American individualism

To an outside observer, American culture can appear to be sick with individualism: an extreme lack of compassion for others, or any sense of responsibility for them.

I find that the US political spectrum largely consists of the following two groups of people:
  • Those who believe that poverty in the US is caused primarily by that the people who endure it are biologically and culturally different in a deep-rooted way that cannot be helped in a trivial or reasonable manner.
  • Those who take it for granted that everyone is born equal, and so that poverty is artificially created and perpetuated. If only the poor received a trivial and very reasonable amount of help, all would be well.
The first group tend to be conservatives. The second group tend to be liberals. The two cannot see eye to eye because they disagree fundamentally on whether the cause of poverty is nature, or nurture.

With respect to this post, I do not want to make a claim as to whether the answer is either - though if you think the answer is obviously and exclusively nurture, I would advise you to think again.

Instead, I would like to call attention to that the whole nature vs. nurture debate does not even exist in countries that are culturally and biologically homogenous.

To the extent that the nature vs. nurture debate exists, and tends to be unresolvable, it is present in countries that imported a large population of someone from somewhere else, to do some menial job that the locals wouldn't; and now the descendants of imported people are underperforming. Prime examples of this are Africans in the US, and Turks in Germany.

In culturally and biologically homogenous countries, there are also people who are underperforming, but there is no tendency to discuss the reasons, because they're part of the in-group. Everyone is part of the same culture, same biological tribe, so people feel compassion and unity with others, no matter why they are the way they are.

But in the US, there's no cultural and biological homogeneity. And so far, no people on Earth have mastered the concept of treating all humans as part of their in-group, even if they are culturally and biologically their opposite.

It's not a trivial question. Should we? Should we treat as part of our in-group people who not only do not embody our values - but actively work against them? Despise them? Embody their opposite? If I value science and personal freedom, should I treat as part of my in-group a fundamentalist who wants schools to teach only from the Quran, and all women to be forced to wear burqas?

American individualism is a consequence of American cultural and biological diversity. When your neighbor looks different than you, and maintains values that not only differ from yours, but oppose them - you won't trust him. He isn't part of your in-group. When he falls on hard times, you will blame this on his being biologically and culturally different from you. And maybe part of that's true. Maybe his failures are related to that he is different.

It is natural that you will think twice before giving him the benefit of the doubt. And you will resent it if someone unilaterally decides to tax your income in his favor.

I'm not sure if the alternative - closed and homogenous societies - is necessarily better. A diverse community might decrease trust among its residents (because most people other than the self are not in the in-group), but a world of homogenous countries, while encouraging trust within country (in-group), may lead to xenophobia and nationalism towards other countries (out-group).

I'm not sure that's better. At least when there's mistrust on an individual level, peace can be kept through law. It's more challenging to keep the peace when there's mistrust between countries.


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