bigotry and various kinds of fundamentalism. We villagers only become fully human—we only flourish—through constant learning, by opening ourselves to new perspectives, by reaching out and learning from those who are different.

I do see some welcome signs that the fever is abating, at least in the United States and at least among younger Americans. I would turn this country over to my students in a heartbeat: they may not be the best-informed generation, but they are inclusive and intellectually curious, and they care deeply about the planet and about their communities. For my grandchildren’s sake, I hope they can salvage this “village” we call Earth from the mess my generation is leaving them—and despite the fact that this has been my “Last Lecture,” I hope I hang around long enough to see if they succeed.

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I’m still hoping…..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Subtler Forms of Sexism

The #metoo movement has generated an overdue conversation about sexual harassment, hostile workplaces, and the difficulty many men and women seem to have in communicating with each other both in and out of the office.

That conversation is valuable, but we also need to recognize that some of the most pernicious ways women are getting screwed aren’t sexual.

A good friend of mine recently emailed me about an incredibly frustrating experience when she applied for a Lowe’s credit card. She and her husband are both retired. They have excellent credit–scores in the 800s. (For those of you unfamiliar with credit agency scoring, that is really good.)

When she applied for a Lowe’s credit card, however, she tells me she was denied “on the spot.”   When her husband then applied for the same credit card, he was approved on the spot.

She and her husband file joint tax returns, and own most of their assets–including a home and a vacation home– jointly. When she wrote a letter to the bank that issues Lowe’s credit card, asking for specific reasons for the denial, she was told that the reason was her lack of debt (she has none at all–unlike most Americans, she and her husband have paid everything off).

That explanation raises two obvious questions: why on earth should a lack of debt be disqualifying? and if for some bizarre reason it is, why didn’t it disqualify her husband, who is equally “debt-less”?

My friend and her husband have similar work and income histories; as retirees, they receive virtually identical social security and other retirement payments.(My friend has her own 401(k) and a pension, both of which she included on the application.) Why was he more creditworthy than she?

Unless there’s something weird she’s omitting, it certainly appears that the issuer of this credit card applies different standards to men and women. He is evidently more creditworthy because he’s a he.

My friend’s experience is infuriating, but not unusual. We sometimes forget that the idea of gender equity is relatively recent; when I went to law school, there were plenty of people–male and female–who found the idea of a woman with children working scandalous, and let me know it.  I was an adult before women could have credit ratings separate from those of our fathers or husbands.

“You’ve come a long way, baby” makes for a great cigarette ad, but it doesn’t reflect the reality that we also have a long way to go. Cultural assumptions–the man as breadwinner, the male as serious, superior and thus entitled–die hard. For generations, business and government and social institutions incorporated those cultural assumptions;  obsolete as they may be in today’s world, they persist.

Too bad we no longer have local investigative reporters. A systematic research project focusing on the degree to which women are still not treated equally by the businesses that invite our patronage would make a fascinating series.

If any of my friends from the Kelly School are reading this, I’d love to hear a business school perspective on this!

Blaming the Culture

I recently read yet another overheated article suggesting that huge numbers of people in Western democratic countries are either depressed or demoralized, and blaming this “psycho-spiritual crisis” on our consumerist culture.

Our descent into the Age of Depression seems unstoppable. Three decades ago, the average age for the first onset of depression was 30. Today it is 14. Researchers such as Stephen Izard at Duke University point out that the rate of depression in Western industrialized societies is doubling with each successive generational cohort. At this pace, over 50 per cent of our younger generation, aged 18-29, will succumb to it by middle age. Extrapolating one generation further, we arrive at the dire conclusion that virtually everyone will fall prey to depression.

The article does concede use of a rather over-inclusive definition of “depression;” evidently, when people who have been diagnosed as depressed are examined more closely, the majority don’t actually meet the clinical criteria for that diagnosis. The rest are merely despondent, or as the article labels them, “demoralized.”

[D]emoralization is a type of existential disorder associated with the breakdown of a person’s ‘cognitive map’. It is an overarching psycho-spiritual crisis in which victims feel generally disoriented and unable to locate meaning, purpose or sources of need fulfilment….

In a paragraph that certainly demoralizes me, the article describes the attributes of this social angst, and ascribes them to consumer culture:

As it is absorbed, consumer culture imposes numerous influences that weaken personality structures, undermine coping and lay the groundwork for eventual demoralization. Its driving features – individualism, materialism, hyper-competition, greed, over-complication, overwork, hurriedness and debt – all correlate negatively with psychological health and/or social wellbeing. The level of intimacy, trust and true friendship in people’s lives has plummeted. Sources of wisdom, social and community support, spiritual comfort, intellectual growth and life education have dried up. Passivity and choice have displaced creativity and mastery. Resilience traits such as patience, restraint and fortitude have given way to short attention spans, over-indulgence and a masturbatory approach to life.

I’m not sure what constitutes a “masturbatory approach to life,” but it’s an interesting term…

The article continues at some length, condemning the “void” in which contemporary citizens find ourselves. You can click through and evaluate the argument for yourselves. In my case, although I found several points persuasive, taken as a whole, I would classify this as one of a growing and unhelpful number of  “pox on modernity” diatribes that assumes a rosy and ahistorical past of human connection and satisfaction, and simplifies a complicated issue that philosophers have wrestled with for a very long time: what gives our lives meaning?

How do we create a culture that provides everyone with a sense of purpose while avoiding a coercive imposition of collective norms and the “uniformity of the graveyard.”  

There is much to criticize in consumer culture. There was also much to criticize in the cultures that preceded it. Singling out consumerism writ large as the sole driver of contemporary angst, however, misses the point.

Our problem is larger: how do humans create a society that respects our differences and facilitates individual moral autonomy, while still providing the social infrastructure necessary for meaningful community? How do we create a society in which we can be fully realized “I’s” within a co-operative and nurturing (but not stifling) “we”?

Somewhere between a stultifying communitarianism and a dog-eat-dog libertarianism there’s a (non-masturbatory) “sweet spot.” We need to locate it.