Wednesday, November 22, 2023

We’re going to need some rope,
pt. 3 

Hold on to your values there, Tex.

Conservatives are WEIRD, and so are liberals and progressives. WEIRD is an acronym for people who are Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic. This isn’t merely a lens through which we see the world. It’s a culture that has changed and shaped our brains.

The ability to read isn’t just a skill you learn but it affects the physiology of your brain, which in turn affects your perception of the world. If shown an image of symbols that are letters that make up a word, we can’t help but read it (which is something we don’t do with images, see “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” by Rene Magritte). It turns out WEIRD people think more individualistically than non-WEIRD people, who think more about themselves as part of a social network.

Try the “I am ____” quiz. Most people are a mix but on the extremes, an undergraduate student at Stanford University would only describe themselves as a single stand-alone unit; “I am a student, I am a man, I am a creative person, I am funny” versus a Masi tribesman from Kenya who would say “I am Noah’s son, I am Sara’s brother, I am a husband, I am a father”, and so on.

Curiously, people who are part of faith communities are more likely to see themselves as a node in a network, while secular WEIRD people tend to be more individualistic. Yet, how is it that American conservative religious people still appear more individualistic? Perhaps it’s because while they feel they belong to a community, it’s one they recognize and not a faceless institution of say a wider national democracy or legal system. It turns out, that more individualistic people are more likely to want to help friends and family but less inclined to want to contribute to a faceless larger society. You may have Christians willing to contribute to their local charity but less inclined to pay taxes that pay for hospitals or healthcare.

There are numerous other impacts to this. One is how we weigh “intent”. In different cultures, it was found that knowing someone’s intention affected others' moral decisions about that person. Knowing someone did something wrong purposefully or by accident, would affect your impression of them versus it having little impact on your impression. For instance, if you were out in public and you put your bag down and someone took it, would it matter to you if the bag was taken by mistake or if it was stolen? Either way, you’ve still lost your bag. One curious thought experiment asked if your friend had driven fast and carelessly and killed a child as a result, would you lie in court to protect your friend or tell the truth? Many WEIRD people would lie to protect their friends, but an outlier group was Canadians. 90% of Canadians said they would tell the truth in court rather than protect their friend. I guess that it is a little built into our national character. We have always been told that we are all from somewhere and we sort of get a kick out of celebrating our differences and diversity. Our leaders use terms like “community of communities” and compare our makeup to a mosaic or a quilt, whereas Americans expect newcomers to dissolve into the melting pot, a stew of homogeneity.

My fear is given how we in Canada are entirely inundated with American media, from music to films, but mostly television (or whatever streaming media we refer to as television today), that we will inevitably just see ourselves more and more the way they do. Fit in or get out. You can already see it from thoughtless anti-everything protests to the “othering” of any identifiable group: Muslims, Jews, immigrants of colour, the vaccinated, the unvaccinated, people with glasses who read books and think they are better than us. Who are those who seek to benefit from your fears and frustrations? Politicians? Which kind of politician feeds on fears and frustrations more than any other kind? Conservatives. They aren’t asking what it is to be our better selves. They ask, "Do you want to get even with those who think they are better than us?" I worry that while people like Alberta’s current premier may believe their own nonsense, I’m more disgusted by politicians like the leader of the federal Conservatives who more cynically only wants you to believe he agrees with you and ride that belief into power. In that way, he reminds me of Ted Cruz, who by his résumé and career accomplishments suggest an intelligent man who only acts like an idiot to convince other idiots that he’s their man. Again, we’re at a time when most of our entertainment is American, like a non-stop ad campaign for “the best damn country in the world”. That kind of exposure affects you. You start seeing yourself as belonging to the cultures you consume. It drowns you and if we are drowning in Americana then we’re going to need some rope.



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