fuzzy notepad

[blog] Something is wrong with American culture

Today, the Supreme Court ruled that the California law prohibiting the sale of violent video games to minors is unconstitutional, violating the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The idea here is that the government can’t prevent a group of people from being exposed to media they want to see; freedom of expression goes both ways.

Unless, of course, you are expressing boobs. For some reason, while any arbitrary level of cruelty and gore is Constitutionally protected, any level of human sexuality is not. Justice Breyer pointed this out:

But what sense does it make to forbid selling to a 13-year-old boy a magazine with an image of a nude woman, while protecting a sale to that 13­year-old of an interactive video game in which he actively, but virtually, binds and gags the woman, then tortures and kills her?

Of course, he’s actually arguing that both violence and sexuality should be off-limits to children. But the question is still a good one, underscoring the long-standing American conflict of loving violence while underscoring sexuality with shame. It need not be said, but I remind you that sexuality creates life, whereas violence destroys it. These are some funny priorities we have.

I know this has been said before. I’m not done yet.

I recently stumbled upon this blog post, written by some guy who learned Japanese and learned a lot about learning along the way. He points out something striking he noticed about Japanese culture:

When I first came to Japan, I hated how people wouldn’t take a stand. In the West, you’re taught that you have to have an opinion and it has to be a strong one, and if you don’t have strong opinions, you’re weak, stupid or both. In my first few weeks and months here, I was shocked at how often people simply wouldn’t take sides on an issue; they wouldn’t take a stand. They were neither apathetic nor passionate. They were simply…impartial.

…people in the West love to say ridiculous things like: “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything”; that used to mean something to me…now it feels more like a hollow, idiotic threat (“Oh, crap! I’d better hurry up stand for something!”).

His actual point here is about not micro-managing things you want to accomplish, because detailed plans for the future are virtually guaranteed to fall through, and you’re setting yourself up more for guilt than actual progress. A very good lesson to learn, and one I’m trying to ingrain in myself, but not what initially caught my eye.

The gem he missed is the comment on American culture, which I’d never quite noticed before. He’s right: American culture needs an opinion on everything. Every debate comes down to two sides, and you’d better pick one, and then you have to back it up because some caveman impulse makes us want to be right about things we’ve already decided on (however irrationally). The result is a political system that by its very nature can only be intensely polarized, often over nothing at all, and barely moves because it’s too busy arguing.

I’m happy to admit that there are some issues I care about and have significant interest in, but do not argue about because I can’t honestly decide what to think about them. I do my best to avoid artificial dichotomies with technical subjects as well: I want Firefox to do well, and Chrome and Opera drive me personally nuts, but they are still good browsers and I won’t slam them just for the sake of “winning”.

Maybe that’s the problem, here; American culture has an obsession with “winning”. You can’t “win” if you don’t take a side. Schools emphasize sports above all else, because in sports someone “wins” and someone loses. This continues on into adulthood, where insane amounts of money flow into the professional sports world, and there are entire casual systems like fantasy football built around comparing who “wins” more. In the worst cases, this becomes the “we’re number one” mentality where anyone who appears not to want America to “win” must be a devilrous outsider.

There’s nothing wrong with competing or the drive to succeed, of course, but we have fetishized the notion of winning. And along the way we’ve forgotten that you’re supposed to earn it. People get intensely defensive when exposed to real criticism; my best interpretation of this phenomenon is that they perceive criticism as a declaration of battle. “Winning” the argument over how good they are at something then becomes more important than actually being any good at it.

A lot of Internet arguments look similar from the outside: “winning” the argument is more important than finding a correct solution to a problem. This relates to the original idea of bikeshedding, which was that everyone feels qualified to comment on something simple and wants to provide input and demonstrate their utility. But everyone wants their input to be correct, too, and inane arguments emerge when that becomes a priority above all else.

My parents ranted constantly about how schools worry about self-esteem instead of performance. Was this true? Is it still? I don’t know. I do know that I encountered a number of people who failed a grade miserably by any stretch of the imagination, but graduated to the next or had their grades adjusted anyway. Because, what, the implications of failing are just too much to bear.

I remember a classmate from 11th grade English. This guy was the worst kind of obnoxious douchebag; he regularly harassed the little old lady of a teacher and basically anyone else, usually getting away with it. I caught a glance at a paper he’d written as it was handed back, once; it was just a hastily-scrawled paragraph saying he hadn’t done the assignment. The teacher took pity on the man and gave him a 40%. 40%, for doing absolutely nothing! What do you have to do to get 30%; key the teacher’s car?

A few weeks ago I bumbled upon a Wikipedia article about quiz show scandals in the 50s. The background was the most interesting:

Over the same period, the United States was engaged in a technology race with the Soviet Union, as a consequence of the Cold War. American military and political dominance was bolstered by the nation’s technologies that harnessed the power of the atom. This focus on technological superiority contributed to a national reverence of intelligence and knowledge.

It was against this backdrop that quiz shows became popular. Questions asked on these shows required substantial knowledge across a broad spectrum of topics. The spectacle of people achieving huge financial success through the exercise of brain power was riveting to a nation that revered intellectualism as well as wealth.

A national reverence of intelligence and knowledge? Wait, what?

The three-yearly OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report, which compares the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds in 70 countries around the world, ranked the United States 14th out of 34 OECD countries for reading skills, 17th for science and a below-average 25th for mathematics.

In Canada, 15-year-olds are more than one school year ahead of their US peers in math and more than half a school year ahead in reading and science…

The United States has also fallen behind in the percentage of 15-year-olds who are enrolled in school, ranking third from bottom of the OECD countries, above only Mexico and Turkey.

Only eight OECD countries have a lower high school graduation rate than the United States, and in college education, the United States slipped from second to 13th between 1995 and 2008 — not because US college graduation rates declined, but because they rose so much faster in other OECD countries.

What happened? I sure hope quiz show scandals didn’t destroy our pride in knowledge. Was it the end of the Cold War? Did we just never have pride in personal accomplishment in the first place, if we were already revering game shows?

We’re a whole country focused on fighting and winning—no matter how pointless the fight may be. This is legitimately scary, and I don’t know what to do about it.

For all I know, it’s not just an American thing, but I’m not really qualified to comment on anywhere else. I’d love to hear what residents of other countries think about their own culture, and especially what they think of American culture from the outside.

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(illus. by Rumwik)