Is America becoming less WEIRD?
The traits that make the West unique are in retreat
A writer is widely denounced because passages in her novel cause offence; everyone accepts that she didn’t intend to offend, but she was wrong to write the offending words nonetheless. The book is pulped and re-edited before re-publication.
A famous figure is condemned because his ancestors were involved in slavery. The man’s name may be removed from an august institution because of the link. He personally had near-impeccable political beliefs and took no part in the trade, which had been abolished by the time of his maturity.
A university advertises a well-paid and prestigious new position, declaring that people need only apply if they have a particular ancestry.
In a leading newspaper, a woman argues that financial rewards be paid for members of her ethnic group, for past injuries experienced by distant forebears. The costs would be paid for by members of other races, whose ancestors are to be judged responsible for those injuries (even if many of them weren’t even on the same continent at the time, and were indeed suffering persecution themselves).
A prominent couple tell the world they’re in a polyamorous relationship, in which both parties have access to multiple sexual partners.
A young man commits an act of random violence against strangers, and blames his misery on the fact that women are being monopolised by a few alpha males.
A leading politician, alleged to have been previously married to a family member, directs campaign funds to her current husband’s business. The behaviour draws little comment, except from ideologically hostile sections of the media.
If these scenarios seem familiar, it’s because they’re all based on real recent events, all of them news stories that gather disproportionate amount of attention because they can be framed as part of the culture war. All took place in the English-speaking world.
As well as being part of the mood music of identity conflict, they also all illustrate a huge and little commented-on cultural change in the West — which is that, as Razib Khan has pointed out, American institutions are becoming less WEIRD. America is becoming less WEIRD. And so the West as a whole is becoming less WEIRD.
WEIRD — western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic — refers to a cluster of personality traits we have come to assume as default but which are, in fact, very unusual. It is the subject of Joseph Henrich’s The Weirdest People in the World, a brilliant, epic work that explains why westerners look at things differently to people in most cultures. Our way of thinking is relatively unusual, and it’s all the legacy of the Catholic Church and its long-standing ban on cousin marriage. Yet perhaps the change in behaviour outlined in Henrich’s book — towards individualism and trust towards strangers — is now in retreat.