Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Is popular culture ruining our young people?

Last night in my sociology of religion class our professor Reg Bibby asked that question.

Here's my take…

To begin with this question essentializes both popular culture and young people. The question assumes that that popular culture exists as a more or les singular monolithic entity. Yet this is exactly what makes the question provocative.

I have for a long time tried to maintain some distance (I'll admit I am not always successful) from the temptation to attach value, either positive or negative to popular culture. There are aspects and trends that in certain ways seem to have beneficial aspects to society while even at the same time producing some seemingly ill effects. (eg. Cell phones – improve safety and accessibility but also impact the way conversation and relationships are maintained) The other thing that makes me leery to pass judgment on popular culture is because of how hypocritical it seems to criticize the new cultural directions when I participated and consumed, at least some of the those same general directions especially more so when I was young.

But don't confuse my lack of judgement on popular culture with a notion that popular culture is not purposeful or intentional. Quite the opposite. Popular culture has a specific trajectory. It is clearly, in a general sense, against the established culture and norms that exist. That means involvement or consumption of popular culture is participating in a direction that is set at least in part in opposition established values and cultural expression. So that means conflict. Now this is hardly the case in all situations and it is not necessarily strongly antagonistic. But popular culture wouldn't be popular culture if it wasn't different than any other culture. Because it is different, conflict is inevitable. This is not really such a bad thing. In the process of conflict social norms and values are either further entrenched or are modified to accommodate new cultural situations and ideologies. It is a refining process. Now some will say that the values that they hold dear seem to be on the losing end of the conflict and that is fair to say but not entirely objective.

As for young people, I have always maintained that individuals retain a great deal of agency within and over the social structures and mores they encounter. Participation is optional. This is formed, likely, from my upbringing in evangelical theology that strongly taught personal individual choice – especially as it related to spiritual commitment. While I still maintain that individuals are free agents within their world – I acknowledge – like most of the 'fathers' of sociology that the choices we have as individuals are limited. (We may think we are exercising choice in the toothpaste aisle but the reality is no matter how the store stocks the shelves our choices are limited.) As a result we are faced with limited options for our participation in culture altogether. (In the past elders of the church patrolled the town for young people going to the movies. This meant that the choice to go to movies was restricted to some extent and that the surveillance created implications on the type of faith one was able to live out. Today elders do not do that so youth go to movies at their whim and the allowance of their parents. The nature of the choice has changed but then so has the implications for faith.) I believe that teaching youth to have a critical eye for how they engage with culture is critical to establishing healthy faith as well.

Now to be clear there are many things that are trends in popular culture that I lament. But to be sure there are things that I think bear celebrating. But that is for another day…

Check out an interesting post Bibby has made On the Origins of the American Superiority Complex

8 comments:

Jesse said...

Great post Dale.

As someone who has lived in the US about the same amound of time as Bibby (and travelled to 45 out of 50 of the states), I've struggled extensively with my thoughts about American arrogance and ignorance. With regards to your professor's blog about the American Superiority Complex I must add that I disagree with a decent portion of what your professor states, especially the following:

"To interact with an American is to have the sense that one is typically working from a position of weakness, of inferiority."

Of the thousands of Americans I've met that I have told that I was Canadian, not once have I had the feeling of being inferior. In fact, the opposite has always been the case. I have discovered that most Canadians (myself included) have no idea how highly Americans regard them. Sure, there are often stupid jokes that are made and they probably don't know who the Prime Minister of Canada is, but I have never once had the feeling of being inferior.

Outgoing... said...

Jesse - thanks for the response.
First of all Bibby seems to admit that his ideas need revision based on the personal interaction that he has had.
Second, I think that what Bibby is adressing is pertain to some of the macro cultural values and structures that inform American indentity. If you take his sporting analogies as an example - there is some arrogance in calling a championship the World Series when the teams are only from one country. And the term World Series is super-imposed idiomatically on other sports as well to indicate their prestige/status. (e.g. "This is the 'WORLD SERIES' of crokinole"). And obviously consideration needs to be given to the historical contest of the naming of the championship.
It strikes me that the cognitive connection between the name of the championship and the individuals conceptual framework of their national identity is at least loose if not almost non-existant. So your reflections on your own experience are easily accurate on a number of different levels.
However, what I think Bibby is playing with is some notion of influence. And here I think he has a point. The American trajectory, culturally, politically, economically, and internationally is largely self-informed which I think reflects arrogance toward other national and cultural perspectives...

jc said...

Bibby's perspective of American's seems to widespread in Canada. I am not really sure why this is. Being American myself, I would say I rarely thought of Canadians at all while living there. Once in awhile my cousins would come down and inform me on all of the famous Canadians living in the USA, all of the things Canadians had invented, that Canadians burned down the Whitehouse the War of 1812, how awesome the Canada Arm was etc... When I moved to go to school in Canada my room mate again informed me of all of these facts and told me that if I could think of anything that was made in the States and in Canada the Canadian product would be better. Not that all Canadians are like this. Most of them are not I suppose. But from these anecdotal experiences I guess I could construct an argument that when Canadians interact with Americans they try to make them feel inferior because Americans have higher crime, a medicare system that is only half socialized, and they don't watch hockey. I don't know if I have a point here but I think generalizations like your professor's are somewhat susceptable to scrutiniy.

Outgoing... said...

jc,
good perspective. Certainly, the notion of Canadian superiority could be supported both from the particular and the general evaluation of cultural attitudes and norms. i would say that in most cases this notion functions as cultural explanation rather than a focused trajectory of action in the relationship between Canadian institutions and individuals. So a Canadian would use that notion to explain why the relationship with Americans isn't the way they they think it should be. (eg. the Americans are ignorant and arrogant and we (Canadians) are better than they are because we are not.) The irony is not lost on me. But the distinctions between the two notions of arrogance are distinct. The American notion, if it can be supported, is a differentiation project that is aimed at reinforcing concepts of superiority whereas the Canadian notion, again if supported, is almost only limited to its relationship specifically with America and is essentially compensatory in its cultural trajectory.
That famous beer commercial is a great example of this...
I am Canadian = a comparison with America. American advertising would never conceive of a this type of project. A commercial that attempted to use national identity as a marketing tool would more like focus on reinforcing commonly held icons, values and symbols associated with national identity. In that sense it would be more descriptive than confrontational.
in any event our own expressions of arrogance require equal attention as any sense of the same in the American context...

Natasha said...

Lol... I didn't read that guy's commentary, just these comments here, but I have to say I laughed when reading JC's comments because I could identify all too much. I too, (an American) have been informed MANY times of the War of 1812, of the superior low crime rate in Canada, how arrogant we must be to label something in our sports the "world series", and how Canada is just all in all, way better than the US. If I'm being honest, I would have to say that I feel many Canadians are hell bent on putting me in my place as soon as they learn that I am American - not all, but a decent number. These are personal interactions, however, and I think that what Canadians don't always understand about Americans is that we as people are NOT our institutions. There should be made a clear distinction between institutional arrogance and societal arrogance among individuals.

So Dale, based on your last comment, you are hinting that, when supported, the argument for American ignorance is there because one would say that America wants to be better than everyone, while Canadians only want to be better than Americans?

Outgoing... said...

Sure Natasha...
I think that both 'arrogances' have a different trajectory. I also think that a generalization as grand as this one is far too essentializing to be evidentially credible accross an entire national social context. It is clear that the politically at least there are at least two different frameworks that are competing for acceptance in this election(USA). Generally speaking the rhetoric of Obama seems to frame the national identity as less arrogant than McCain does. However, even within that construction it is clear that there conceptualizations of American identity within the Democrat party that would prove otherwise.
And if the argument is supportable it should be possible to extend this American arrogance toward other countries as well.
On the other hand, the only fear that Stephen Harper has to deal with in any serious way is how much his policy reflects 'the Bush Doctrine' - which itself is a reference to an Americanization of his politics. If anyone could successfully tie Stephen Harper to American values his political career would be over in this country at least. And what this tells us is that Canadians do have at least an antagonistic regard for almost all things American. Whether again that is actually to be labelled arrogance or just plain bitterness is hard to tell.
Again, as this discussion has pointed out essentializing is difficult project to make 'stick'. While I think that Bibby is undertaking just such an essentializing project in some of the generalizations he is making - i think the subtext of his comments reflect a 'slice' of how our relationship with the USA is negotiated - which i find legitimate and for the most part believable...

Natasha said...

You would probably be pretty interested in the discussion this week in one of my classes. We are talking about ethnocentrism in institutions - my professor had this good example, when we travel internationally where do we eat? McDonald's, the hotel, places like Hard Rock cafe... in other words, we ACT like we are experiencing other cultures, but in reality, we are staying within the confines of our "owness" as much as possible. Anyway, I don't know much about the elections happening up north right now besides that one has been called, so I can't comment much on that. (Accuse me of ethnocentrism!!! lol...) But, I do think your observation about Harper staying away from Bush Doctrine is another prime example of what we're talking about here. I wonder how much of this is just human nature though, and how much is socialization. I mean, to some degree, we will always cling to familar because it's safe and I think we are hard wired to desire safety and stability, yet it clearly cannot be an excuse for total ignorance of the world around us.

Outgoing... said...

I think your class discussion would be interesting indeed. It's curious that you mention the idea of human nature as being implicated in the choices we make. Having just finished Sartre's 'Existentialism' my ears perked up at that comment. I think it would fair to say that Sartre would claim that even our notion of human nature is 'informed' by a type of socialization and in that way constructed. That you would attribute notions of safety and comfort as essential natural qualities of human reality would go against Sartre's ideas. And in a sense I can see it. It occurs to me that even those things that we consider safe or comfortable are only so as a result of the influence of others. I'm not sure if I buy all of Sartre's thining here but allow me to expand an example. Let's take the idea of safe and stable eating options. We have a set of guidelines that inform what is safe (ie. rawness vs. well cooked/cows instead of horses... etc.) And we know that those are not choices we make arbitrarily but are a product of how we have been conditioned to respond. The essential nature of what is safe or stable is defined then by external forces at work in the social process. but it is even greater than that because how do we know to place a priority on defingin safety or stability unless we again are socially informed and directed.
And for Sartre even an inaction is still a choice in the arena of life. So that even being ignorant of the election north of the border is an action for which you alone are responsible for. However it is only an ethnocentric action as it is defined by others. sorry for rambling...