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The Quest for Identity


What is it like for an entire country to lose its identity?  That’s what The Quest for Identity is about.  It speaks of the identity of America in the middle of the 20th century.  The book documents a shift from one of personal responsibility and accountability to something else.  It makes sense, as Tom Brokaw wrote about The Greatest Generation – the one that Chuck Underwood called the G.I. Generation in America’s Generations.  Somehow, their focus made it easier for them to find themselves.  That is to say that they had the same struggles in identity formation – but it didn’t seem as severe or last for as long.  (See Childhood and Society for identity formation.)

Progress Democratizes

The first radio broadcast in the US was on November 2, 1920; in 1931, a majority of homes had a radio; and in 1937, 75% of homes had one.  Not even 20 years, and it radically changed music in the United States.  Prior to the introduction of radio, few people could hear an orchestra play – because they had to be physically present.  After the introduction of the radio, people anywhere within the reach of the station could hear the best that the United States had to offer.

Radio made good music available to everyone, just as the internet has democratized access to information.  Technological innovations necessarily democratize what used to be luxury items in the past.  The How of Happiness makes the argument that your current material comfort would have been the comfort of the top 5% of people just fifty years ago.

Changing Morality

Wheelis makes a few arguments about how morality works.  He believes that morality is derived from social mores.  This is slightly inconsistent with the view of Chris Lowney in Heroic Leadership and the approach taken by the Jesuits.  They, he explains, are aware of core beliefs and values as being nonnegotiable.  However, everything else was subject to the mores of the societies they were in.

Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind explains his belief that morality is based on six pillars.  These aren’t about mores but are written into our very being.  Certainly, the research starting with Darwin and continued by Robert Dawkins in The Selfish Gene point to a set of traits or drivers that reinforce survival of the species.  Robert Axelrod in The Evolution of Cooperation demonstrated computationally that these advanced capabilities would have survived.  Does Altruism Exist? continues this work towards an understanding of how what we call “morals” may have been mechanisms of our survival.

Ignoring the Facts

Not liking a fact doesn’t stop it from being a fact.  When we ignore facts – or fail to look for them – we end up trapped in cults (see Terror, Love, and Brainwashing) or take extreme positions (see Going to Extremes).  We cannot ignore the changes to culture except at our own peril.

More Diverse but Less Variety

If you were to travel back to the early 1900s, you’d find a great deal more diversity, but less variety.  You wouldn’t find the consistency of large organizations and franchises that are indistinguishable from other franchises in other cities, states, and countries.  Each city would have family-run stores.  There would be diversity.

In 1924, a few hardware store owners in Chicago pooled their buying power into what would eventually become ACE hardware stores.  It wouldn’t be until 1926 that the Independent Grocers Alliance brought together the family-owned grocery stores in small cities and linked them in a way that gave them better buying power and better distribution.  These moves (and many others) reduced the diversity in the American landscape while increasing the efficiency.

This efficiency and the demands of the American public ultimately led to an explosion of options.  According to Daniel Levitin in The Organized Mind, the average grocery store in 1976 stocked 9,000 items.  By 2013, the average store had 40,000 different options.

The landscape changed to conformity while allowing for individuals to maintain or increase their individuality.

Protecting Memories

One of the first things that professionals do when they encounter someone who is suffering from trauma is to assess whether they’re alert and oriented.  Alert more or less means that they’re responsive.  Oriented is a bit more complicated; it involves their understanding of who they are, where they are, when they are (year), and some degree of awareness of current events.

Being connected to people, places, and time is a fundamental part of our psyche.  Our feelings of nostalgia invoke the desire to remain connected to people, places, and times.  Sometimes, this desire for connectedness shows up as a desire for mementos from our experiences.

No matter what tourist destination you go to, there will be some objects that have the name of the destination on it.  From keychains to kayaks, are things that you can use to remember where you were.  With clothing, you can even encourage others to comment on your travels and perhaps share stories if they’ve been there, too.

The mementos that we keep need not have the name on them as long as we can still remember where we got them from.  Some things that I have aren’t important because of what they are, they’re important because of what they remind me of.  Almost everyone has this tendency to some degree.

Public Health and Personal Approaches Differ

One of the real challenges in trying to understand how to make an impact is understanding the difference between public policy approaches and individual efficacy.  There are factors that are associated with the increased risk of suicide.  We know that from a mathematical point of view.  However, this information does little to help you when you’re speaking with an individual who is struggling and suffering and looking at suicide as an option.

It’s the core behind the myth that we can predict who will and won’t attempt suicide in the near term.  The factors that operate in aggregate don’t operate at the individual.  Consider the example that Craig Bryan used in Rethinking Suicide.  We know what risk factors cause automobile accidents.  However, we can’t say which people will be in accidents.

Follow Through

I picked up this book because Roy Baumeister in Willpower spoke of Wheelis’ claim for greater insights during therapy but less follow through work on resolving the issues.  I didn’t see these statements play out in any major way through the work, but I developed an understanding of how societal shifts shape The Quest for Identity.