The National Personality

Screen Shot 2020-04-04 at 8.57.49 PMSocial psychology being what it is, I’m sure there is compelling research around that points to a few, fully factor-analyzed descriptors that claim to describe the defining characteristics of any given group. The Brits are stoical and ‘stiff-upper lipped’. The Danes are ‘happy’. The French emotionally effusive. Republicans are right-winged. Socialists aren’t. And, if we skate much to close to the politically incorrect line drawn so vividly in the psychological sand by Arthur Jensen, and his infamous ‘heritability factor’ for IQ (whatever that means anymore), we start seeing unsupported racial differences. The stereotypes are endless. Also, facile, reductionist, and ‘convenient’.

Happily, I’m not a social psychologist. But I do fancy myself a keen observer of humans and human behavior. Working my way through this weekend’s Globe & Mail, two pieces caught my eye — with illustrative photographs attached. As has been the publication’s wont in the past several weeks, the current pandemic has served as the connecting theme. (How could it be otherwise?) The first article was driven by the fast-evolving guidelines (now bylaws) governing urban public behavior. Specifically, Toronto’s attempts to regulate how we use our green spaces in an era that demands physical separation. Mayor John is quoted:

We are not saying don’t go to the park. We’re just asking people to engage in common sense behaviour and to take account of the fact they need to separate themselves from other people that they don’t live with.

A bit later in the same piece, ‘pedestrian advocate’ Michale Black frets about enforcement and encroachment on the ‘basic freedom’ of moving around on foot. Hold that thought, all you Canadians.

Screen Shot 2020-04-04 at 8.57.06 PMI continue to thumb (actually, index and middle finger on my laptop) the edition. And before reading the next bit, have a quick peek at the second photo in this post. That’s truly what grabbed my attention. Citizens of Culver City, California, lined up waiting to access another basic freedom, the constitutional right to bear arms. Or as it is now interpreted, to own guns. In this case, in record numbers and for the most ‘defensible’ (no apologies for the double entendre) of reasons: “The cops won’t go after petty crimes when they’re dealing with the virus. If you don’t protect yourself, who’s going to do it for you?”, queries the thirty something as he bolsters his stash of shotgun shells. I was particularly struck by the representative ‘line-up’, including the dog in arms — I’d guess he’s favouring a ‘comfortable in the paw, light caliber model’.

And so there we have it. Two solitudes. To be sure, the polarities are simplistic, ignoring of the many individual differences within any population: the ‘reticent Italian’, the ‘unapologetic Canadian’. But defining enough to have gun stores declared essential services in the US and park access as a basic human right in its neighbor to the north. I can recall my disbelief on that November night four years ago as the returns shifted and POTUS turned red. The not so silent majority had spoken — and continues to do so. In a time of crisis, the struggle to defend, entrench, protect (in the most visceral of ways) defining one pole of a national personality; the challenge of pulling together, supporting, affiliating, uniting — when the ‘rules’ say otherwise — describing the other.

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