Quick post with some thoughts that have been on my mind the last couple of days.
Yesterday, on my lunchbreak, in Richmond, I stepped into a bookshop and browsed. I noticed a huge, fuck-off hardback book displayed prominently, with the title, The Righteous Mind, the "i" of the last word being someone's middle finger in the gesture known, appropriately, as "the finger". It was the subtitle that caught my attention: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. This is a subject that interests me very deeply, for many reasons, perhaps largely because I exist in a 'liberal' socio-economic group, but increasingly find myself alienated from liberalism. I have also long felt the chime in my heart of the words from indie-pop group Hefner, "I used to think it was your politics, not the way you treat people, that tells you who you are. I was wrong."
I picked up the book. I read from the beginning and the middle. By my standards, it was an expensive book (£20), but I bought it anyway. The author's contention, from the little I have read, seems to be that Western (or WEIRD) people, live by an ethic of autonomy (you can do what you like as long as it hurts no one), but others in the world also have the ethics of community and divinity. All this struck a chord with me, or a meaningful dischord, and for various reasons.
For as long as I can remember, I have held that individualism is the ultimate value. However, I have also felt that I have a strong empathy with non-Western cultures. Reading The Righteous Mind reminded me, in fact, how Western I am. Essentially Western, or am I just brainwashed?... I dunno. Anyway, my take on individualism goes a bit like this: I don't see that individualism has to be 'me first'. 'You' is an individual as much as 'me'. 'You and me' sounds good to me - positive and easy to relate to. On the other hand, group ethics always seems to me like 'us and them' - harder (for me) to relate to, and far less positive. "For the good of the group"? I am suspicious of this. It always seems to me that this means for the good of a few people at the top of the group, not for most of the individuals who make up the group.
But, am I just WEIRD? WEIRD, Jonathan Haidt, the author of The Righteous Mind tells us, is an acronym formulated by cultural psychologists Joe Heinrich, Steve Heine and Ara Norenzayan (or if not formulated by them, at least cited by them), which stands for "Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic". Let me see. Western? Certainly by birth, and I suspect, in many ways, by temperament. Educated? To a (bachelor) degree (in Japanese language and culture), yes. Industrialised? Well, born in a very industrialised society, yes, though in a slightly arcardian corner of it (Devon), and tending to think of myself as a 'country boy', though others may not recognise me as such. Rich? Er... Difficult one this. Definitely, by some standards, yes. By other standards, no. Let's see, by British standards, no. By Somalian standards, I suppose I must be pretty rich. Democratic? Hmmm. Another difficult one. I suppose I'd have to say I'm undecided on that score, but tend to agree that it's the worst form of government, apart from all the rest. So... fairly WEIRD.
Does this make me question my values? It does, rather. It also makes me recognise just how emphatically Western most of those values are. I have noticed, for instance, in some of my more recent stories, a new thematic streak emerging, that has not been calculated, and is probably a refinement of more generalised themes that were already present. The theme is something like a (not unequivocal) rejection of 'the mob', of 'hooray, free content!', of 'what's yours is mine and what's mine is mine, too', of privileged people appropriating a kind of victim mentality for themselves for the purposes of manipulation (the middle class Malcolm McLaren playing puppet-master to the working class Sex Pistols parallels the middle class Marx appropriating 'class struggle' as a means of propagating his own values). This is an uncalculated, instinctive rejection on my part. I didn't plan it; it has cropped up. I am interested to find out why, and what it really means to me.
Incidentally, on the train on my way to Richmond yesterday, I found myself interested in this story in the paper. A muslim girl witnessed her older sister murdered by her parents. In the article that I read, it was claimed that the parents considered the older sister "too Westernised". I'm sure there are bad things about being Western, but I'm also unconvinced that infanticide is wholly admirable.
Also incidentally, at the same bookshop, I bought a copy of Herman Hesse's The Glass Bead Game. The early pages feature a philosophical contrast between the valuing of 'anonymity' and the valuing of 'personality'. Hesse, in the book, is positing a future world in which the value of 'anonymity' has won out.
Are you confused about these issues? I am. This is one reason I hope to find the time to read The Righteous Mind, and reflect further.