Saturday, January 13, 2024

Examining Social Connectedness Abroad


Non-Western countries are known to be more collectivistic and group-oriented, especially when compared to Western countries like Great Britain and America. 

Lawrence Mead, my former professor and thesis supervisor at NYU, articulated this cultural difference in his 2019 book, Burdens of Freedom: Cultural Difference and American Power:

...Western culture is individualist, while non-Western cultures tend to be conformist. Westerners take action largely to fulfill personal goals and values, if necessary, changing the world to do so. In this sense, they live their lives from the inside out. In the non-West, by contrast, most people take their cues largely from without - from their immediate associates, higher authority, or tradition. They adjust to their environment much more than they seek to change it. They live their lives largely from the outside in. 

Professor Mead is easily the most valiant and intellectually honest professor that I ever had the honor of taking. He received an enormous amount of flack for his book, mostly by leftist academics who erroneously accused him of engaging in racist arguments. Mead, however, explicitly states in the book - which, I have to assume, many of his harshest critics did not read in full - that his thesis is a cultural one, having nothing to do with race. All this said, his distinctions between the West and the non-West are instructive. 

While Mead's book is clearly a full-throated defense of the Western individualist ethos, he does remark on some if its drawbacks:

...the West has a relatively weak sense of community. It does have a capacity for collective effort; a moralistic culture, in fact, generates stronger government than the non-West, including social programs for the needy... But the capacity is still limited... By becoming more open and individualized, the West has attained much greater wealth, power, and security, at the risk of greater isolation and meaninglessness for many people. 

The great Samuel Huntington, in his magnum opus, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, makes a similar argument when examining East Asian culture:

For East Asians, East Asian Success is particularly the result of the East Asian cultural stress on the collectivity rather than the individual. 'The more communitarian values and practices of the East Asians - the Japanese, Koreans, Taiwanese, Hong Kongers, and the Singaporeans - have proved to be clear assets in the catching up process,' argued Lee Kuan Yew.

While I of course think that individualism is an integral component of America's success, I think that, in large enough doses, it can prove fatal for a civilization. 

Charissa Cheong, in an article for Business Insider, remarks on some non-Western cultures who appear to be unscathed by the current loneliness epidemic. Various TikTokers, she notes, have been documenting the vibrant community life in their respective countries:

Posts about social life in the US's neighboring country of Mexico are particularly common. In May, a user who goes by Anna shared that in the US, she's noticed people often decline her requests to meet up because they already have plans with someone else. She compared this to her experience in Mexico, saying that she always felt welcome at social gatherings regardless of who else was attending: 'I could ask someone to hang out, and they'd be like, oh, I have my friend's friend's tutor's second cousin's wedding, but you can come if you want.'

It is about time that Westerners adopt this non-Western mentality of community and solidarity. It is, as I see it, the most potent remedy to today's plague of social atomization. 



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