Friday, June 13, 2014

Culturally-induced psychosis

President Obama held a Q&A session Tumblr yesterday (June 10).  At some point questions about the seemingly never-ending series of school and other shootings we have been experiencing - about one a week - came up.

As reported on WUSA, the President responded with the following:
"We're the only developed country on Earth where this happens.... And it happens now once a week.  And it's a one-day story. There's no place else like this."
Casting about for ways to understand the problem, President Obama said:
"the United States does not have a monopoly on crazy people."
Right.  We are not the only nation with crazy people mixed into the population.  We are however, to a large extent, the only (or at least one of very few) nations that actively socializes and enculturates our people into craziness.  Or rather, into the kind of behavior that can all too easily slide into what we are seeing now, something I am calling culturally-induced psychosis.

All human cultures need to produce people who are both autonomous, independent agents and also willing to participate in networks of obligations and rights that tie them to others in the culture.  So, there must be independence training (IT), which turns out individuals, and dependence training (DT), which creates group members. One of the important ways that cultures vary is in the degree of emphasis they place on these two let's call them modes of enculturation. As anthropologist Francis Hsu noted back in the 1950s, one major difference between traditional Chinese culture and traditional US culture was precisely this emphasis: China emphasized DT; the US emphasized IT.

Let's be clear that both IT and DT are required for a culture to run smoothly. Too much emphasis on DT and you might get a society of people unwilling or unable to take risks, unable to make decisions for themselves, and so on. But too much emphasis on IT and you might get, well...  the USA.

Put briefly, too much IT gets you people who are unwilling to acknowledge the reciprocal rights and responsibilities that bind members of a healthy society together. And with that, you get people who are capable of carrying the extreme social irresponsibility of murder.

Anthropologist Walter Goldschmidt, in the 60s, wrote that we can judge a culture without being ethnocentric. We can base our judgement on how good a job the culture does of satisfying the physical and psychological needs of its adherents. One of Goldschmidt's criteria had to do with whether or not the culture discouraged crime and violence.  On this and other criteria, our culture is failing.


  1. This is precisely why the four-field approach of American Anthropology needs to be taught *as a required course* in High School. Students need to learn about other cultures in order to begin to understand their own.

    Violence is but one symptom of Independence Training (IT).
    Selfishness and greed now dominate the American economic political system generating astonishing social inequities.

    As the United States spirals downward for the 99% of us, we have likely passed the "tipping point" for reversing this trend. Think of this phenomenon as the cultural equivalent of Global Warming. Most people are completely unaware that Americans enjoy violence in its "proper" context, in sports, in film, in foreign policy, in military spending, in our criminal justice system, et cetera. Americans accept this phenomenon as "normal" not pathological, not psychotic. Moreover the Americans not distracted by sports, apparently accept the social equities as well. With the destruction of collective action in the form of unions etc, American citizens have been divided and conquered by the 1%.

    We are all doomed- well at the least the 99%.

  2. Well stated, Ron. And, having had lunch with Walter Goldschmidt about a week before he passed away a few years ago, I think I can safely say that he would have agreed with you, and your use of what he wrote in the '60s.


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