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Neighbours growing apart

This morning’s Globe and Mail had an article in it titled Neighbours Growing Apart, by pollster Michael Adams, president of the Environics Group.  Environics has been tracking the values of North Americans since the early 1980’s in Canada, and the early 1990’s in the USA.  This is much like the work that I used to rely on from Roper Starch during my time at Microsoft – a huge searchable database of responses to all kinds of questions ranging from opinions about restaurants to technology usage to political views.

Michael Adams says that Canadians are quite different from Americans and in some quite surprising ways.  We’re more likely to dissent, and less likely to defer to hierarchy, and patriarchical authority.  We prefer the rule of law, and the notions of secular humanism to religious authority.  The irony that he points out is that the US is the land of free speech, liberty, and democracy. 

American deference to patriarchal and hierarchical authority in the hyperpatriotic post-9/11 environment has led to much rallying about the flag. Even half of Democrats polled feel it is unpatriotic to question their president, and the American Civil Liberties Union warns of a climate of severely muffled dissent and debate in that country. Just ask the Dixie Chicks.

Canada has a leader of the opposition whose job it is to question the prime minister and his government. Not questioning the prime minister is seen as a failure if not of democratic verve, then of intelligence. Who is the leader of the opposition in the United States Michael Moore? Our research suggests that it is the supposedly bold, individualistic Americans who are the nodding conformists, and the supposedly shy, deferential and law-abiding Canadians who are most likely to assert their personal autonomy and political agency.

It’s a fascinating read, and rings very true for me.  We lived in the USA from the spring of 1994 to the spring of 2001.  During that time I observed many things about Americans, but one of the things that sticks with me the most is how surprised I was by the differences in values.  The most pronounced of those, to me, was the “cult” of individual liberty.  It baffled me, as a Canadian, that individual rights should so often take precedence over the needs of society.  There are numerous examples of this — whether it be gun ownership, hateful or pornographic speech and written works protected as free speech, or the ability of wealthy members of society to demand their “right” to choose healthcare providers and in the process deny universal healthcare to over thirty million Americans. 

I came to understand that for some Americans their “rights” to specific freedoms were often exercised without an understanding of the responsibility that accompanies them.  To me, this is a perversion of what the founding fathers of the United States intended.  I believe they intended a society which was just, compassionate, and responsible.  I don’t believe they foresaw, nor intended, the social Darwinism of today’s America. 

I also had some good, spirited discussions with some of my thoughtful American neighbours.  Although we disagreed on many aspects of individual liberties, they did agree that the accompanying element of responsibility was often absent during any discussion of those freedoms, and that for many who choose to invoke their “right” to behave in a certain fashion, the notion of responsibility accompanying liberty is completely foreign.  They did not, however, believe that society should curtail those liberties. 

Michael Adam’s book on this topic, Fire and Ice, will be out shortly.  It looks like a good read.

And lest anyone think otherwise, my time in the US was one of the most enjoyable, thought provoking, and challenging parts of my life.  I’m Canadian… it’s part of my makeup to dissent, doncha know?


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