Monday, June 5, 2017

Senator Ben Sasse does not understand human nature

I finally got around to viewing Bill Maher's most recent edition of Real Time, in which he used the "N-word" while talking with Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE).  I think the reaction has been overblown but maybe more about that another time.

More interesting to me was Sasse's discussion of his new book The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance.  The bottom line appears to be that Sasse thinks Americans don't stop being children as they move into their adult years; we need to grow up, and become "independent" instead of remaining "dependent" as is expected of children and teens.

Sasse has fallen into the conceptual trap of the US Folk Model, which holds that people should strive to be hyper-individuals, independent of all obligations to the social group, dependent on only themselves and their ability to become "self-made" women and men.  US culture reproduces this folk model though a mode of enculturation called Independence Training (IT)*.

IT begins the day we are born: babies are encouraged (or forced) to sleep alone; play alone ("entertain themselves"); wean themselves from mothers' breastmilk as early as possible.  We even think it's a good thing that they learn to "cry themselves to sleep."  As we grow and pass through school, college, and on into the workforce, IT is continuously reinforced on us.  We are admonished to value doing "our own work" over cooperative work, we take innumerable tests that rank us top to bottom; we even take "IQ" tests that rank us by "intelligence"; we play games in which there is a single "most valuable player" even in team sports, and so on.

As Hsu pointed out, this is not the only possible human model.  In some cultures, such as traditional China, Dependence Training is valued over IT.  People in these cultures seem to understand that humans are social animals, living in social groups, and that functioning social groups require members who are willing to be to some extent dependent on the group.  Otherwise, you don't have a social group, you have an aggregation of organisms each working against all others.  Of course, there has to be some IT, even in DT-heavy societies, because people do need to grow up and learn to make decisions, and act on them.

What we lose sight of in America is that an IT-heavy society that degrades the idea of dependence is going to be dysfunctional.  Our IT goes so far as to deny us national health care, deny us debt-free education, even deny workers the right to form and join unions for the betterment of their lives as workers.

Extreme IT creates social monsters like Sen. Sasse.

* Chinese-American anthropologist Francis K. Hsu wrote about this years ago, see especially his 1953 book Americans and Chinese: Passage to Differences.


  1. Good post, lots to comment on but just a couple. I used inter-dependent not dependent when I teach this because of the negative connotation of dependent. I was also wondering if linguists have tacked how the use of the word "terror" as in terror attack evokes the collective (almost like they are a communist), versus the individualism evoked when describing the Portland stabber being mentally ill. Also I am never sure how those like Sasse really believe what they are saying and are essentially just selling American culture back to Americans for money or power like CBS (Blue Bloods) shamelessly.

  2. Also Meredith Small is a good source on American hyper-individualism.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Duck 152!

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