Friday, July 31, 2009

C'mon! Put down your dukes!

Fern in Tufa.
A friend asked recently if I thought Jews were on average more intelligent than other people. I said, “No, I don't think so. But I think they've developed cultural habits that help them adapt more easily to those areas of endeavour by which we commonly measure success. (I didn't specify theatre, film, writing, the communications industry, business, etc. because this friend would know what I was talking about.)

I felt a bit proud because I thought I'd invented a new sociological term: Cultural Habit. Turns out others have used it. A blog I Googled using that term spoke about Japanese noodle-slurping and Chinese sidewalk-spitting as cultural habits. I would think the whole matter might be somewhat deeper, as for instance the observation that Asian students will persist in a struggle with a thorny problem for about three times as long as the typical Western student. They are “rice cultures,” you see, used to working hard and long to produce a modest crop, these Asians. (I can't locate the book that makes this case right now; if you know what it is, please clue us all in in the Shout Box at the top left-hand corner of this blog. I think the title had “Outliers” in it.) Persistence and patience may be cultural habits passed down genetically, educationally, through unconscious modeling, religious training or a combination of all four.

My culture endowed me with some habits for which I'm grateful. I take no pleasure in weapons, uniforms, martial arts, or anything that smacks of physical combat. I consider that propensity to be a cultural habit, engrained through a combination of religious indoctrination, modeling, education and observation.

The flip-side of this habit is not so pretty; in my culture, confrontation is so stressful that virtually no one knows how to deal with it when it arises. The standard response to an insult, for instance, is withdrawal. What usually follows the conclusion of a disagreement is that the loser rages and sulks, privately, and avoids those on the other side. It's passive aggression. Congenitally shy of engaging in confrontation, we turn our backs on one another. I have known people in whom this cultural habit is so engrained that they have carried an unresolved grudge for decades without ever pursuing a reconciliation. The pettiness of some of these grudges confounds understanding.

According to psychologist Katherine Horney, passive aggression is “a strategy to alleviate anxiety (” But so is punching someone in the mouth when insulted. The problem with a passive-aggressive cultural habit is that it saps enormous energy from family and/or community relationships to the point where even one or a few people possessing this personality disorder can render a family or community dysfunctional.

Overt aggression is certainly a serious problem in any culture. It's not clear that a pacifist cultural habit that substitutes passive aggression for overt aggression is a step upward.

I may have a passive-aggressive personality disorder. I confess that I often fight with the temptation to avoid, withdraw, brood, stew when things don't go well, to undermine the winners in more subtle ways than “healthy” personalities do.

But I can't help it; it's a cultural habit. Isn't it? I sure hope so!

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