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.