I have mentioned before that we can explain much of US culture in terms of the distinction between two modes of enculturation: independence training (IT) and dependence training (DT). These concepts were used by Chinese-American anthropologist Francis L K Hsu to help understand differences between his native Chinese culture and US culture. Briefly, Chinese enculturation fostered a willingness to value ties among people among people that included reciprocal rights and obligations, while in the US enculturation tends to stress the autonomy of individuals and their rights at the expense of the obligations. The result, in the US, is a relative lack of a value of social responsibility, at least beyond the nuclear family. It's hard, though, to pin down exactly why the US is like this, instead of like something else. And as in most areas of the human enterprise, there probably isn't one simple answer. So, some semi-random thoughts pulled from an email I wrote the other day in which I tried to get at the issue from several perspectives:
One reason the US has such strong IT compared to other cultures may be that we are still in our adolescent phase of becoming a society, we haven't figured out how to be mature in the world. We are, to paraphrase (I believe) Shakespeare, wanton children swatting at flies. Self-centered, complacent, even arrogant, in our willful ignorance. And fully, religiously, certain that our lack of social responsibility toward our fellow humans is natural, the way things should be. If this sounds a bit like the old national character studies of Benedict and others, ok, as long as we don't take it too far.
A little story, which I think I got from Pete Seeger (who in turn I believe got it from Woody Gurthrie): Way out in the lonely west somewhere, a farmer rests on his porch after a hard day's work. A lone rider approaches, and says "Is this your farm?" The farmer replies "Yes." Stranger: "Where'd you get it from?" Farmer: "From my father." Stranger: "Where'd he get it from?" Farmer: "He took it from some Indians." Stranger: "Well, I'm taking it from you."
We can trace some of this back to when the Europeans encountered "America" and began their ethnocentrism-driven regime of raping and pillaging. Often, in those earliest days, it literally was one person, or a tiny group, with little or no support, who wandered off into the wilderness. Other culture heroes: Andrew Jackson, killer and abuser of Native Americans; Teddy Roosevelt, advocate for clearing the land of indigenous peoples to make room for the "Germanic-speaking" bearers of civilization (Hitler approved of course). How much have we outgrown this middle-school playground mentality, really?
The rise of capitalism of course also feeds into our original Individualistic Narrative: the "self-made man," the wealthy person who cobbles together a fortune somehow without any help whatsoever from anyone on the planet. Capitalism has encouraged isolation, fragmentation, of workers and their families, and at the same time discouraged, often with violence, attempts by workers to reconstitute a social fabric. This is an important part of our national mythology. Think of one of our culture heroes, Ayn Rand, a vicious psychopath masquerading as a "philosopher" who happens to be the darling of the Tea Party movement.
And of course, over-population and crowding stress just further exacerbate the problem. A lethal concoction: IT and crowding stress, with few if any cultural mechanisms in place to lower the resulting pressure.
Something about IT that's important to remember is that it doesn't just apply to individual persons/organisms. It applies at whatever level is appropriate. It gives us corporations as "individual persons." It sets the US, as a corporate entity, against the UN, the World Court, the Geneva Conventions, etc. Because we are, still it seems, the adolescent bullies on the playground.