Our Individualistic West

Almost a decade ago, I attended a counterterrorism conference paneled by several academic experts on Islamic terrorism. During the host’s introductory remarks, he made what he thought was an uncontroversial comment: that those raised in predominantly Muslim, non-Western cultures think differently and see the world differently than those in the West. “Excuse me!” one of the experts interrupted, obviously offended. “That is simply not true,” this Arab professor declared, and proceeded to explain how such Western prejudicial ways of perceiving the Muslim world had fanned the flames of Islamic extremism.

The over-simplifications in the host’s observation notwithstanding, there are significant, well-documented differences between Western and non-Western cultures. This premise underlies NYU professor Lawrence M. Mead’s recently published Burdens of Freedom: Cultural Difference and American Power, which examines the effects of these dissimilarities on American policy. “The great divide,” notes the book’s jacket cover, “is between the individualist West, for which life is a project, and the rest of the world, in which most people seek to survive rather than achieve.”

Mead’s work covers much ground, but one of the more interesting, if also contentious, topics it addresses is the intersection of cultural difference and immigration. For if there truly are fundamental divergences between members of Western and non-Western cultures, than welcoming large numbers of non-Westerners into the United States could pose a threat to our political and social stability. Yet even to contemplate such a thesis elicits charges of bigotry, as detractors sniff out the ever-present odor of racism.

Considered in a different light, perhaps it’s liberal, open-border immigration policies that are bigoted towards non-Western cultures. If differences between the West and the rest are legitimate, then papering over them, or labeling them negligible or non-existent, shows a flippant disregard for other cultures. Woodrow Wilson’s claim that “America lives in the heart of every man everywhere who wishes to…be free to work out his destiny as he chooses” would be not a paean to diversity, but an imposition of American ideals upon the unwilling. To assert, as so many open-door proponents do, that immigrants can assume the character of native-born Americans as easily as trying on a new shirt and jacket might represent the height of cultural prejudice.

Mead offers three examples of cultural differences between the West and other cultures: (1) individualism versus collectivism; (2) moralism versus situational ethics; and (3) theory versus experience. (It should also be noted that these distinctions are to be understood generally rather than universally. Of course there are exceptions. Indeed, a significant percentage of the elite in non-Western societies are either educated in the West or Western-style institutions. Many also exhibit Western traits in their thinking and lifestyles.)

By individualism, Mead means the “idea that people can and should guide their own lives” and “pursue goals and values that they themselves have chosen.” Westerners “typically see themselves as willing and able to act autonomously” and have a strong sense of agency. Mead cites social psychologist Richard Nisbett, who in his comparison between Western and non-Western cultures found East Asians to be more influenced by social pressures. Observed Nisbett, “for Easterners, action is something that is undertaken in concert with others or that is a consequence of the self operating in a field of forces.” Easterners, much more than Westerners, “follow outside direction — whether from tradition, from the society around them, or from public authorities.” While Western languages attribute events to individuals, Eastern languages apply a passive voice, perceiving events happening to individuals.

Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede, after surveying IBM personnel in 66 countries during the late 1960s and early 1970s, found individualism to be highest in employees in Britain, the United States, and Canada, followed by other European countries, Latin America, and lastly Asia. Hofstede also found high levels of assertiveness and tolerance of uncertainty in Westerners, as well as stronger aversions to hierarchy. Non-Westerners in turn were “less assertive, more hierarchical, and more afraid of uncertainty.” Other research in the business realm and political scientist Ronald Inglehart’s World Values Surveys corroborates this.

Moralism also distinguishes West from East. Relying on the work of such academics as F.S.C. Northrop, Mead means that in evaluating moral decisions, Westerners consult principles internalized early in their lives, principles they interpret to be universal and timeless. This process allows them to make ethical judgments based on their own authority, without recourse to external society. It also means people are held individually responsible for their decisions, and that they can be persuaded to choose the right. The “psychic sanction” driving good behavior is guilt, “the sense that one has violated some universal moral norm.”

Non-Western cultures, in contrast, make moral judgements based primarily on social context. Right and wrong are derived from the expectations of one’s immediate associates—such as family, neighbors, and coworkers. In this paradigm where morality is externalized, there is less of a sense of freedom and responsibility, and more choosing based on situational factors. Shame, rather than guilt, is the psychic sanction for good behavior, and people are pushed to choose the right less out of persuasion than on command.

Finally, Western culture is defined by theory, or abstract thinking. Typically for Westerners, what constitutes truth and reality is theoretical, and does not need to be experienced directly. Sense-experience is “only an instance of something universal.” This focus on the abstract—dating back to Plato’s “forms” and Aristotelian logic—was critical to the development of the scientific method, as well as Western political philosophy, which seeks to “reconcile the individual with political order.”

Non-Western cultures, alternatively, are more empirical and less theoretical. What is “real” is what is tangible and practical, and the intellect’s ability to accurately understand reality is suspect. “In Asia,” notes Mead, “the world is seen as endlessly complex, beyond human comprehension. Objects and people are not distinct from one another but, rather, related by myriad ties. Individuals are not distinct from society but bound to it by many duties.” Thus, rather than seeking mastery through reason, the East “seeks harmony through sensibility.”

It is not difficult to appreciate the impact of these paradigmatic dissimilarities on political and social life. Western individualism, which begins with freedom and ends with obligation, tends to focus on long-term goals. Eastern collectivism, which begins with obligation and ends with freedom, tends to focus on the immediate endurance of just “getting by.” Western moralism promotes caring for the vulnerable, defending liberty against oppression, and insisting on fairness over favoritism. Eastern situational ethics focuses on hierarchy, promoting loyalty, safeguarding authority against subversion, and protecting the sacred.

America, for better and for worse, is the nation it is because it manifests the Western principles of individualism, moralism, and abstract thinking. This isn’t necessarily to assert American superiority over non-Western societies. Indeed, while these traits have done much good for our nation, they have also caused much grief. America, to its credit, has promoted democratic principles, civic responsibility, and positive technological developments both at home and abroad. To its shame, its current socio-political distemper, as many other commentators have observed, stems from a radicalization of Western individualism that’s left us increasingly isolated and atomized. Nor does this suggest that non-Western cultures are incapable of becoming more “Western.” Technological and political developments in the Middle East, for example, are increasing individualism among Arab populations.

Nevertheless, if there is a tangible chasm between America and non-Western cultures, then an immigration policy that welcomes and attempts to assimilate large numbers of non-Westerners (about one million per year) is a threat to national cohesion. At present, our nation has more immigrants than any other country in the world: more than 40 million people living in the U.S. were born in another country. As Mead notes, though first-generation immigrants, driven by their ambitions for a better life, often achieve success in America, their children frequently do not.

“Latinos are the most pronounced exception to the absorptive capacity of the American social structure,” argues sociologist Morris Janowitz. During the relative economic prosperity between 1990 and 2004, the number of Latinos in poverty rose by 52 percent. While some Asian Americans (e.g. Indians, Filipinos) have household incomes above the national average, this is not the case for other Asian demographics. Muslim Americans—most of them predominantly from Asia and Africa—also have poverty levels above the national average. A significant percentage of second- and third-generation Latin-American and Asian immigrants are simply not assimilating and assuming what Mead calls the “burdens of freedom” necessary to be productive contributors to American society.

Millions of recent non-Western immigrants, though they’ve created a diverse and interesting American fabric, lack to varying degrees the qualities necessary for participation in an individualist Western society. To think these immigrants in a few short years can shed cultural traits developed over centuries is the height of hubris. This is compounded by a destructive irony: advocates of multiculturalism, while promoting vive la difference, downplay distinctions when it comes to assimilation, and then applaud immigrants who censure American history and culture. To preserve an authentically American civitas requires not this dangerous doublespeak, but recognizing and appreciating cultural differences, as well as the limits of assimilation.

Casey Chalk covers religion and other issues for The American Conservative and is a senior writer for Crisis Magazine. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia, and a masters in theology from Christendom College.

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