4 comments on ““Why Americans Are the Weirdest People in the World”

  1. Pingback: PS: “Fat Americans” | ADOXOBLOG

  2. I’m sympathetic to some of the ideas you’ve expressed here, but I felt that some of them deserved a response.

    For me, one takeaway of the article is that it does not make sense to impose on one culture the value judgements and moral systems drawn from elsewhere. Coming to the conclusion that American culture — or *any* culture — is “irrational” seems to be precisely what the paper is warning against.

    Consider the opening paragraph of the paper:

    “In the tropical forests of New Guinea, the Etoro believe that for a boy to achieve manhood he must ingest the semen of his elders. This is accomplished through ritua- lized rites of passage that require young male initiates to fellate a senior member (Herdt 1984/1993; Kelley 1980). In contrast, the nearby Kaluli maintain that male initiation is only properly done by ritually delivering the semen through the initiate’s anus, not his mouth. The Etoro revile these Kaluli practices, finding them disgusting. To become a man in these societies, and eventually take a wife, every boy undergoes these initiations. Such boy-inse- minating practices, which are enmeshed in rich systems of meaning and imbued with local cultural values, were not uncommon among the traditional societies of Melanesia and Aboriginal Australia (Herdt 1984/1993), as well as in Ancient Greece and Tokugawa Japan.”

    My interpretation of this passage is that at first, the behavior of both the Etoro and the Kaluli strike us as something which is not only weird, but pedophilic and immoral. But the behavior described here is observed not in just one culture, but in cultures distributed across the world. The point is that our cultural background, our frame of reference — whether Western, Japanese, or Etoro — is often entirely an inadequate basis from which to interpret the behavior of peoples from another culture. We simply are not equipped to draw moral judgements or conclusions on rationality about the actions of people from cultures other than our own, or at least not without extensive, methodical research and analysis.

    Thus, while I definitely understand and sympathize with the terror and revulsion one might feel upon entering American culture from the outside, I think the paper calls on us to make a concerted effort to understand people and their culture on THEIR terms and in the context of their environment, rather than on OUR terms.

    I will say that whether the hypocritical Puritan sexual mores or the way that individuals are deliberately and cynically set against once another in the United States is related to the “weirdness” that these authors are talking about is, perhaps, an interesting question. But I feel like the answers are far from obvious.

    • Thanks for such a thoughtful response. I didn’t state conclusions as fully as I might have– but then I’m a blogger, not an anthropologist delivering a paper– but my own visceral responses to certain aspects of US culture demonstrate precisely what the paper’s authors, you and I seem to agree upon; that it’s sometimes very tough for people from differing cultures (even superficially similar ones like the UK and the US) to get over their disgust or incomprehension at certain fundamentals of how other societies choose to operate. I have no personal experience of New Guinea, so my example of the tribal narcissism of small differences had to come from elsewhere. I certainly agree that it might be better if humans as a species were more able to put this aside, but this research shows that scientists are just as prone to cultural prejudice as anybody else… which is troubling to anybody who cares about the scientific method or international harmony because it clearly does not bode well for any rational approach to cultural relations.

      I think there is also the issue of power, i.e. majority versus minority cultures. Yes, most people in the world could do better in suspending judgement about other cultures no matter where they’re from, but cultures with massive hegemonic power (e.g. and supremely the US, specifically its white, patrician, Puritan majority culture that effects the whole world through the media and economic/military policy) have a correspondingly greater responsibility to check themselves and be aware of their biases than do the cultures or communities who are frequently the objects of their criticism or who regularly come off worse because of majority norms, whether they be African Americans, the Etoro, or the people a US tourist encounters during their trip to London. The stakes are much higher in relations between, for example, the USA and Europe or the USA and the Middle East than the stakes are in relations between the Etoro and the Kaluli. And it should not be forgotten that cultures don’t really “want” or “decide” anything, either; cultures are made up of individual people who can choose to act in whatever way they see fit. Perhaps this leads back to the notion you mention, of making more effort to see the other side.

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