Me versus We
Off the beaten track — part VII
It has been a few months since my last discussion on culture. To recap, the difficulty I have with discussing culture is the inability of people to describe it. As Kroeber said “Despite a century of efforts to define culture adequately, there is no agreement among anthropologists regarding its nature.”
Margaret Mead wisely noted that “Language is a discipline of cultural behaviour” and that’s our open door because any model cannot be complete and true within itself (Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem). In other words, if language is part of culture then you’ll never going to be able describe it within the bounds of language itself.
It was this thinking that led me to mapping culture and the previous “Off the beaten track” posts.
Now since then, I’ve started slowly using these culture maps. As you would expect, a couple of things have therefore changed. All maps are imperfect representations of a space and it’s through use and exploration that we develop more “useful” maps. No surprises there.
The first major change were the anchors of the “many” and the “few”. These always caused a lot of debate, they seemed highly political and created difficulty in terms of people identified with one or the other but in reality they had a bit of both. A simple solution was to change the terms to “We” and “Me”. The other change was to note that behaviour was not a single thing but a pipeline of evolving components. Hence with this in mind, I bring you the new and improved culture map — until, of course, we find a better one.
Figure 1 — New and Improved Culture Map
We and Me
The “We” and “Me” anchors enable me to describe how we have elements of self interest and elements of collective interest. In terms of “We” then this is normally described through the “collective” and its control over our lives. This in turn is connected to our sense of belonging (otherwise we reject the control) and the success of the collective including the behaviours of the collective.
In terms of “Me” then that seems to be connected to the individual and expressed through our agency (i.e. our control over the environment around us), the structures that we exist within and our behaviour. This “We” and “Me”, I’ve tried to highlight in figure 2.
Figure 2— “We” and “Me”
This distinction felt more appropriate, more meaningful. As with all maps, you cannot prove the space (it will change anyway with time) but instead we can measure how useful it is in aiding our understanding of the space. And then came along COVID-19.
This debate and distinction of “We” versus “Me” seems to be playing out at a national level in particular with responses to COVID-19. In China, a more Confucian culture with a stronger emphasis on “We” then the state has imposed that control, has emphasised that collective “belonging” in the battle against the virus and individuals have reacted to modify their behaviour. There has been a strong emphasis on the value of individuals over the economy (people over market) and as with any collective, its future success in competition with others will become embedded in memory. In other words, China could emerge as the new world leader if it is seen as more successful in combating the pandemic. Furthermore, if this is true, then the idea that China values people over markets (or more crudely — people over profit) and that such a value should be more universally accepted could well become embedded in the memory of everyone.
In contrast with the US, there is a slightly different picture. In the past US politicians have talked about “togetherness” but what is meant by “together” is not uniform. For some, together describes more of a collection of individual responsibilities i.e. the market of many Me’s where the overall effect is caused through aggregation. For others, “together” describes a collective responsibility i.e. “We” as a group needs to achieve something. This same sort of distinction appeared when I was investigating Brexit — when people talk about “together”, some mean a collective “We” whilst others mean a market of “Me”.
The US approach under Trump seems to be more market driven, more individual, more concerned about the rights of “Me” and the market of “Me” whilst describing this as facing the challenge together. There is real emphasis on the value of “the market” over “the people”, with ideas from how the old (normally meaning other “old” people and not the respondent or their family) should sacrifice themselves to save the market
or how the market will solve the problem and that we must protect the market and individual’s rights. There’s even discussion in some quarters whether the “collective” cures (lockdown, isolation, Government intervention) are worse than the disease itself and hence it should be left to the market and voluntary groups despite individualistic behaviours such as hoarding. As I said, it’s not uniform, there is a clear schism with US political circles.
I’m also not saying it’s the morally right or wrong choice though I have strong views on this. That said, how well the approach works (i.e. its success) will influence the standing of the collective (i.e. the US itself) and its values. If the approach succeeds then the standing of the US will rise and this value of “market over people” will become twinned with success and embedded in the memory of everyone. If, however, the US fails to manage COVID-19 then its standing against China could fall and this value of market over people will become embedded as a failure in the memory of everyone.
The latter leads to darker paths unfortunately. From the map above, a collective’s success requires its value to diffuse and become accepted. There are many enablement systems in this process, one of which is propaganda. If this map is a reflection of reality then it is likely that if the US is failing then we will see increasing and more aggressive use of terms like “China virus”, “Wuhan virus” and other attempts to deflect the cause of failure rather than admission that the collective’s value was wrong.
There is also a longer term implication, assuming that COVID-19 isn’t over by Easter or three months but more like 18 months and this change is to do with behaviours becoming embedded and a new isolation economy forming. However, for the time being, I’m interested in this distinction of “We” and “Me” and so we will leave other effects until later.
Thoughts and comments welcome, references to papers on the subject — particularly those that can help me improve the map. I suspect once we get through the pandemic, there will be a lot of discussion and reflection on this topic of “We” versus “Me”.