Sunday, March 27, 2005

A contrast of Lebanese and American psyches

One of the things that amazes me about American society is how much of a "to do" culture it is. Whenever you meet someone, the first thing that person tells you is what he does in his life. In the psyche of the American, a person is worth as much as his resume, and the lowest life form is the individual who is where he is at because he somehow inherited it.

One of the virtues I find in this obsession with "doing" is existential. The average American is the most restless human being in the world. He's a workoholic who works more than eight hours a day, not because he needs to feed himself, but because he wants to work. There is an unquenchable drive to be engaged in an activity; to help make something happen.

Another virtue of this attitude is, ironically, social. Professions tend to bring more people together than race, nationality or religious creed. In social gatherings, I find that although people are interested in my background and do ask me to elaborate, discussions revolve around the question: "so, what have you been doing lately?" or "what do you do in life?"

Compare that reality with the situation in Lebanon. Some of the most important questions asked there are: "where are you from?" "from what village is your dad? and mom?" "what's your family name?" and "who's your grand father?" When discussing the virtues of an individual, one of the most important criteria is summarized in the following question: is he from a good family?

In short, the issue of "who you are" is one of the biggest in Lebanese society; and although what you do is definitely important, it comes in a distant second place.

The most important downside of this societal trait is existential. People, especially men, feel that their life is justified mainly by being who they are. Why should Jubran do something worthwhile when he already "earns" admiration for simply being the son of Malek? Why should Mohammed/Joseph care about doing something in their lives when they both feel that just by being Muslim/Christian they are "better off", and are comforted by the prospect of eventual salvation - even though neither really practices his religion?

More damaging, however, is the behavior of those individuals who are motivated. Whatever enterprise they wish to undertake must be justified by answering the following questions: how does this benefit you (as if doing something is not inherently beneficial)? how does if benefit your family? your village? your sect? etc, etc....

This mindset simply does wonders for poisoning Lebanon's social environment. Identity factors into what friends you hang out with, who you support in the elections (rather than, for example, who will give you a tax break or better garbage collection), who you marry, etc....

I sometimes ask myself: if Lebanese valued "what they did" as much as americans do, how different would things be? If people were drawn together because of what they do in life rather than what sect or village they're from, what would happen to our infamous sectarianism?

The majority of Lebanese will say that they are not sectarian, but the political structure forces them to be that way. Unfortunately, I have to conclude that they are being dishonest with themselves and the rest of us. It goes much deeper than simply politics. Who you are is a question that is imbeded in our psyche, and seems to be a permanent fixture.

In my opinion, Lebanese need to look at themselves in the mirror before anything else. Some major behavioral changes need to take place if we are ever to overcome some of the animosity that currently exists between us. Politicians can always change the rules of the game, but in my opinion the problem exists within the people at large; and can only be remedied by them.


Mustapha said...

Hello Raja,

The Beirut Spring has officially Responded to your post,
please feel free to tell me what you think.

The Beirut Spring

Solomon2 said...

To be fair, one of the disadvantages of the "what do you do" obsession is that it encourages shallow relationships. (This is also encouraged by the fact that the law is so fair, we don't usually need friends to protect us from injustice.) We are so defined by our careers that switching jobs often means losing friends, and sometimes even divorce!

This syndrome is very sharp for the politicians of Washington, D.C.: once they are out of office, many of their "oldest and dearest friends" (to quote President Carter) simply stop calling, and invitations to parties vanish -- or are even rescinded!

I do know of one case where "who's your dad" was a factor: in high school, when one guy claimed his girlfriend dumped him when his dad lost an election.

I don't think the answer is for every country to become another America, and the Bush Administration is on record as saying that democratic governments can have different characteristics. I think pre-1975 Lebanon was accepted as such, though many of its flaws were recognized.

ThinkingMan said...

But this isn't much different than the contrast between old world/new world- the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand are based on the merit system, where you could be anybody litteraly and become anything you want based on your achievements.
The Lebanese predicament which you describe is not that much different than in France for e.g. (although to a lesser degree) where who you are or start with could be a positive or negative factor in your success.
However, I am seeing some exceptions arise in Lebanon with self-made successes that have nothing to do with where they came from.
I don't think there is anything like the American system because they recognize and celebrate successes quickly and it is based on a lot of trust to start with, which is a needed basic value to allow anyone to succeed. In Lebanon, the old "unwritten" rule is that "if I don't know you or know where you come from, I can't trust you"; and that's because people are pre-conditioned to want to take advantage of each other, rather than thrive together in an atmosphere of trust.
But again, Raja- you hit on a difficult thing that must change, yes.

Solomon2 said...

Maybe thinkingman is onto something...breaking the bad aspects of the "where are you from" system may involve individuals in different groups trusting one another across the divide, in public, and then showing themselves worthy of such mutual trust. Honest political deal-making! By definition, it takes a minimum of two people -- in this case, two politicians, maybe a new breed sprouting from the Beirut Spring. Often, I suppose, this is how civil wars end.

Raja said...


you are right. I also wanted to bring up Thinkingman's issue of Trust.

In fact, one of the most encouraging developments that has taken place in Lebanon over the last month has been the broad coalition that makes up the opposition.

The trust that the different parties expressed towards their partners is something very new in Lebanese politics. In fact, some of my fellow Lebanese bloggers are finding it very hard to reconcile themselves to this new reality. A very good example of such a blogger is "Lebanese Political Journal".

His posts are very reflective of the general distrust that the different communities have towards each other. My hope is that recent developments will start to change these tendencies.

Solomon2 said...

The "Trust" issue is difficult and requires maturing minds. Some people (or groups) can be trusted, but maybe not all. It can be difficult for people to be discerning and reject the all-or-nothing mentality.

You can be sure that anti-democratic forces sense this tension at least instinctively (explicitly in the case of those trained in Communist countries) and will seek to create every opportunity to undermine trust between groups that is not under their mediation. Not an easy task for suspicious democrats or their followers.

littlewhy said...

You wrote: "People, especially men, feel that their life is justified mainly by being who they are..."

" In the psyche of the American, a person is worth as much as his resume, and the lowest life form is the individual who is where he is at because he somehow inherited it."

If America is such a meritocracy, how do you explain George W? Or John Kerry, or Al Gore? All of them inherited social and political contacts and wealth that helped make them who they are. You don't really think that out of 290 million people, George was the best qualified person we could come up with?

littlewhy said...

Are there any attempts by anyone to try to get people from different sects to get to know each other? Say, a school for kids who are druse, christian, sunni, etc.

Solomon2 said...

littlewhy, connections can help. But an individual's dignities are NOT inherited from his or her parents; no one respects this president's kids very much for that reason. (The Kennedy clan is a partial exception to the rule, because the "glamour" of "Camelot" has rubbed off onto all of them.) If G.W. Bush didn't make the efforts he did in life, he would never have become prez, no matter what his dad did in life.

Democracy doesn't guarantee the "best qualified person", it only lets us mortals make our usual imperfect choices and kick out those who prove themselves less worthy than their competitors. Not all 290 million engage in politics -- indeed, only a small fraction ever run for elective office. Most Americans figure that they have better things to do than fight election battles.

Raja said...


everybody knows each other and interacts with each other everyday! the problem I am pointing at is the nature of the interaction.

In short, there is a massive loss of potential among Lebanese that is just killing me!

As for your reference to John Kerry and George Bush, you're right. There has always been a "hidden aristocracy" in America. The difference is that they don't go about flaunting it!

The "values" in your country (this country) frown upon that sort of thing - a reality that is not the case in most other countries, including Lebanon.