Geopolitics and Culture: What is Driving the Power Games?
Author: Fernando Lanzer
Geopolitics are all about nations trying to impose their world views and values upon others, in the firm belief that this will ensure their own survival in the short term and sustainability in the long term. In order to understand the playing field, we must come to know what the underlying values of the relevant global players are, how they affect the way the power games are played and how that all this affects us, the pawns in the planetary chess game. This paper will propose a values framework that might shed some light on what is driving the relevant players’ behavior and what can be expected to happen in the near future.
Yuval Noah Harari (1) tells us that what differentiates humans from other species of animals is that our brains give us the ability to tell complex stories that people believe in, leading them to collaborate in large numbers. In other words: human groups (teams, tribes, organizations, nations, etc.) form different cultures around core values that shape the behaviors of group members (2).
These core values, identified through research as value dimensions by Hofstede (3) are combined to form what Wursten (4) has described as Mental Images, or different styles of culture, as I have said (5).
Such culture styles can be used as a reference when trying to understand geopolitics. Most political and economic analysts will wax lyrically about how the economic interests of nations drive international relations and politics. Some will describe ideological conflicts between nations, in terms of religion (Catholics versus Protestants; Muslims versus Christians, etc.), economic regime (Capitalist versus Socialist) or political regimes (Monarchists versus Republicans). Few consider the core values of culture as a key part of the equation; even fewer have used Wursten’s Mental Images as a reference for their analysis.
This paper contends that if what differentiates humans is their ability to tell stories describing their values, then it is only logical that any analysis about geopolitics should regard culture as not only an important factor, but actually as THE most important factor for understanding any nation’s international actions.
In fact, the cultural worldview of a nation affects their foreign policy and how the press of that nation reports on international relations. Failure to understand this has led to the resurgence of wars and to the rise of far-right political movements in many countries.
There are always economic interests behind geopolitics; but these interests are translated into leadership behaviors according to the different culture values guiding respective political leaders. Different cultures breed different international stances. Contest cultures tend to confront and move to armed conflict; Network cultures tend to seek international consensus; Solar System cultures strive for diplomacy and power games while avoiding open conflict; and so on.
Contest cultures as playmakers
The past two hundred years of global history have been dominated by the actions of the British Empire as a dominant force, followed by one of its former colonies, the United States of America, a modern Empire in its own right. Both have been described by Wursten as Contest Cultures and form the core of what I have referred to as the British-American Cultural Commonwealth that includes Australia and Canada (all Contest Cultures).
Contest Cultures, by definition, have as their core worldview the notion that life is an eternal competition with winners and losers, where typically two opposing forces clash, hopefully to create a positive outcome. Confrontations are the default manner of addressing issues, whether they regard characters in romantic comedies, dramas or thrillers on TV; or whether they refer to international relations and geopolitics.
This worldview forms a cultural lens through which international relations are perceived. It has underpinned foreign policy in the UK and in the US for centuries; it sits at the core of the American “Monroe Doctrine” (“as long as America’s contenders for world dominance are busy fighting with each other, they will not pose a threat to America itself”).
It also fosters a “are you with us or against us” mindset, in which political non-alignment has no place. Nations are basically divided into categories: allies and enemies. The consequence is a tendency to confront, divide and go to war. Diplomacy is not a first resort; it may not be the last resort, but it tends to be pushed aside while confrontation remains at the forefront.
Sadly, this constant confrontation mentality favors war, not peace; it creates tensions that might be avoided; it invents enemies when nations are simply trying to avoid involvement in conflict. It goes beyond accepting conflict; it entails seeking conflict as the preferred way to handle international relations. It benefits the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned the world about in his closing address as he handed over the American presidency to the young president-elect John F. Kennedy. (6)
It is no wonder that America has the highest military budget in the world and that it is the country that has more often gone to war in the past 100 years; its cultural outlook sees conflict everywhere, and its core values foster confronting such perceived conflicts, whether real or imagined.
The American Press (and also the British) reverberates and amplifies this outlook. In the global Age of Misinformation, happenings around the world tend to be described by Anglo-American media as the eternal competition/confrontation conundrum fostered by their core values. Facts are secondary; the priority is to confirm the cultural values in which the media is embedded.
This phenomenon, of course, is not restricted to Contest Cultures. All cultures tend to describe reality as a confirmation of their core values; and the media plays a key role in mirroring and amplifying culture values in every culture.
The challenge for other cultures is to deal with a Contest cultures that are economically and militarily dominant. How do you deal with a guy who is sitting on a pile of nuclear weapons and looking for a fight?
Ukraine, Gaza, and other playgrounds
The Contest culture mentality makes it more difficult to negotiate, compromise, or seek consensus. The wars currently raging in Ukraine and Gaza are prime examples, since they are actually proxy wars with significant involvement of the United States. The American Purpose magazine has just headlined an article by Robert Satloff and Dennis Ross on December 1, 2023, titled “Ending the War”, arguing that “Hamas’ surrender would break the binary choice between conflict and ceasefire.”(7) This illustrates two aspects of Contest Culture mentality: (a) the world is perceived as made of binary choices, with no room for nuances or more than two options; and (b) in a conflict there must always be a winner and a loser. Therefore, the way to end the war in Gaza is through the surrender of Hamas. Hardly a point of view to be supported by diplomats. This is equivalent to saying “sure, I can stop fighting… as soon as I beat the other guy, or as soon as the other guy admits defeat!”
The war in Ukraine offers many similar examples, and also illustrates still another aspect of Contest Culture mentality: the valuing of performance over caring. Both in Ukraine and in Gaza there have been hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of innocent civilians killed, hurt or displaced as a consequence of war. These victims have been consistently referred to as “collateral damage” by Contest Culture spokespersons and by its media.
When Ukraine started a counter-offensive against Russian positions during the Summer of 2023, there were some significant dissenting opinions between Ukrainian military commanders and the Americans who were technically merely “advising” them. Basically, the Americans insisted that the counter-offensive should aim at re-claiming Crimea (taken by the Russians in 2014), even though this would have greater casualties among the Ukrainian forces as a consequence. To the American strategists such casualties should again be regarded as collateral damage in the pursuit of a military victory. The Ukrainians (a Social Pyramid Culture that values caring for others and quality of life, more than it values performance) rejected the idea and opted instead for pushing towards the Eastern front.
True to the Monroe Doctrine, the American leaders can see Europe entangled in a war between Russia and Ukraine. They stoke the war, including the use of propaganda broadcast by Anglo-American media such as CNN, BBC and The Economist (plus practically every lesser-known outlet in the US/UK) while remaining out of it. They encourage confrontation and conflict, while saving their own resources. And they sell more energy to Europe, while Russian suppliers are sanctioned.
Before the war in Ukraine, the European Union (led by Well-oiled Machine Culture Germany and Solar System Culture France) was seeking a pragmatic policy with Russia, strengthening commercial ties and gradually consolidating a peaceful coexistence. This was perceived by Contest Culture America as a potential threat in the medium to long term; the idea of constantly confronting an enemy has been at the heart of the American mindset for centuries. When there is not a clear enemy, this mindset calls for creating one: the Soviet Union, Russia, North Korea, or China. During the Trump administration, even Europe was quoted a few times as an enemy. After all, “if you are not with us, you are against us!”
In the Biden administration the Contest mindset continues, of course. Political parties do not act in a way that would be inconsistent with core culture values. So, the enemy of the month is sometimes Russia, sometimes China… and it could be Europe again if the European Union does not align fully with American postures.
Some nations have tried to declare themselves “non-aligned” when the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union was in full scale. India and Brazil were examples and continue to be as we move into 2024. This posture attempts to negate the “with us or against us” stance. However, it is basically not accepted by the US and by the UK, because it does not fit into the Contest Culture mindset (8). Lula and Modi have been criticized by media at home and abroad whenever they position themselves as non-aligned to America. This is perceived by US/UK pundits as being “against” America, because they tend not to perceive anything beyond “with us or against us.”
This is not just a foreign policy issue for governments or an editorial policy issue for media; it runs deeper, because it is a culture issue.
The other kids on the block
Culture affects all nations’ geopolitics attitudes and actions, not just Contest Cultures. Though in 2024 Contest Cultures will continue being the main forces in geopolitics, the ways in which different nations and regional blocs position themselves, and respond to situations, are strongly influenced by their culture types.
Social Pyramid Cultures, for instance, tend to take their high Power Distance values and project them to international relations. They perceive hierarchies among nations and typically consider Western European nations and the United States as sitting at the top of this international social structure. They see themselves as sitting in positions that are inferior to some countries and superior to others. They do not see the international playing field as being leveled, but rather as consisting of a hierarchy in which all nations are striving to climb higher than their present position.
The rather undesirable consequence of this is that these cultures tend to imitate those habits and behaviors of the perceived higher cultures, and to shun those belonging to cultures perceived as inferior. These perceived “superior-subordinate” relationships can often stifle international negotiations about trade, security and economic development, since diplomats unconsciously adopt hierarchical attitudes, rather than negotiating from a position of equality. And they do try to “climb the ladder” of international hierarchy by rising above certain countries as they attempt to get closer to the (perceived) top.
China is the most typical Traditional Family Culture, plus it has the world’s highest score in the so-called Fifth Dimension, Long-Term Orientation, which includes Relativism and Flexibility among its characteristics. China’s foreign policy stances have everything to do with its culture, which is quite often misunderstood by Western analysts and underestimated as a determining factor. The Economist, for instance, has created a weekly blog named “The Drum Tower”, which positions itself as describing “What the world makes of China—and what China makes of the world”. However, the authors fail to realize that they are describing China through a (very culturally biased) British lens; and through that lens they have the pretention to describe how China sees the world. Their attempts are embarrassingly inaccurate, due to an impressive ignorance of the core values underpinning Chinese culture.
China’s positions in geopolitics are totally linked to its long-term orientation, which drives thinking in decades rather than in quarters, plus their emphasis on flexibility and relativism. In practical terms, for instance, this means that the Chinese government believes that Taiwan will be eventually become part of the Chinese nation… and it will happen without the need for military action. To them, it is simply a matter of time; and of exerting influence through many other means, expecting outcomes in perhaps a generation or two, rather than in a year or two. Contest Culture leaders and the media in places like the US, UK and Australia talk about the China-Taiwan issue in terms of months and a few years; meanwhile, the Chinese consider it something to be resolved in decades. The mismatch of expectations is striking.
Similarly, Contest Culture analysts describe China’s New Silk Road project as the construction of an intercontinental road that is taking too long to be completed. To the Chinese government this is much more than a road; it is a pathway to exert political, economic and cultural influence over time. They expect outcomes in half a century, not half a decade; and they have no problem in waiting patiently for these outcomes.
As Professor Yuen Yen Ang said in her brilliant “How the West (and Beijing) got China wrong” lecture at Camden in 2019: “What everyone needs to understand is that China’s strength lies not in brute power, but in its flexibility” (9). The long-term perspective allows China’s governments to be flexible while pursuing goals that may lie 20 years or more in the future.
This is why China is willing to be patient as it acts in geopolitics: it is not concerned with winning issues in the short term. China plays the (very) long game and can adapt its strategy on the way.
Network Cultures, on the other hand are constantly seeking consensus also in international relations, while also valuing quality of life and caring for others instead of performance. They tend to have a more equality-based approach in trade and diplomacy, which often turns out to be more effective in brokering deals and agreements. These values might put such cultures in a better position to facilitate complex international agreements (on issues such as climate change) when compared to Contest cultures, for instance.
What the future holds
In a world where physical power and military might were essential to dominate the world scene, it was only natural that Contest cultures would prevail. But as we go further into the 21st Century, there is a possibility that other values (and skills deriving from them) could gain more prominence and benefit Network cultures as facilitators of increasingly complex international relationships.
Solar System cultures, notably France, will continue to play important roles in diplomacy linked to this type of culture’s skill in handling both hierarchy and individual freedoms. They could form interesting alliances with Network cultures in the drive towards better quality of life and peaceful coexistence in a complex globalized world.
China, on the other hand, continues to play the long game. It can wait for Contest cultures to exhaust themselves in immediate conflicts with Russia or with other players in the Middle East and elsewhere. It can keep gradually increasing its influence in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America (not to mention Asia itself). China’s culture values include the belief that it will eventually prevail, without having to actually engage in military action. Perhaps our grandchildren will see a different world order in terms of geopolitics. That is what China is aiming for.
Harari, Yuval Noah – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – Harper, New York, 2015.
Everyone perceives reality through a filter, as if wearing tinted glasses. This applies to media outlets as well. Therefore, whenever one sees or hears anything in the media, one must ask questions. Who exactly is the source of this information? What does one know about them? What kind of cultural bias do they have?
There are at least three filtering processes involved: (1) the perception of reality by a source of information; (2) the way that source communicates information to you; and (3) the perception of that information by yourself.
The main issue is that we constantly consume English-language content produced mostly by Contest culture media. As a result, there is a lot of filtering going on, with a high probability of distortion—not only purely cultural but also because there might be vested interests at stake.
So, what are the typical distortion filters at work in different cultures regarding how their media perceive and broadcast information to the world? This paper will describe some of them and add an aspect that is sometimes overlooked: the blind spots that can be found in media. That is to say: the cultural bias that is most often quite unconscious in media because most people from those specific cultures tend to be quite unaware of it, even when they might be aware of other biases that might be regularly discussed in that culture.
Contest Cultures; Cultural Bias; Mainstream Media; Social Networks.
The Pope visits Cuba.
A joke trailing back to the 1960s tells how a fictitious papal visit to Cuba was reported differently by different media vehicles. It illustrates how the same facts can often be reported very differently depending on the different biases embedded in media.
As the story went, Fidel Castro and the Pope took a break from their formal meetings and official duties in front of the press and went for a walk on the beach. Media representatives watched from a distance.
To everyone’s amazement, at a certain moment, Fidel Castro went into the sea and actually walked on water as if he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ!
The next day, this fantastic event was reported by different newspapers.
The local Havana News ran a headline: FIDEL WALKS ON WATER!
The Vatican Herald ran a different headline: THE POPE CONVERTS FIDEL CASTRO AND TEACHES HIM TO WALK ON WATER!
Yet in Miami, the anti-Castro Cuban Times announced: CASTRO CAN’T SWIM!
The end of impartiality
The age of mass communication heralded by Marshall McLuhan (1) in the 1960s has continued to expand aggressively and globally with no deacceleration in sight.
At first, the news media aimed to objectively report what was going on and remain impartial. For example, Ted Turner’s CNN followed the credo that “the news should be the star of the show, not the newscaster. (2) Long after Turner left the organization he developed to become a global standard, this principle was still in force. However, most of the news media all over the world continued to struggle with their finances. It is an open secret that most, if not all, news media were structurally not viable from a commercial/financial point of view. They regularly needed a significant influx of capital to remain afloat.
Traditionally speaking, journalists make terrible managers. They can investigate and write very well, but they are awful at managing people, finances, and just plain management.
Then Rupert Murdoch (3) came along. His media empire grew to become a global force in English-speaking media. Apparently, here was a company that could be financially viable and commercially successful in an industry where almost nobody was capable of doing that.
Many reasons can be quoted to explain Murdoch’s success. However, for the purpose of this paper, one aspect deserves our attention because it had a ripple effect that heavily influenced other media outlets: the way Fox News (a Murdoch organization) used values and emotions to increase their audience ratings, throwing caution and impartiality to the wind.
Fox decided to make the newscasters the stars instead of the news, reversing Turner’s principle. And rather than simply reporting the facts, they focused on broadcasting the newscaster’s opinion about what was happening. This quickly escalated to influencing the very choices of what to report and how to report it. Fox News had an agenda, and that permeated all their broadcasting.
In the case of Fox, the agenda was openly conservative and right-wing. Seeing its ratings plummet, CNN decided to also forgo Turner’s principles and move towards becoming Fox’s progressive, left-wing counterpart. CNN’s newscasters became the stars, leaving the facts on the sidelines, and the reporting became a reflection of their own values agenda.
In 2023, media literacy means being able to acknowledge that media is no longer impartial. Perhaps it never was. To some extent, media always reflected, unconsciously, the values of its national cultures. McLuhan, by the way, warned everybody by coining the phrase “the media is the message.” In other words: the content has been shaped by the media’s biases, so tread carefully. Nowadays, this has just been taken to the max (or closer to it).
Contest Culture bias in global media
The BBC used to enjoy a reputation for impartial and objective reporting. It also adhered to the norm of highlighting the news rather than the newscaster. It is moving slowly towards the American model of turning the news into a show to increase its audience. It has also left impartiality behind and pursues its own political agenda choosing what to report and how to report it in ways consistent with its own values.
This has been clear as of late by observing how the BBC has changed its manner of reporting anything involving China and Russia. Contest Cultures (see 4) are characterized by the confrontation of two opposing forces; this includes a tendency to view the world as such: wherever one looks (through Contest Culture lenses), one sees conflict and confrontation between two opposing forces. Consistent with that outlook, there is a tendency to see an enemy whenever one looks at the global stage. The “are you with us, or against us” mentality permeates the media originating in the Contest Cultures.
Not only TV but also outlets originally born as printed matter vehicles (The Economist, The New York Times, and many others) tend to write about China and/or Russia, casting them as threats or enemies, and this has been the case for years before the war in Ukraine. During the Trump administration, even the European Union was cast as an enemy of American interests for a while. The choice of words is important, especially in individualist cultures that put more emphasis on content than on format: it is one thing to describe other nations as competitors, adversaries, or even opponents; it is much more serious when these nations are referred to as enemies.
The Economist (a magazine) has created a newsletter about China called “Drum Tower.” (5) They subtitled it ambitiously as “What the world makes of China—and what China makes of the world.” The blind spot here is that the editors of The Economist fail to recognize that they are writing about what they, the editors, make of China, with their strong British bias, and not what the world thinks. Also, they are writing about their interpretation of what China thinks, not what the real Chinese think. It won’t come as a surprise that very few, if any, of the items in the newsletter are written by Chinese journalists or even by any journalists who are not British.
The Contest Culture blind spot is firmly in place: the editors fail to perceive their cultural bias; they believe their outlook is the right one and disregard anything different.
Contest Culture media bias is especially worrisome because it is prevalent in English language media, which is globally dominant. Even this article is written in English, I am quite aware of the restrictions entailed by using Shakespeare’s language. That is bad enough because international English is, in many ways, a rather poor language to express nuance (needed a French term for that…) and subtleties (again…), but it gets worse. English limits our ability to communicate and carries with it English values like all languages have their own cultural values. So, for instance, we end up using all kinds of references to weapons when we write about shooting pictures and films or when we describe the aim of what we are trying to convey. (6)
In her book Slanted: How the News Media Taught Us to Love Censorship and Hate Journalism, Sharyl Attkisson (7) recounts numerous cases of biased journalism when her editors told her to write pieces expressing their (the editor’s) opinions about issues rather than objective facts. Unfortunately, in this day and age, biases have been normalized in Contest Culture media: people in media don’t even regard it as a problem, except for a few idealists here and there who still raise their voices (seldom heard) against it.
It is no wonder that mainstream media has lost its credibility and has been losing its audience to bloggers on social media. In search of bigger audiences, mainstream news media have turned news into entertainment and newscasters into celebrities that emphasize their own values and emotions. These newscasters have tried to position themselves as “closer to the average spectator.” However, they have lost their credibility as “impartial voices of reason;” and have encouraged, through their behavior, the average person to conclude that “anybody can do this like these guys are doing it, including me!” So, why listen to mainstream news media if they no longer seek to report the truth but rather simply express their opinions like the people I meet on the street?
Hence the rise of social networks as news media broadcasting entities, where anybody can play the role of reporter, news anchor and political commentator, filled with cultural bias and not the least bit concerned about it. This is stressed to the maximum in Contest Cultures, characterized by assertiveness, a telling and selling communication style, and standing up for your beliefs against criticism.
Still, mainstream media is not dead in Contest Cultures, and it continues to have the broadest global reach. Therefore, it is important to recognize the cultural bias embedded in the messages it broadcasts. The bias includes:
Polarization as a default outlook: the tendency to describe everything as a fight between two opposing forces.
Life as a competition: the idea that everyone is competing to win.
Winners and losers as the outcome of life: if you are not “number one” at every competition, you will be branded as a loser and despised by all.
Short-term perspective: focusing on the immediate impact of what is happening. In other words: impact this week, this month, and this quarter. Thinking of “long-term” as anything beyond three months.
Measurable results as the desired outcome. If it can’t be measured, it is not important.
Economic growth, measured by GDP, as the ultimate standard of prosperity and the ultimate goal of any society.
The (mistaken) implications are many. For example, is it really that important to know every month who is the richest person on the planet? Should we really care about which nation has the highest figures in Gross Domestic Product? Do we need to choose the Best Picture of the year, rather than just which are the top ten? Should there even be such a contest? Should we have contests about art? Why should we have so many competitions about anything?
Media literacy means asking yourself every time you are faced with information: what is the source? What is the cultural bias affecting the source? How can I reinterpret this information, considering the context and my own cultural bias?
Looking at Contest Culture media sources, it is essential to understand Contest Cultures’ core values and how that affects the content and format of the information they broadcast. This is true not only for mainstream news media, but for all media originated by anyone in a Contest Culture.
Different cultures, different bias
Contest Culture news media vehicles are not the only ones sporting bias. All media vehicles are affected by their own cultural bias anywhere in the world. The bias is different, yet it is still there.
Solar System cultures include France, Spain, and Italy, each with its own tradition of news media transcending their national borders. None as wide-reaching as the British and American media, but still having some notorious news organizations such as Le Monde, El País and Il Corriere Della Sera, respected internationally.
The French cultural bias in mainstream news media is represented by a tendency to over-intellectualize everything. It is certainly interesting to delve deeper into news subjects and offer a more profound description of what is going on; however, one can get too much of a good thing when news anchors regularly spend considerable time describing the concepts behind what is happening, usually with a very elaborate vocabulary. It seems important to demonstrate to the audience that you are also quite knowledgeable on the reported subject, no matter how technical. There is also the assumption that your audience is quite interested in the theoretical concepts behind the news.
To a lesser extent, this is also observed in Spanish and Italian broadcasting. However, the fact remains that in these three cultures, the media typically uses twice as many words to describe the same facts compared to Contest Culture media reporting in English. Solar System media outlets also tend to put more time and effort into describing the context before coming to the core issue they report.
In Well-oiled Machine Cultures, the bias tends to be about Uncertainty Avoidance and the need to maintain order in the world. This leads news media from those cultures to amplify whatever is perceived as a threat to existing customs, behavior patterns and institutions. As a result, headlines heralding dramatic change tend to exaggerate what is happening. The proposed solutions, of course, tend to involve more research, planning and structuring that experts should lead to coping with impending change.
In Network Cultures, news media tends to highlight the point of view of the less fortunate. Headlines often are dedicated to the victims of war, geological tragedies, hurricanes, or of shortcomings in government policies. A fair amount of attention tends to be dedicated to criticism (of anyone or any institution). The bias in that is that the dominant sides of a competition or happening tend to get less attention than what might be regarded as their fair share in other cultures. For example: when the results of tight elections were announced, the Dutch media had more pictures of those who lost than the winning sides.
In Social Pyramid and Family Cultures, there is a tendency to use expressions that reflect hierarchy in the way facts are described, somewhat akin to the weapons figures of speech used in Contest Cultures. Examples: rather than stating “Team A played better than Team B,” news media are more likely to say that “Team A imposed their game over Team B.” Rather than state that “Madam C was a success at the party,” news media in Social Pyramid and Family cultures are more likely to say that “madam C overwhelmed everyone at the party.” When Parliament passes new legislation, it is often described as “being imposed by Parliament.” In all these expressions, hierarchy and power distance are stressed.
Language reflects cultural values and language used by news media tends to do that even more so. In its attempts to appeal intensely to its audience, news media will try very hard to reflect community values in their vocabulary. For a trained eye, it is not difficult to spot how media choose words, consciously or more often unconsciously, that reflect and reinforce the core values of their culture.
A universal bias: “journalism likes blood.”
Journalists know that items reporting perceived threats get more attention in all cultures. Luiz Felipe Pondé, a Brazilian journalist himself, has often used the expression “journalism likes blood.” (8) He has explained that when news editors spot something that will be perceived as a threat by their audience, they immediately place such topics to the forefront of their broadcasting, knowing that people will naturally give it their utmost attention. It is a matter linked to survival instincts: we are all interested in gaining knowledge about anything that might threaten our existence to avoid it.
Knowing that perceived threats will get the public’s attention, media editors feature them prominently to improve their audience ratings and sell more advertisements, their most important source of revenue. What may differ from culture to culture is precisely what kind of news items are perceived as threats. Each culture will amplify different things according to its core values. Media literacy means knowing enough about the values of the media sources to filter out the cultural bias embedded in them.
Hope in Finland
All is not lost. In Finland, teachers are helping teenagers to spot fake news in the media as part of their reading & interpretation skills development at school (9). Teachers present different articles to students in class and ask them to discuss and respond to questions such as: “What’s the article’s purpose? How and when was it written? What are the author’s central claims?”
One can only hope that new generations will learn at home and school from an early age to recognize the biases existing in media and avoid spreading misinformation everywhere.
(1) McLuhan, Marshall – Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man – Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964.
(3) Once described by Ted Turner as “the most dangerous man in the world)
(4) Wursten Huib (2019) The 7Mental Images of National Culture. Leading and Managing in a globalized World. AMAZON Books ISBN: 9781687633347
In this book Culture clusters are proposed with different “rules of the game”. See below:
(5) Drum Tower – What the world makes of China and what China makes of the world – A newsletter by The Economist. https://view.e.economist.com/?qs=9d7028f867ccdd20f67b81601a07f941b7dfde8148d4d12e8cb0009d8f5bf235b74a6daf14edb9b22e7980640d2852a9d32fa4a07c659bc48ee79c1d34e038a40b916c16f415085038bea39e6dae1272
(6) Guns in America: a loaded relationship – NPR – 2013. https://www.npr.org/2013/03/19/174767346/gun-metaphors-deeply-embedded-in-english-language
(7) Attkisson, Sharyl – Slanted: How the News Media Taught Us to Love Censorship and Hate Journalism, – Harper, 2020
(8) Pondé, Luiz Felipe – Linhas Cruzadas – TV Cultura, Brazil, 22 October, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OfoqPjVbHrM
(9) How Finland is Teaching a Generation to Spot Misinformation – New York Times, January 10, 2023.
The recipe for nation-building is easy: just follow the same core process that you might use to change an organization, or to change an individual. Simply describe the current situation, describe the desired situation, and make a detailed plan of how you intend to go from the former to the latter. Anyone (or any group of powerful and influential people) should be capable of carrying out the recipe, as long as they have the discipline to address these three aspects with enough depth of analysis and broad vision. The difficulty begins with being aware of your own bias as a potential nation-builder. Sadly, most politicians and public policy designers involved in nation-building are completely clueless about culture, its impact, and their own biases. Using Huib Wursten’s Mental Images (1) as a reference can prove to be very helpful to understand the key issues involved.
João (a song written by Arnaldo Antunes) (2)
São tantos e tão poucos tem noção
De como se inaugura uma nação
Não é bem com monumentos
Ou com balas de canhão
É quando uma brisa bate na respiração
E entra no juízo de um João
Que dedica todo empenho
E amor ao seu engenho
Para arejar os cantos da canção
E dar sentido a nossa sensação
They are so many, but so few have the notion
Of how you can inaugurate a nation
It’s not exactly with monuments
Or with cannon balls and ammunition
It’s when a breeze hits your respiration
And gets inside the judgment of a Joe
Who dedicates all his efforts
And love his endeavor
To breathe air into the corners of a song
And give some sense to our sensation
Key Words: Culture, Contest Cultures, Democratic Institutions, Social Change, Social Pyramid, Individualism, Power Distance.
Let me try and manage your expectations a bit. Nation-building is not easy at all. Some people would argue that it is simply impossible… and perhaps you should just give up altogether.
Let’s assume that it is possible, at least in theory; and let’s also accept, at least for the sake of argumentation, that we might even find one or two cases in history when it actually happened (Singapore comes to mind).
Let’s review your thinking process by going over my favorite analytical tool, my very own “Eternal Triangle of Change” (3). Using the triangle, let’s examine the three basic questions it proposes as a way of structuring our analysis and discussion:
Where are we?
Where do we want to go?
How do we get there?
In terms of nation-building, this means looking at:
Which nation are you trying to build? What is the current situation there? How did they get where they are? And, most importantly: why do you want to change that? Do they, the citizens, want to change the current situation? Who else wants to change it, and why? Who opposes the change, and why do they favor keeping things the way they are?
What kind of nation are you trying to build? What does success look like? What are your criteria for concluding that “we have reached our objectives; the nation has been built and now looks the way it should?” How will you measure success?
What is your change plan? How will you get from A to B? What is your estimated time frame for building the nation you want? What are the foreseen obstacles to doing that, and how do you intend to overcome them? What are the allies and resources that will support the implementation of your plan?
Answering these questions should keep you busy for a while. In the meantime, let’s look at the main factor behind the many failed attempts at nation-building: culture.
Starting at the beginning: where are we?
The core values of each culture influence the behavior of everyone in that culture, so naturally, they also influence government officials, policymakers, intellectuals, and media professionals.
When we discuss nation-building, who are we typically talking about? The US (supported by its “parent culture” UK) decides that some nation in the developing world needs building. Rather than “live and let live,” the underlying notion is that there is something wrong with the target nation; and it is the responsibility of the US/UK to fix it. There are a set of values that underpin that mindset.
Wursten (1) has described “Contest cultures” as characterized by high Individualism (IDV), low Power Distance (PDI), high Masculinity (MAS), and low Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI). I would like to add that they also score low on Long Term Orientation (LTO). Both the US and UK are Contest cultures, and they are also characterized by a mindset that sees life as a constant clash between opposing forces. Out of that clash, a positive outcome is expected. In such cultures, conflict is not avoided, but rather it should be embraced and managed to obtain the expected positive outcome. Confrontation and standing your ground are accepted as part of daily life and also a necessary component of geopolitics.
When it comes to nation-building, the mindset of “we have to save them, whether they want it or not,” is supported by high Individualism and high Masculinity. The combination of these values, together with low UAI and low LTO, creates a feeling of righteousness and a bias for action.
“We have to do it, not anybody else” is a mindset supported by high Individualism, a value dimension that is linked to taking responsibility, rather than “passing the buck” to someone else.
“There is something wrong with them” is supported by the normative aspect of low LTO (as opposed to the relativism that characterizes high LTO).
“We need to do something about it” is supported by high Masculinity combined with the previous two dimensions mentioned (LTO and IDV).
It is worth noting that there is a bias for action involved, as in “shoot first, ask questions later.” This is supported by the short-term perspective that characterizes low LTO, enhanced by the high Masculinity. “It is better to err by doing, than by standing idle” is a popular expression that illustrates this attitude.
To save someone who perhaps does not want to save is supported again by Individualism and the combination of the other dimensions cited. “I know what needs to be done and I will do it regardless of your opinion” is a way of summarizing this mindset.
Low Uncertainty Avoidance supports the notion of acting without necessarily a lot of planning and taking the risks inherent to that.
When you look at these values combined, it is no wonder that both the US and the UK get involved in nation-building. On the other hand, in both countries, there have been significant dissenting voices. In the US, Trumpism supported the idea that the US Government should forget about nation-building, for instance in Iraq and Afghanistan), because America should come first. And in the UK the population voted to leave the European Union, rather than stay and try to fix its problems (as perceived from the British point of view).
Division and conflict are an integral part of Contest cultures. Often the bias is not only for action, but there is also a bias for disagreeing with whatever is being proposed, simply to show that you have your own opinion and will not blindly follow others. If there were no dissenting opinions these cultures would not be Contest cultures.
Yet, when all is said and done, the prevalent notion in the US and UK cultures is that one should not stand idly watching another nation becoming a failed State. Even when this other State is not actually failing, but merely is performing in a way that is consistent with a different set of values, there is a great difficulty in allowing other nations to behave as they please. The bias toward confrontation leads people to believe that it is valid to fight against those who behave differently, and the normative aspect of low LTO supports making a strong effort towards changing other people’s way of thinking and behaving. “Everybody must follow the (social) norm!”
What kind of nation are you trying to build?
From a Contest culture perspective, the response to this question is: “We are looking at nations that do not have institutions functioning according to the standards of the Contest culture, and trying to change them to be more like us.” Therein lies the problem: when you look at the world through your own culturally biased filter, everybody else needs building.
When Americans engage in nation-building they are basically trying to make a slightly modified version of America, and that is in itself the biggest obstacle since the target country’s culture typically is dramatically different. Nation builders tend to attempt to reproduce their own culture when they engage in building another nation. This is understandable, but it is also a huge mistake. Plus, it is by far the single most important reason nation-building failed in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan, and is likely to fail anywhere else where the local culture is not taken into account.
When the US invaded both Iraq and Afghanistan, the people involved in building a new nation in those countries were trying to recreate institutions that would function according to the parameters of the American culture. Basically, that included a governance structure consisting of three powers (Executive, Legislative and Judicial), with democratic elections and two opposing parties, plus a free press and freedom to worship any religion. None of this was supported neither by the culture of Iraq nor the culture of Afghanistan… and the efforts failed miserably.
If you want to build a nation, do discuss with the local people exactly what kind of a nation would they like to build. And if they say, “we want to be like America,” don’t believe them! They are saying that just to please you, or because they do not really understand what it means “to become America” in terms of cultural values. It’s OK to admire the American culture, just like many Americans admire the Danish culture, but you should not try to turn Afghanistan into America, just like you should not try to turn the United States into Denmark. These dramatic transformations will never work.
You cannot turn a Social Pyramid culture (such as Afghanistan and/or Iraq) into a Contest culture (such as the USA), just like you cannot turn America into Denmark. You can improve the way a Social Pyramid functions and you can improve how a Contest culture functions but be aware that the underlying values of culture prevail in the long term, so ignoring them will lead to failure.
Which brings us to address the third question mentioned at the beginning of this paper: how do we get there? How do you build a nation?
Building nations successfully (or, how do we get there?)
Start by discussing (with the local leadership involved) the two previous questions: (a) what is the current culture like, and what is not working; and (b) what is the desired culture (realistically) and how should institutions work effectively in this improved version of the current culture.
Continue by developing an action plan that is consistent with the desired culture, realistic, and includes the Exco Propolis approach.
This approach is an acronym for Leading by Example, Communication, Project Management, and Policy Review. These principles are the foundation of changing culture in large organizations, and they can be equally applied to building nations.
Leading by Example means that indeed the leaders of the new nation should behave in a way that is consistent with the desired culture. People follow the behavior (of leaders) more than they follow (they’re) speeches. Pick your leaders wisely and coach them as needed.
Communication is key and it is not just broadcasting. In order to build a nation, you need to establish communication channels that will allow people to voice their opinions and concerns in a way that they feel that they are being heard. You need to communicate the values, rules, and standards of the new nation and also allow people to voice their reactions, so that you may adjust accordingly.
Project Management will be necessary to monitor the implementation of your plans. There will be many programs and projects going on simultaneously and coordinating them will be quite a challenge.
Policy Review means overhauling the existing institutional and legal frameworks to make sure they are consistent with the new nation that is being built.
In order to ensure that the new nation develops sustainably, invest heavily in education. Focus your efforts on educating children aged 4 to 11; this is when they form their notion of right and wrong, and this sets the stage for everything they learn afterward. Nations are built by shaping the values of a new generation. Warning: that takes time.
One thing is certain: you cannot build a nation with machine guns and artillery. Whenever anybody tried to build a nation through force, using military power, they failed. Nations are built by unarmed forces. You need to understand these forces and use them. It’s not about “hard power,” but rather “soft power.”
Therefore, it requires participation and room for discussions. And all of that does require a lot of time. Participation, by the way, works as a motivator in any culture. It needs to be organized and conducted differently (more direction from the top in high PDI cultures, more structure in Well-Oiled Machine cultures, more focus on competition and results in Contest culture) but it can be a very powerful engagement tool, as long as it is done in a way that is consistent with each culture.
When Contest culture leaders engage in building a nation that is currently a Social Pyramid or a Traditional Family culture (1) (3), one of the first shocks they face is the difference in time perspective. Contest cultures value short-term results and expect things to happen rather quickly. When the Arab Spring began in early 2011 and spread across North Africa, the ensuing situation in Egypt illustrated this point. Political leaders, pundits, and the media in Contest cultures (notably the US, UK, Canada, and Australia) called for a swift change from a centuries-old autocracy directly into a democratic regime. I was frequently in Egypt at the time working with local companies. People often asked me how the transition from military rule had happened in Brazil. I told them it had taken about a decade and a half, so they should lower their expectations. They were disappointed. They wanted it all to happen in a maximum of two years.
I argued that the military should stay in power for a few years after Mubarak was ousted. They should call for electing a General Assembly with the purpose of writing a new Constitution over the next two or three years. After that, a general election should be called for one or two years later in order to form a new Parliament. That Parliament, once elected, could vote to elect a country’s President, in a so-called indirect election. At the end of a five-year mandate, direct voting by the people would elect the next President. The whole process would take seven or eight years, half the time it had taken in Brazil. This would be incredibly fast, considering that Brazil had already had periods of democracy alternating with military governments since the 1890s. By contrast, Egypt had never before had an election for President in its entire history as a nation.
As it were, elections were called for just months after Mubarak was removed from power by a military coup. That, of course, was way too soon. Society was not yet ready for that. There were no political parties prepared for such a dramatic change, so quickly. As might be expected, the two existing political forces that were already reasonably organized emerged as two opposing forces in a Contest-culture-style runoff election: the military on one side and the Muslim Brotherhood on the other.
The whole process was hurried and messy. The Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamad Morsi won and was inaugurated with little time to form an effective and efficient governing structure. His government lasted for about a year and was a disaster. There was another coup and the military came back to power, proceeding to lead the country in an autocratic fashion. The culture had not been ready for the transition to democracy, especially to an American style of democracy.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, it was even worse. The Western occupation failed to implement sustainable changes for the better in both countries. To this day there are many people saying that the population was better off in the 1990s, before the failed democratization attempts.
Nation-building takes time. It requires engaging the people in a long-term process that will retain the core aspects of the existing culture and work on consolidating institutions that will function in a way that is coherent with the culture. It’s the only way nation-building might work.
Wursten, Huib – The 7 Mental Images of National Culture Leading and managing in a globalized word ISBN-10: 1687633347 ISBN-13: 978-1687633347; 2019
Antunes, Arnaldo: João – Album O Real Resiste, Rio de Janeiro: 2020.
Lanzer, Fernando – Organizational Culture and Climate: Understanding, Maintaining and
Countless psychologists have written about the forming of identity and ego development as a section within Developmental Psychology. Similarly, many anthropologists and intercultural authors have written about cultural identity. Few authors have approached the topic bringing together both the psychological and the anthropological perspectives. This paper aims to emphasize this integrative perspective: personality development is a universal psychological process that happens within the cultural environment of an individual.
Therefore, in practice, it is always influenced by culture and should not be treated as universal. Rather, it needs to incorporate the specific cultural values that influence individual development as part of Developmental Psychology. Wursten’s seven Mental Images as a synthesis of Geert Hofstede’s culture values framework, are an important reference for understanding personality development in individuals, since they can also be used to create a useful typology of superegos.
Introduction: the notion of self and identity in Developmental Psychology
Children begin to develop a sense of identity (“I am something different from the world around me”) usually between the ages of 18 to 24 months, according to most authors(1). As their personality continues to develop further between 24 and 48 months of age, the notion of “right” and “wrong” begins to emerge, gradually acquired by learning from the adults and others around them.
From then on, identity is further developed as a notion of “who I am” and “what do I regard as right and wrong” as a response to what I am learning.
Psychoanalysts such as Freud(2), Jung(3), and notably Anna Freud(4) and Melanie Klein(5), who dedicated themselves to observing and treating young children, described the development of the “self” as consisting of the Id (impulses and emotions), the Ego (reason) and the Superego (values), the latter consisting of a “conscience” (what is right and what is wrong) and an “ideal ego” (who I want to become, what kind of person I think that I should be, in order to deserve appreciation from others and also from myself in regards to my “conscience”).
All this has been the object of many writings in psychology(6), but for most authors a key aspect has been omitted: culture. There is indeed a whole school of thought among psychologists known as “culturalists” since the 1950’s, notably led by Erich Fromm(7) and others; but even these culturalists had not, at the time, identified that the influence of culture on the formation of individual identity goes beyond being a universal phenomenon.
Yes, it is a universal phenomenon in the sense that all children have their sense of identity heavily influenced by their cultural environment; but authors even until now have stopped short of analyzing how different types of culture influence different notions of identity in individuals from different culture.
This has happened due to a schizoid separation between developmental psychologists, on one side, and interculturalists, on the other.
Practically all developmental psychologists dedicate themselves to studying children almost as if all children were brought up in the same kind of culture. This can be explained as a typically individualist culture bias: in individualist cultures, where most scholarly writing on developmental psychology tends to occur (US, Canada and Western Europe), the cultures emphasize a “universalist perspective.” In practical terms, this is an assumption that (paradoxically) individuals are affected by culture in a similar way all over the world. It fails to consider that if cultures are different, they might influence individuals also in different ways.
This bias results in psychologists describing personality development as if it followed the same pattern in New York and in New Delhi… something that any beginning interculturalist would regard as somewhat ridiculous.
And yet, on the other side of this schism, interculturalists discuss cultural differences without due consideration to the psychological development of personalities, as if the stages of individual personality development were not a factor when understanding how cultures evolve and change.
When you look at scholarly articles on culture, seldom (if ever) do you see any reference to psychologist authors, let alone classics such as Freud or Jung. By the same token, most psychologist authors (even the so-called culturalists) seem oblivious to the writings of Hofstede(8) and other culture specialists. And yet these two fields of study are very much interconnected, since they simply look at human development from slightly different angles. Looking at culture without understanding the psychological development aspect will provide an incomplete picture; just as looking at personality development without taking into account how culture differences affect individual development also leads to an incomplete understanding of people.
The problem with Freud, Jung and the psychoanalysts (plus Fromm and the culturalists) is that they had never met Hofstede (who came with a next generation of psychologists and basically founded the notion of measuring culture). When you take a step back and consider Hofstede’s research studies from the perspective of psychological analysis, you may realize that Hofstede did something quite extraordinary: he measured (Jung’s) the collective unconscious!
Carl Jung postulated that not only do individuals have an unconscious (and subconscious) aspect to their minds (as explained by Sigmund Freud), but humanity shares a “collective unconscious:” certain aspects that are not only personal and individual, but shared by communities without them even realizing it (because these aspects are by definition unconscious). These include (but are not restricted to) values and norms that constitute a sort of collective superego.
Most major proponents of personality theory, from B. F. Skinner(9) to Carl Rogers(10) and many others within that spectrum, seem to have ignored the fact that values are different from culture to culture. Also, most notable psychology authors were culturally biased by individualism (they mostly came from individualistic cultures) sharing the notions that (a) truth is universal; (b) there is a universal truth that applies to all cultures; (c) we can speak of human beings as being “cultureless”; (d) as scientists, we are unbiased; and (e) individualism is superior to collectivism.
Of course, these authors were quite unaware of their bias, simply because the very notion of culture bias was something that was not widely recognized at the time.
Many interculturalists, on the other hand, write about culture as if it had nothing to do with psychology or personal development; yet we should not completely isolate sociology, anthropology and interculturalism from the study of personality. This artificial isolation in analysis is often, in itself, an individualistic bias.
Therefore, we should add a (mental) footnote to every major book written on personality development, identity, and the development of “self”, stating that they all carry a culture bias from their authors: in the vast majority of the cases, an individualist bias, since most authors in the field come from individualist cultures.
Bridging the schism
When we do attempt to make connections between these two perspectives (anthropology/sociology and psychology) we come to some rather interesting developments.
(1) We know from psychology that some individuals develop what is called a “dependent personality,” characterized by an increased need for external validation to cement a person’s notion of identity. Often these personality types are the ones afflicted with addiction behaviors: addiction to drugs, alcohol, religion or sex. Basically, such personality types have difficulty in developing a sense of autonomy. They need an external factor on which to depend on, in order to reduce anxiety. So, they turn to alcohol (or drugs, etc.) in order to function. Many addiction therapists in rehabilitation centers will tell you that in many cases the best hope for a cure to these afflictions is simply to replace a more self-destructive form of addiction (like heavy drugs) with a less damaging one (such as religion). From a psychological point of view the dependency is still there, but at least the individual may be doing less damage to themselves and to others.
It would be interesting to explore how culture differences might be playing a role in the formation of dependent personalities. Some fascinating hypotheses might be the subject of research studies for MS or PhD theses. Are some types of addictions more prevalent in certain types of cultures? Are certain personality disorders (other than dependency) more frequently observed in certain cultures, compared to others?
(2) Certain behaviors are regarded as a sign of mental illness in certain cultures, while in others they are just accepted as normal and socially expected conduct. We know for a fact, for instance, that in the Netherlands (a Network culture by Wursten’s(11) description) the lack of assertiveness has been officially regarded as a specific mental affliction that may be the subject of psychotherapy sessions covered by health insurance plans. This is quite consistent with the typical low Power Distance and high Individualism values of Network cultures, but it would not be regarded as a mental problem in high Power Distance and low Individualism cultures such as those found in most Latin American countries, for instance.
(3) The sense of belonging to a group/community is regarded as a universal human need. It is described as part of Abraham Maslow’s(12) (a globally acclaimed psychologist brought up in a Contest/Individualist culture) “Hierarchy of Human Needs,” widely accepted as a universal concept. And yet, we do know that the needs classified by Maslow as “Love & Belonging, Esteem, and Self-Actualization” are expressed and regarded differently when we look at collectivist cultures compared to individualist ones. The feeling of belonging to a group carries much more weight in an individual’s personal development within a collectivist culture, compared to what happens in an individualist culture.
The ideal ego of most people in individualist cultures includes a sense of autonomy and independence, of feeling in control of your own life. It often includes also the ability to live largely removed from others, alone in the woods somewhere, with little or no contact at all with other people(13). To someone brought up in a collectivist culture, by contrast, this sort of life style would be tantamount to psychological torture. We probably do not need to discard Maslow’s “pyramid of needs” altogether, but we should certainly consider that the way the needs at the top three levels (belonging, self-esteem and self-actualization) express themselves quite differently depending on the culture environment in which a person has been brought up. Once again, the sense of identity and of “feeling whole,” knowing who I am and who I want to be can be very different depending on culture.
(4) A related aspect regards how threatening (or not) is the currently changing culture environment perceived by individuals. Both Freud and Hofstede have written about the fact that individuals tend to regress to earlier stages of psychological development when faced with (perceived as) threatening environments. Regressive behavior is a fundamental part of Freud’s theory of personality development. And Hofstede has remarked that when people are exposed to cultures perceived as foreign (different from their own) they tend to fall back on the values they were brought up with as children. In practice, this means that expats tend to behave in a way that exacerbates their home country values, even more than individuals who remained in their home countries with little exposure to other cultures.
Should we consider then, as Fukuyama(14) has mentioned in his book “Identity,” that the social tensions we have observed in the past decade in North America and Europe, which include political polarization and the rise of conservative populism, are largely the product of social environments that have exposed people to more complexity and diversity, thereby triggering defensive (conservative and regressive) behaviors as reactions to perceived threats to their identity?
When Hofstede observed that “values are preferences for one state of affairs versus another, accompanied by strong emotions,” can we surmise that this emotional response is due to the perceived threat to an individual’s identity? We might also conclude that in an increasingly complex and culturally diverse world, where not only people are exposed to values from “foreign” cultures, but also people may feel perplexed by their inability to effectively operate their personal telephones (which have been replaced by complicated computer devices) and home appliances such as televisions, ovens and toasters. All these challenges may lead to people feeling more frequently insecure and under threat, therefore more prone to reacting defensively and regressing to a more conservative stance.
The way people react and express their regressive behavior is also, of course, influenced by culture. Therefore, individualists might tend to become even more individualist and react by isolating themselves and advocating individual freedoms; low Power Distance advocates might protest more vehemently against figures of authority. Conversely, collectivists might band together more often; and high Power Distance advocates might call for more authoritarian forms of government.
The main lesson here is that it would be foolish not to consider the differences in culture values when trying to understand both collective and individual behaviors across geographies and functional communities.
(5) Another relevant aspect regards the reactions to the pandemic situation, which adds yet another threat to the existence of people in different cultures (and let’s not forget about the changing climate, still another threat). Governments have struggled with averting an even greater health crisis caused by the pandemic. After over two years in trying to cope with that, perhaps they will begin to understand that indeed there is no “single set of policies” that can be universally applied and accepted across cultures. People will tend to accept those measures that are consistent with their culture and reject those that are not; this is because the latter are perceived as threats to their very identity, which they are valuing even more as a defensive coping mechanism.
Therefore, wearing masks was very much rejected as a practice in the Netherlands at the beginning of the pandemic, because it went against the very Dutch value of speaking openly and frankly. How would you be able to geen blad voor de mond nemen (speak without holding a leaf in front of your mouth)(15) if your mouth is covered by a face mask? Even the term “face mask” translates into the Dutch language as mondkap (“mouth cap”), stressing the fact that it covers your mouth… and as such represents an obstacle to open expression of your opinions.
At the same time, maintaining a physical distance of 1.5 meters among people was something easily embraced in the Netherlands, since that is quite consistent with the Dutch habit of keeping about a meter away from each other to respect individual privacy. When you look at pictures of Dutch people in public parks before the pandemic, they look the same as the pictures taken during the pandemic: people keep distance from each other as they lay on the grass taking in the sun. Respecting each other’s physical space is part of the Dutch identity; it is part of who they are and who they feel that they should be; it is part of their ego and of their collective superego, of what Jung called the collective unconscious.
By contrast, compare that with what has been observed in the Brazilian environment, a Social Pyramid culture that is quite collectivistic. The most difficult safety measure for Brazilians has been to keep physical distance from each other. Before the pandemic, Brazilians were always standing quite close to each other and constantly touching each other’s arms and shoulders to emphasize a point in conversation, even with complete strangers whom they have just met a few seconds before. Maintaining physical distance is perceived as unnatural in collectivist cultures and it poses a threat to people’s identity. When forced to do so, they suddenly feel that they are no longer themselves, provoking very emotional reactions.
It is not surprising that we have seen protests against the safety measures recommended (sometimes imposed) by governments all over the world. People react emotionally against those measures that threaten their identity. The anglophone press stresses that the protests are against individual freedom and self-determination; but the reality is that in different cultures people feel more strongly about different measures: the measures that go against the values linked to their individual and collective identities.
The combination of the psychological perspective on identity and the anthropological/sociological perspective on culture as a collective construct needs to be further explored in order to enhance our understanding of people as individuals and as communities. Existentialists say that “man is a being in the world” (“man” was historically used as a genderless expression referring to human beings)(16). This phrase stresses the fact that we should not refer to human beings separate from their environment, because the reality is that people do not exist separated from their environment. People only exist in an environment, like figure and background in Gestalt(17) theory. To think and discuss human beings outside of their environment is a fantasy, an abstract concept that does not exist in the real world. Therefore, we must always consider the psychology of individuals as something that exists within a (cultural) environment; and when we discuss culture as a collective construct, let us not forget that the psychological development of individuals from childhood to adulthood and throughout their life span is part of the picture; and should not be ignored as such.
We live in difficult times characterized by volatility and uncertainty, increasing change, complexity and ambiguity. Climate change represents a formidable threat to our physical environment, and the frequency of pandemics is just one of the consequences we can identify. Globalization has brought with it the rapid dissemination of technologies that can make life easie… but they can also make life more challenging and difficult. In this threatening physical, cultural and psychological environment, we will need to pool all our disciplines together in order to survive and continue to exist in our world. This includes understanding our individual and collective identities and cultures.
Lerner, Richard M. – Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science – John Wiley, 2015.
Freud, Sigmund – The ego and the id – Hogarth Press, 1949.
Jung, Carl Gustav – Psychology of the unconscious – Kegan Paul Trench Hubner, 1916.
Freud, Anna – Psychoanalytic psychology of normal development – Hogarth Press, 1982
Klein, Melanie – The psychoanalysis of children – Vintage Publishing, 1997
Mitchell, Peter and Ziegler, Fenja – Fundamentals of Developmental Psychology – Psychology Press, 2012.
Fromm, Erich – The Art of Loving – Harper & Brothers, 1956