Sunday, March 20, 2011

'Americans are Loud,' 'Japanese are Stoic,' 'Germans are Organized:' Stereotypes and Me

I wrote about Japan's March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami a few hours ago. Also what America's bishops suggest. (March 20, 2011) Briefly, " 'Catholics interested in supporting the work of CRS can visit:"

No Looting in Japan?

One of the oddities about what folks are doing in areas hit by the quake, tsunami, and (slightly) radioactive spinach - is what they're not doing.

There doesn't seem to be any looting going on.

I've run into a few explanations for that: and found more in a BBC op-ed piece.

Briefly, the reactions to 'no looting in Japan' seem to boil down to:
  • The Japanese, so
    • Stoic
    • Calm
    • Polite
    • Honest
  • There is so looting!!
  • The mob won't let them loot
  • That'll show those nasty right-wingers!!
Me? I think folks living in Japan are quite a bit like folks living in Minnesota, Kenya, and India.

Except for the ways we're different.

Here's part of that BBC op-ed:
"During a state of emergency it is not unusual to hear about looting, so why have there been very few reports of this in Japan? Commentators from across the media have their say...

"...Slate's Christopher Beam says there's more to the lack of looting than honesty. He says that Japanese people are more honest than most, but adds the Japanese legal structure rewards honesty more than most.

"His other theories why there isn't any looting in Japan include the police presence and organised crime. 'Police aren't the only ones on patrol since the earthquake hit,' he says. 'Members of Yakuza, Japan's organised crime syndicate, have been enforcing order.'

"The Voice Of America's Steve Herman has been in Japan. He describes the country as 'slowly grinding to a halt', which he puts down to traditional Japanese stoicism...
The BBC devotes a few paragraphs to a fellow who's convinced that the Japanese act just like folks always do in a disaster - which he says proves how wrong "right-wing ideologies" are. I'll get back to that.

BBC's op-ed ends with a sort of 'they do so loot' item:
"...But US blogger Andrew Sullivan's readers have been disputing the story there is not looting in Japan. They've been sending in examples.

"According to a commenter on Mr Sullivan's blog the Daily Dish, who has been reading Japanese reports, they don't seem to be translated into English or reported on English language news sites.

"But, the commenter translates an article in Japan's 47 News citing 40 known cases of looting in Miyagi."

Miyagi Looting - 1/50,000 Doesn't Sound so Bad

I checked up that 47 News article - it's in Japanese, so I relied on Google Translate: and, sure enough, there seem to be 40 cases of looting in Miyagi Prefecture.

I did a little more checking. The Statistics Bureau, Japan says there were 2,336,000 folks living in Miyagi Prefecture in 2009. Rounding that down to an even 2,000,000: that's one looting incident for every 50,000 folks living in the prefecture. If I did the math right.

That'd be like folks St. Cloud, Minnesota, about 40 miles down the road from where I live, dealing with shaken-to-pieces buildings, little or no transportation in or out, dead bodies, supplies running low, and nuclear reactors misbehaving: with one person looting a convenience store.

"Minnesota nice" got to be a fairly well-known phrase for a reason: I think it's possible that folks in St. Cloud might have only one looter among them. Even so, I'd be impressed with behavior like that.

So much depends on what's meant by "looting," of course.

'What Folks Know, that Just Ain't So'

I've written about assumptions folks make, before. Fairly often, actually. (December 10, 2010, March 20, 2011, for starters)

Like 'the Catholic Church is very conservative.' True enough: parts of today's conservative philosophies resemble what the Catholic Church has been teaching for almost two millennia. So do parts of today's liberal philosophies.

I think it's a trifle silly to try fitting an organization that's seen empires rise and fall, is rooted in eternity, and maintained by at least one Person of the Trinity, into one little mental box.

No matter how convenient labeling the Church "conservative" or "liberal" would be.

I've written (ranted?) about my take on ideological silliness and the Catholic Church before, too:

Original Sin, the Noble Savage, and Wishful Thinking

Back to that BBC op-ed:
"...The idea that the Japanese are acting in some way against the grain in an emergency situation is challenged by columnist Johann Hari in the UK's Independent. He says the panicking disaster victim is a myth. He argues that in reality the vast majority of people behave in the aftermath as altruists, saving their fellow human beings and sharing what they have. He goes on to say the same predictions are made about every disaster.

" 'Once the lid of a tightly policed civilization is knocked off for a second, humans will become beasts. But the opposite is the case. It sounds grotesque to say we should see reasons for hope as we watch in real time while the earth is shaken six inches on its axis, tsunamis roar, and nuclear power stations teeter on meltdown. But it is true.'

"This, for Mr Hari, is proof enough to 'kill off right-wing ideologies based on the belief that humans are inherently selfish'...."
I've discussed, briefly, ideas like 'noble savage,' 'victim of society' 'the natural man,' and original sin before. (May 5, 2010)

Original sin, as taught by the Catholic Church: not the 'man is a pile of turds' version.

As a practicing Catholic, I believe that humanity is flawed. (October 15, 2010) That's "flawed," not inherently evil. (October 12, 2010)

But I'm "some guy with a blog." I suggest - strongly - that you check out what the Church has to say about original sin. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 385-412) (October 15, 2010, October 12, 2010)

As 'optimistic' or 'enlightened' as ideas like the Noble Savage were - and are - I don't see them as doing a good job of describing humanity. After all these thousands of years, you'd think that one society would have gotten it right - but maybe I'm the optimist.

Stereotypes: Handy, But No Substitute for Reality

I don't know quite what Mr. Hari means by " 'kill off right-wing ideologies based on the belief that humans are inherently selfish' " - but it sounds a bit like the usual 'hate-filled right-wing extremist' stuff we got, in buckets, after the Gifford shooting - and that is almost another topic. (January 9, 2011)

I'll grant that there are folks with "right-wing" attitudes who seem to be very good at hating. I remember the trailing edge of McCarthyism - but I'm convinced that 'those conservatives over there' don't have a monopoly on unrighteous anger. (December 9, 2010) I'm a Catholic, so I'm not allowed to hate people. (December 9, 2010) Which brings up the topic of emotions - and I am not going to get distracted.

Oops. I already have. Gotten distracted, that is. Back on-topic:

Stereotypes: They're handy. We use them quite often, as a sort of mental shorthand. I don't think they do any harm: as long as a person remembers that stereotypes are 'conventional or formulaic conceptions or images' (Princeton's WordNet) - not reality.

A Universal Church

I even think there's a little truth to national/ethnic stereotypes: loud Americans, stoic Japanese, organized Germans, and more. I've run into too many 'how to act when in Japan' articles in trade magazines to believe otherwise.

But that doesn't mean that I think all Americans are loud, any more than I think that the stereotypes are all there is to the varied cultures of the world.

I also realize that some stereotypes are harmful. Which gets me back to original sin - and this post is long as it is.

A brief (for me) summary:

I suspect that folks living in Japan really are dealing with their national disaster differently than folks would who'd grown up in, say, Los Angeles, or Berlin, or Mumbai. I'd be very surprised if everybody, all over the word, acted pretty much the same way.

Somewhat-related posts:
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Background:Posts in this blog: In the news:

What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.