Tuesday, January 25, 2011

An update to last week’s post: is it the culture or the individual?

Since last week, a reader brought to my attention this New York Times article by Stanley Fish, now several months old, that makes a great point about how and when Americans chose to utilize the concept of culture:

"The formula is simple and foolproof (although those who deploy it so facilely seem to think we are all fools): If the bad act is committed by a member of a group you wish to demonize, attribute it to a community or a religion and not to the individual. But if the bad act is committed by someone whose profile, interests and agendas are uncomfortably close to your own, detach the malefactor from everything that is going on or is in the air (he came from nowhere) and characterize him as a one-off, non-generalizable, sui generis phenomenon." 
 I was also reminded of another New York Times article many more months ago that explored the cultural context of mental illness. Basically, the article discusses recent research that suggests that mental illness, while undoubtedly having a solid physical (ie, medical) existence in the brain, is often shaped by the way an individual’s culture understands various forms of mental anguish and illness. 

The most compelling example concerns the sudden uptick of Chinese teenagers who started exhibiting anorexia in a Western fashion – ie, an aversion to food based on fears of becoming fat or unattractive. Earlier, there was certainly anorexia in China, but it was not until the American phenomenon of young girls starving themselves out of a desire to be as thin (ie, physically attractive) as possible became well known in China that a large number of Chinese girls also started describing their aversion to food in this manner. 

This frames very nicely the crucial question of culture versus the individual, or in this case, culture versus the biology of mental illness. Often times heated discussions about this problem can develop when debaters seem to think that their opponents are saying “it is all about culture,” or “it is all about the individual.” I think the evidence, quite clearly, shows that on the contrary, it is always both. To what degree we can look to the individual or the surrounding culture as ultimately more responsible, well that depends on the particular case and requires a thoughtful investigation.


Anonymous said...


This is prompted by your comments posted at P. Krugman's column, "Their Own Private Europe".

I agree in the main with Krugman's critique and understand your own take, too. There is certainly something--much-- to be said in opposition to the unfair comparisons which many Americans on the political far-right-wing draw when they describe a Europe which they'd claim has failed to grasp and emulate they suppose to be the successes of U.S. right-wing's political ideology.

On the other hand, there is also much about Europe--particularly the Franco-German-Spanish-Italian region, rather than the Scandinavian region--which resembles too terribly the rich versus poor divide so evident in U.S. society. In this respect, Europe and the U.S. are very similar. Those riots in Paris you mention your father referring to are almost always sparked by young people, mainly from the suburban immigrant concentrations (ghettos, some would say) where so many of them live in near-complete exclusion from the opportunities which come far more readily to others, far more favored by the system of insider networks. It's these happy few who are very favored by the customs of age-old cronyism (today it's known by the polite euphemism of "networking"). The alienated young throwing petrol bombs and setting cars on fire (and doing that typically in their own suburban towns rather than in the heart of Paris' chic neighborhoods where it would make a much greater impression on the privileged class) don't have anything like the marvellous social networks of society's privileged class.

Much of what socialist Europe once apparently got so right is now under severe attack and defenders of it are, well, on the "defensive"--in education, health care, employment rights, and other areas of social and economic justice, Europe is looking more and more like the America of Reagan and Bush and that alarms some here but not as many as it ought to alarm.

Robin Marie said...

That is absolutely true and thank you for pointing this out. Europe is far from perfect and it still has serious poverty and discrimination issues. That is important to keep in mind whenever discussing Europe v. America, because I certainly wouldn't want to make a simple, "Europe is totally awesome, America totally blows," sort of argument.

Anonymous said...

read your reply; thanks.