Producer’s note: Someone on Quora asked: What American social values do people find disconcerting, even offensive? Here are some of the best answers that’s been pulled from the thread. Thank you to the team at Quora for making this happen!
1. Eric Miller
I don’t think this has been mentioned: Americans are moralistic. About everything. Overweight? Underweight? Eat meat? Don’t eat meat? Smoke? Have a drink while pregnant? Take one car ride with your child and no car seat? Support a different political party than me? Shop at Walmart? Come from Mississippi? Jaywalk? Live with your parents? Sing karaoke when you aren’t that good? YOU ARE A BAD PERSON!
Not just, oh, that might not be a good idea, or we have different values but YOU ARE A BAD PERSON! Even if it does not impact me personally, I will judge you.
Liberals supposedly are tolerant, but judge all sorts of things.
Conservatives supposedly hate political correctness, but have their own God and Country version of things you can’t say or joke about.
Libertarians are all about live and let live, but if you don’t have your life together it is because you have personally failed. You have to take responsibility. In other words, you are a moral failure. Ayn Rand, the most judgmental person since the Pilgrims.
I’m sure other countries are judgmental, but Americans are supposed to be so independent and free. Having lived in a less moralistic society, I find this pretty disconcerting.
Many Americans reduce the most complex world issues to a struggle between Good and Evil.
“You’re either with us, or against us.”
There are a few things that spring to mind. An incredibly inflexible two-party system is a big one. Everything, somehow, falls perfectly into two dimensions. And if both parties agree on something, you’re basically screwed: think “war on terror”. A relative glorification of the military is another. Blowing certain risks way out of proportion is another, although that seems to be sweeping the whole world. A Puritan work ethic coupled with an almost Puritan antipathy towards alcohol.
But one I find particularly disconcerting—and one I’ve been thinking about lately—is patriotism.
I grew up thinking that anything beyond token patriotism or nationalism was simply base and facile. After all, how could presumably rational adults take it seriously? So realizing that plenty of mature people were fiercely loyal to the country just because was a bit disenchanting. The weight people put on pure symbols like the flag or the office of the president (not the executive, the executive branch or its capabilities but just the office as a position) is also odd.
Part of this, I think, was a matter of how I grew up. I was born in Russia to parents who were squarely in the intelligentsia—intelligent, very well educated but simultaneously consistently poor and politically powerless. Then, at a fairly young age, my family moved to Canada. Both of these contexts are really not particularly patriotic, especially compared to what seems to be the norm in the US.
Sure, the Russians I knew all loved their country and their culture (I do too). But any patriotism was always heavily tempered. You couldn’t really remain patriotic if you were intelligent and well educated in the Soviet Union, which was patently horrible, or during the perestroika which was just a complete mess. Going through that, you just had to recognize how fallible the idea of a nation was—especially as a potential receptacle for undying loyalty. The behavior of various staunchly nationalistic groups didn’t help either.
Canada, of course, never had anything like that. It’s been about as peaceful and stable as a country can be in living memory. Practically the opposite of Russia. And yet it didn’t seem to engender much nationalism either. Sure, people liked it. Canada’s pretty great. But that’s what they like: the qualities. I never sensed much fervor for Canada qua nation-state or abstract ideal. It’s hard to imagine a rabidly Canadian Canadian.
But in the US? It’s common and practically accepted. US flags are all over the place: I see them far, far more often than I saw Canadian flags. We used to say the pledge of allegiance in school, which is a little bit disturbing in and of itself. There is an incredibly specific flag code, with far more ceremony than you’d expect in modern times, that actually seems to be followed. To me, the current passport seems practically self-parodying (a bald eagle, the Preamble, some grain and a flag—all its missing from being a Colbert production is a tear), but other people I’ve talked to don’t see it that way at all. The Patriot Act isn’t ironically named either.
I don’t really find it offensive, but disconcerting is exactly the right word. It’s a little bit like seeing complete grown-ups playing dress-up… except its serious. Deadly serious.