Although I’ll be the first to admit that it’s an example of confirmation bias because I’ve been saying and writing similar things for years, I just read a lengthy but very interesting article about the ways in which social sciences like anthropology, economics and behaviourism may be even more ethnocentric, subjective and ideological than all but the chippiest post-colonial theorists have portrayed them.
In short, social science and its “truths” have been dominated by people from the USA and their culture. And the citizens of the United States are the weirdest and most subjective people in the world. US dominance means that Weird Japan or Weird Asia are internet genres, while Weird USA is just the internet in general. Hollywood films and US TV shows label Paris as “Paris, France”, implying that most people in the world think of the Paris in Texas first of all. They don’t. Studies of sexual mores in the USA somehow get extrapolated to the behaviour of everyone else. And so on. Note that in the quote below even the article’s author apparently unreflectively uses “we” and “our” to mean US citizens:
“In the end they titled their paper ‘The Weirdest People in the World?’ (pdf) By “weird” they meant both unusual and Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. It is not just our Western habits and cultural preferences that are different from the rest of the world, it appears. The very way we think about ourselves and others—and even the way we perceive reality—makes us distinct from other humans on the planet, not to mention from the vast majority of our ancestors. Among Westerners, the data showed that Americans were often the most unusual, leading the researchers to conclude that “American participants are exceptional even within the unusual population of Westerners—outliers among outliers.”
Given the data, they concluded that social scientists could not possibly have picked a worse population from which to draw broad generalizations. Researchers had been doing the equivalent of studying penguins while believing that they were learning insights applicable to all birds.”
Of course WEIRD as an acronym for “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic” is also genius. Those things are weird, and all highly anomalous in the context of human history and evolution.
I’ve not been to South America or Africa, but otherwise I’ve travelled quite a lot. I’ve lived and worked for extended periods in various nations in Europe (north and south, from Norway to Italy) and Asia, particularly China and Japan. Not just urban Asia either, but also places where they’d never seen a flush toilet and I had newspaper in the windows instead of glass. For any Westerner in Asia there’s an undeniable Alice Through the Looking Glass twist to things you might previously have thought you understood, even things as mundane as handkerchiefs, baths or vending machines. Even so I still maintain that the USA is the weirdest, most alienating place I’ve ever visited, with the most bizarre, irrational populace and societal norms I’ve ever encountered, regardless of how decent certain individuals within that culture can be. I found it a genuinely foreign place, with little sign of the “special relationship” our two countries supposedly have. If Japanese people are weird, then I must be weird too because I fit right in. Asia is Through the Looking Glass; the USA is 1984.
I found everyday life in the latter place quite terrifying, stressful and depressing– by which I mean the things that people put up with, the way they tend to treat each other, the gulf that exists between their conception of themselves as the melting pot and land of opportunity versus the reality of a country whose culture seems to deliberately, cynically set each person against their fellow man and woman, and the general underlying buzz of a Puritanism that overtly sanctions all manner of violence and vindictiveness, yet quails at the suggestion of everyday bodily functions or normal affection between consenting adults. Extrapolating universal truths about humans from such a place is absolutely insane. Stuck up Brits, sexy Frenchies, lefty Canadians, crazy Japs, brown fanatics from some vaguely defined whatever part of the world between Europe and Asia: actually we’re all normal in our own way, and more “normal”/normative as a whole than the US-centric lenses we’re usually seen through.
I wouldn’t want to be cut off from American culture or the ideas and products of its people any more than I’d want to be cut off from any other culture or people in the world. Although it may not seem like it a lot of the time, we are living in a fairly utopian period of human history. There’s absolutely no call for complacency or smugness because we all know some parts of the world are totally hellish ongoing human disasters, but more people in the world are more free from hunger, violence, poverty and oppression than they have ever been. It’s important for everyone– especially Americans– to remember that this utopia is a fragile, ever-expanding thing that somehow mostly stays together without any need for us all to be the same. It’s not a melting pot. It could definitely get better, but it could also get much worse. In categorising the rest of us, judging us by their standards and exporting their culture to us it is Americans who are the atypical ones. But then everyone in the world except people in the USA knew that already.
Read the full article: