My dear three-year old came home from Vacation Bible School eager to show me her activity poster (below). I read it, and complimented her work. Then as any good father would, I sat her down to explain the individualism of Western culture inherent in her poster activity! (Notice how everything focuses on her as an individual.)
- It’s all about _____!
- I am ___ 3 years old.
- I live in ____.
- This is me! (picture)
- My friends are _____.
- I want to be a ______ when I grow up.
- My favorite: color ____ , food _____ , book _____.
- My pet (picture)
In fairness, there is one group-oriented component, “This is my family: _______ .” But let’s imagine a Central Asian version of the same poster.
- I am the (birth order) child in my family.
- My father’s name is _____.
- My mother is from the family of ______.
- My paternal grandparents live in _____ .
- Our tribe is _____ .
- My favorite: paternal uncle ____ , second cousin _____ .
- My parents have betrothed me to _____ .
- My favorite household chore (picture).
OK, some of these are obviously tongue-n-cheek. But this poster was a reminder of how early we socialize children to view themselves individualistically in Western cultures, which are rather “shame–less.” That is to say, group dynamics (e.g., honor & shame) play little role in the formation of identity, as well as behavior, in this cultural paradigm.
Categories for Cultures People use various labels to compare global cultures. Unfortunately, the most popular terms–“West” vrs “East”–are rather misleading. They refer to geography, not culture. The terms “guilt-based” vrs. “shame-based” cultures can be more helpful. This refers to how social groups define morality and regulate behavior. But a more foundational set of labels for distilling global cultures is “individualistic” vrs. “collectivistic.” This set of terms refers to how human identity is constructed. Are humans by definition entities unto themselves, or beings embedded in community?
Individualistic cultures are the result of Enlightenment philosophy, where people are defined as autonomous individuals–“I think, therefore I am.” Western parenting trains children to “think for yourself,” “be true to yourself,” and “blaze your own trail.” Bowing to social pressure and blending in are rarely admired. Identity comes from individual distinction, not communal participation. All this leads to a guilt-innocence orientation towards morality.
Collectivistic cultures define people in relationship to the family. Because honor and shame are inherently public, such cultures are collectivistic. Members of shame-honor cultures are expected to maintain the status of the group, often at the expense of personal desires. The community is more important than the individual. (For specific examples, read “7 subcultures of shame in America.”) This leads to a shame-honor orientation towards morality. So back to the VBS posters…which one does a better job at making a 3-year old feel special? The individual one, or the (hypothetical) collective one? What honors people more–noting their individual uniqueness, or emphasizing their belonging in a community? Both approaches have the noble intention of honoring people, but I wonder if the overemphasis on celebrating people as individuals creates subtle undertones of shame, for it distinguishes them from the group and perhaps creates a sense of disconnectedness. Since then, I seek ways to communicate to my children both “You are special/unique!” and “We are a family!” The next post explores how these competing values of “individualism” and “collectivism” played out in last month’s tragedy at Charlie Hebdo.