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(This awkward title is one solution to complaints about “American Exceptionalism.” As discussed in a 2011 post, the phrase has recently come to mean, to some political partisans, “American Superiority.” For generations, however, students of American society have used the first dictionary definition of exceptionalism: “the condition of being different from the norm” [Merriam-Webster], more specifically meaning that the U.S. is an outlier among — way different from — other western nations.)

My take on the how and why of American Way-Differentism appears in the book, Made in America. Parts of the argument are summarized in a new essay for a joint project of the Smithsonian Institution and Zócalo Public Square on “What It Means to Be American.” The essay is here (and here as well).

Do Ideas Matter?

If you go to the Boston Review Web site, you’ll find the slogan “Ideas Matter” gracing the top of the homepage. Since I write a column for the magazine—and even wear a BR T-shirt announcing the slogan—I am not unsympathetic to the spirit of the claim. But in the social sciences, the idea that ideas matter has always been controversial. How much do ideas really matter? Do they affect individuals and societies more or less than do material circumstances such as economic incentives, physical constraints, and military force?

Arguments one way or the other often address broad historical issues, such as the economic rise of the West. Does the credit go to the Protestant ethic (Max Weber) or the West’s geographical advantages (Jared Diamond)? Do differences between Asian and European societies result from Confucianism versus Greek thought, collectivism versus individualism, late versus early industrialization—or something else? Disputes over individual differences in behavior are similarly polarized…. (See the rest of this post at the Boston Review site here.)

Alternative to Empathy

Paul Bloom, the noted Yale psychologist, wrote, in a 2013 New Yorker article and again in a 2014 Boston Review forum, “against empathy.” We are urged to feel empathy in order to do good for others, but empathy is a poor guide to altruism. Empathy is “parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate,” Bloom writes. We empathize much more with people who resemble us in background, looks, or character (that is, people who seem moral and deserving just like we assume we are) than with people who are different, odd, or potentially at fault. Thus, the baby fallen in the well in the next town deserves moving heaven and earth to save her, while tens of thousands of starving, deformed refugees thousands of miles away — not so much. How can empathy’s discrimination be morally justified, Bloom asks. Isn’t there a better guide?

My small addition to the conversation is simply to note this oddity: Bloom and the Boston Review commentators did not refer to the obvious guide, at least for Americans: organized religion. (In the New Yorker, Bloom refers only to “religious ideologies that promote cruelty” and the BR essays make passing nods to a vague Buddhism.) No one acknowledges that Americans’ historically most important guide to moral decisions, the Bible, might avoid the empathy paradox – or at least it might if Americans had not watered down its guidance with empathy.

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Women Dining

Debates over women’s rights in America have often polarized between those arguing that women need special recognition of how they differ from men – their role as mothers, smaller physiques, sexual vulnerability, and greater sensitivity, for example – and those arguing that women just need to be treated just like men. The story of how women’s rights expanded historically seems, crudely sketched, as first an expansion of special treatment and then an affirmation of similar treatment. The trajectory for women in the paid labor force, for instance, can be crudely described as a period of legislation providing women with special hours and conditions followed by an effort to guarantee equal treatment.

A new article by historian Paul Freedman in the Journal of Social History recounts one small part of the women’s rights story that seems to fit this pattern: women in restaurants. Today, a group of women dining without men is hardly worthy of notice; a woman dining alone might stir only about as much curiosity as a man dining alone. It was once quite different.

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This blog is one small example of a media- and internet-wide phenomenon: the torrent of reports on social science research. There was a time, back in the ‘80s, when some of us bemoaned the dearth of social science reporting in the media. That dearth motivated my experiment in the early 2000s with Contexts, a magazine of sociology for general readers, and then this blog a decade later. Now, I’m here to bemoan too much social science reporting.

The voracious appetite of the media, particularly the online venues, for “content” has combined with trends in the social sciences to produce an efflorescence of reports on social science findings. Unfortunately, there are many weeds as well as blossoms in this dense garden. Maybe there is too much social science reporting, too much tabloid social science journalism.

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Much of the meta-coverage of the Ferguson, Missouri, tragedy has stressed the apparent importance of social media in focusing attention and fanning the flames. The NPR program On the Media had a story on August 14, 2014 which, in part, spoke in wonderment about how much Ferguson was a social media event and that because of social media people know so much more about the events and are therefore mobilized more than ever before. Maybe.

What is striking in historical perspective is that, however vast the media apparatus may be, the disturbances have not spread. Forty or so years ago, before the computer, internet, and smartphone, the fury in African-American neighborhoods spread from city to city quite rapidly. But not now. How come? (This post is partly a revisit to an earlier one on social media and protest.)

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Blame Who or What

The sense of empowerment that is part of American individualism benefits Americans. People who feel empowered, able to shape the world, and responsible for themselves tend, social psychological research shows, to act more forcefully and succeed more often than people who feel themselves to be at the mercy of others or of larger forces. Confidence is often a positive self-fulfilling prophecy. But there is another side to such an empowered world view: self-blame.

To be sure, a healthy level of egoism – also part of the individualistic world-view – protects Americans from blaming themselves too much. Americans tend to take credit for their successes while sidestepping fault when things go wrong more often than other peoples do; Americans tend to be especially “self-enhancing” (see, e.g., here, here, and here). Nonetheless, the sense of personal responsibility can lead many Americans who face repeated difficulties to beat up on themselves.

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