In global terms, I am not widely travelled. But in my frequent journeys around Europe, I have learned one ‘truth’ that I believe can be applied everywhere: people and places are not all the same. At one level, that’s a truism of geography, but it also applies to the social and economic landscape that people overlay on the places they inhabit.
It’s been a nice conceit for Europeans to think that the increasingly close relationships between our nation-states have made us “all just European now”. But it’s not true: the differences remain as strong as the newer realisation that we have more in common than we thought.
It’s not only a national issue either; the tendency to think in terms of national blocs frequently masks the differences that exist within nations. Things can be very different over small distances, even between more and less advantaged districts of a single town. The same tendency also disguises larger patterns, such as the fact that the USA has more coronavirus cases than Europe. I haven’t done the maths, but physical size and population of the USA make a comparison with Europe as a whole more valid than with much smaller political units, before we Europeans go crowing too loudly.
But now more than ever, none of the foregoing detracts from the basic fact that things aren’t the same everywhere. My experience can hardly be claimed to be scientific, but the repeated impression of numerous countries has been that each has its own ‘way’, that seems to transcend any attempt to smother or standardise it.
I suspect the reason for this is simply that ‘culture’ is both a more and less transmissible phenomenon that we realise. While it is easy enough to identify its outward expressions, I suspect the sheer depth of that ‘programming’ is less appreciated. Because we are exposed to this particular virus literally from birth, we acquire immunity before we’re even aware that is what it is. We then get trapped within it, which makes it more difficult to assimilate others.
What both fascinates and puzzles me is the extent to which culture might be heritable – nature, rather than as one might suppose, nurture. Accepting the many limitations on one’s ability to see the whole picture of something this complex, repeated exposure to Europe’s kaleidoscope has both given me a sense that there are some grounds for national stereotypes – and made me fascinated about precisely why Italians are Italian, Germans German and so on. It almost seems as though nations are unable to escape from their own mindsets, even when it might be in their better interests to do so. It might also explain why the why the UK predictably follows US norms more closely than do other European nations – and language-dependent mindset is only part of it. What genetic cultural commonalities might also play a part?
Yet Nurture is the more obvious influence: from one’s first breath, one is programmed by an all-enveloping message about the world. The things one treats as “normal” are the product of the neural networks that grow by exposure to certain things rather than others, and become established simply by virtue of frequency of encounter. Culture shock is an expression of what happens when one confronts this.
I can find no other way to explain why a universal human aptitude for language ends up with people speaking different ones dependent on where they grow up, or how the universal human need to eat finds so many different expressions.
What we perhaps underestimate is the depth to which these things pervade our entire experience – to the extent that different individuals seem to perceive the world in fundamentally different ways. A recent example was Britons’ wildly varying readings of their nation’s relationship with its neighbours. I think it’s too simplistic to attribute that simply to the influence of the media, the choice of which is itself a product of deeper currents. British attitudes to the wider world seem to be more generally informed by a deeper perspective of isolationism – without, seemingly, any recognition that insularity is itself a form of conditioning, not an absolute of human nature. It’s a function of island-dwelling so deep that many rarely even notice it.
It seems plausible to consider that those who have been exposed to a wider range of cultural experiences (for example by living in a poly-cultural environment or simply having wider geographical horizons) might have developed more varied neural networks as a result, thereby rendering them fundamentally more comfortable with pluralism than those who grew up in more homogenous surroundings. In Switzerland, for example, it is consistently the remote Alpine areas that are the strongholds of right-wing nationalism, whereas the big cities are more liberal. But I’ve met few on the continent who seemed as inherently insular in their attitudes as many British.
Beneath this seems to lie another question: why is it, in this day of instant international communication, when the world’s cultures are interacting more closely than ever before, does our ability to learn even practical things from each other seem so slow? Why is it that the British persist in mocking Germanic ‘efficiency’ even as they might be much better off imitating it? It seems that they just can’t ‘do’ it , even when they most need to.
What is less appreciated is the extent to which culture perpetuates itself – and in objective terms, that can mean replicating and even amplifying national blind spots. The people of a nation are as much a product of its culture as the reverse.
Collectively the British still seem to find it more important to perpetuate their country’s traditions – even as they grow manifestly more and more unsuited for the present day. There is an element of bloody-mindedness when it comes to learning from others – even where it means doing things worse, rather than adopting their methods. We then tell ourselves that it is actually we who are “world class”, even when the evidence contradicts it. This deep runs the national superiority-inferiority complex.
National institutions and policies can reinforce these patterns: the British have been told by their politicians and media for sufficient decades that there is “no such thing as society, only an economy”, that they have come to believe it, and behave accordingly. Even the education system – one of the key methods of cultural transmission – has been recruited to this cause, emphasising economic outcomes at the expense of personal wisdom or resilience, or wider social values. The Health Service (as everything else) has been run as a quasi-business, even though the result has been perpetual shortages and changes of policy. The nation has been led to believe that low taxes are better than a high-quality public realm – and as for the enduring acceptance that traditional social hierarchy is a natural order, it is so “obvious” that even now it is rarely widely questioned. The excessive, futile social competitiveness that it begets is simply treated as the norm.
However, this is not just a British issue: such cultural imprisonment is visible to varying extents across the world. Such convergence as there has been, for example in attitudes towards the human rights or environment, seems to have been the product of top-down intervention by organisations such as the EU or UN.
Which is why I come back to the idea of a heritable element to culture. As technology increasingly turns human culture into a single entity, it ought to be far easier to learn and adopt new strategies and mindsets than it is actually proving.
Anyone who has travelled on Swiss public transport can hardly avoid asking themselves the question, “Why can’t everywhere be like this?” Anyone who has crossed the Belgium-Luxembourg border and noticed the sudden absence of pot-holes and road noise can hardly not reflect on the mindsets and resultant priorities that produced such a striking physical manifestation of the difference between two neighbouring states. The answer is not always money.
More generally, one might wonder why certain states globally exhibit hawkish behaviours while others are more dove-like. Why is it that the nations with serious social problems don’t look at those with fewer and find it within themselves to emulate them? Why can’t Americans look at Europe and realise the obvious, glaring causality between gun ownership and mass killings? Something deeper and more instinctive seems to get in the way.
In the case of the U.K., why is that we instinctively follow the USA’s lead, at the expense of conflict with our nearer neighbours, even while they often don’t suffer from the same extreme social and economic problems that both this country and the USA do? Something deep inside seems to prevent us from doing so – even to the extent of driving a Brexit that few now claim will bring any real benefits.
But now we have a Reckoning that will throw all these things into harsh relief. I am not inert to the individual suffering that the coronavirus is causing. It is a human catastrophe. But with my (compassionate) social scientist hat on, I also wonder what it might tell us, and we might learn from it.
In objective terms, this pandemic presents the closest we are likely to come to an utterly dispassionate test of each nation, as of each person within them. The systems, policies, infrastructures – and mindsets – of each are being tested against a ruthless but remarkably constant adversary, which is exposing their respective strengths and weaknesses in a way that ‘mere opinion’ cannot.
And, allowing for the imperfections of information and reporting, it seems evident that while no country has coped ‘well’, some have coped better than others. To what extent is that luck – and to what extent a reflection on the model that each country operates? Much-criticised authoritarian countries seem to have had more success in imposing measures to curb transmission than those in the libertarian West, while within Europe, the “humourless”, “efficient” and “conformist” countries seem to have suffered less than less disciplined ones.
Those that have invested in their health care and technical sectors now have capacity that others which have cut apparent “inefficiencies” to the bone (in the name of cost-savings) do not. Those that retained a stronger sense of civic cohesion seem to be having fewer problems with curfews than those with more individualist streaks. I am bound (but not surprised) to add that the British education system seems to have done little to equip the nation’s citizens as a whole with the perspectives and resilience that might have led to a calmer, more disciplined response. This ‘common-sensical’ nation has revealed itself (again) to be nothing of the kind. Meanwhile, humanitarian aid is coming from some distinctly unexpected quarters…
And the ultimate free market – the USA – sadly seems set to reap a whirlwind that even the UK may avoid, on account of a healthcare sector that was organised for corporate profit rather than universal public health. What more tangible evidence will be needed of the folly of that approach?
In the UK, the flaws of governmental libertarianism have been exposed – but so have the inadequacies of a society where social obligation has been all but obliterated; one in which inequality is so entrenched that there is no shame in depriving one’s fellows of basic needs by bulk-buying (and let’s face it, you need a certain income to be able to do that) – or by considering that one’s “right” to take refuge in one’s second home is more important than the risk of importing the virus into the remoter communities. It is the same mentality that seems to have led the lackadaisical, silver-spoon-raised Johnson somehow to think he was immune from contracting the virus when shaking hands in hospitals. The mindset runs so deep that it defies even common sense. But it can now be shown incontrovertibly to be wrong.
It is the mindset that has nationally prioritised private interests over social need for decades – the same interests that have been found wanting in a national emergency (just-in-time supply chains may cut costs but they do not work at times like this). Others, meanwhile, have been deluging us with emails of opportunism-cum-desperation assuring us of just how public-spirited they actually are, now that our patronage has dried up. Where were those values before the virus when they hoovered up our cash and funnelled it to shareholders? And does anyone really not see the irony in the multi-billionaire, non-tax-paying Branson asking for state bail-outs?
This is not pretty. We should of course balance it with the many acts of compassion and selflessness that are happening across the country, most of which are small and unreported. (Is it too much to describe it as a national reawakening? Even Johnson now accepts that there is such a thing as society…). We should also accept that negative behaviour is probably happening elsewhere, and we are simply not seeing it reported. But the balance-sheet will not inevitably be the same everywhere; I wonder how many Swiss are ignoring their lock-down. (In fact, my informant tells me it is virtually total).
Is it too much to hope that the trial-by-Armageddon of this pandemic should result in some important lessons being learned? Including the need to learn from others where attitudes and practices are better? That isolationism and social polarisation do not work? That (unprofitable) investment in resilience and contingency measures is not economically foolish, let alone socially unnecessary? That in the end, good government is essential? And that mocking nations who are less ill-disciplined, more enlightened than we – and whose citizens have enough social education to know when to curtail their personal idiocies in the name of collective survival – is foolish?
I think that various national responses to the pandemic have tended to reflect national norms more than dispel them. Some of that is circumstantial: more gregarious societies were perhaps going to have quicker contagion than less gregarious ones; on the other hand, they tend to have warmer climates, and so might experience quicker reductions as the summer arrives, that are nothing to do with policy. As I said, it’s complex. But above all that is the ability of each country effectively to run its own affairs. That will ultimately be measured by infection and mortality rates in the face of a common threat.
In the case of the U.K., it will probably be seen to have muddled through, initially over-reliant on bombast, spin and opportunism, followed by a belated but partially successful change of tack; its public services doing a good job despite long having been starved of resources; a nation that is not as sensible (by a long way) as it thinks it is, with cultural transmission systems (such as education) that are found not to have equipped the people as well as they might have, to deal with the biggest collective emergency of their lives.
In other words, pretty much the normal story for this country. But it’s a pity we still find it so hard to learn (in all sorts of ways) from those who arguably did better.