Memetic Turning Points

In these articles I have put forth the idea that we humans are products of our culture. I also claim that most people are blind to the extent that this is so. I am not saying that culture merely influences us. I am saying that we are expressions of our culture, with far less choice than we might imagine.

This assertion verges on being unfalsifiable, since each person's culture differs subtly. Although I now live in the United States, I was born in Canada. My mother was from England; my father was born in Canada but partially raised in Britain; and my step-mother was from France. For most of my life I dwelled in a part of Canada that was predominately French. So you might expect me to be slightly different from another Canadian — and you'd be right. But the differences between two Canadians are, by some measures, not as great as the differences between a Canadian and an “American” (that is, somebody from the United States).

Canadians are seen by Americans as nice, law-abiding but somewhat dull. Americans are seen by Canadians as highly energetic, self-centred ... and violent. How can these two groups of people be so different? It seems to me that these differences can be explained by cultural differences, which in turn arise from issues of climate and history. But there are also some memetic turning points, and I would like to mention one of these now.

The American Declaration of Independence (1776) is famous for containing this sentence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness(Italics added)

Now have a look at this sentence from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982):

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.  (Italics added)

Note that the Canadian document (written two centuries after the American one) mentions “life” and “liberty”. It seems obvious that the American meme is being copied. But note also that the phrase “the pursuit of Happiness” has been changed to “security of the person”. (The Canadian document also does not claim that these rights are “unalienable” and gives the specific context in which they are not.)

The American notion raises Happiness and its pursuit to the status of a Right. As such, it becomes the “unalienable” birthright of every American. And what does “Happiness” mean? The Declaration of Independence does not explain this, but there are countless people in the United States who are willing to sell you their solution. It might be a hamburger or a new car. It might be a bigger house. Who knows what will work?

Now why would the writers of the Canadian document change a key (and famous) phrase in the way they did? I cannot read their minds, but my feeling is that they looked south of their border at the Americans and saw just what happened to that country as it pursued Happiness. The American behavior frightened  Canadians, and they responded by explicitly making security a duty of the government. (Note that Canada has socialized health care but the United States is — as of this writing — still resisting it.)

It seems to me that the behavioral differences between Canadians and Americans are well represented by that single substitution of “pursuit of Happiness" for “security of the person”. The question I leave up to the reader is this:

Is the behavior of the average American affected by knowing they are supposed to pursue (not necessarily catch) Happiness?

In other words, was the inclusion of the words “pursuit of Happiness” a memetic turning point for American (and also Canadian) culture?

No comments:

Post a Comment