Thursday, May 17, 2007

Race to the Bottom

In The Rebel Sell, Heath and Potter heap scorn on Michael Moore's contention that gun control laws alone will not solve America's mass-killings problem. Instead they assert that a simple change in the rules rather than a cultural transformation will do the trick.

Yet I'm not at all sure that the role of culture in collective behaviours can be that easily dismissed. I've seen plenty of circumstantial evidence that certain types of individual personality types − and indeed some cultures − are more prone to engage in collectively self-defeating activities (such as private gun ownership) than others.

Take the question I have been asked many times recently. What is the cause of the escalating violence in Guatemala? When it comes to "root causes" the usual suspects are very much in evidence, poverty, inequality etc. And there's the much-mentioned, still-looming spectre of the thirty-year civil war. Yet it's hard to cook up a complete explanation using these standard ingredients. There must be cultural sauce that needs to be added at the end.

If there is a race to the bottom being held somewhere, Guatemalans are liable to sign-up to take part. The urge to distrust is a seemingly unavoidable part of chapin culture. Few would recognise the sort of situation where your centrally-casted Englishman would pause to give someone the benefit of the doubt, even if that involves unilaterally dropping his natural defences against exploitation.

Taken in the aggregate Brits and Guatemalans are rather obviously running alternative versions of John Locke's social contract software in their heads, regardless of the basic rules, which in some cases (such as how to respond to each of the three colours on traffic lights) are essentially the same everywhere. It would be a serious mistake I feel, to presume that the relationship between culture and institutions can be characterised by an unfluctuating directionality.

So when Michael Moore talks of a "culture of fear" in the US, he may just be on to something. (I recently suggested that a similar trait might be part of the explanation for the exaggerated religious credulity in the US.)

Rationality is never a level playing field.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Moore goes to some lengths to point out that guns are everywhere in Canadian culture as well--with a comparatively miniscule death rate. (This is something that knee-jerk wingnuts fail to credit Moore with--wanting to think he's just railing against guns themselves.)