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The Psychology of Culture

by Mark Peres

August 5,2006

One of the defining traits of this city is that we address issues head on. We discuss it, we vote on it, and we act (we’re all about the action). If the problem is particularly nettlesome, we convene a bi-partisan, public-private, task force, a star manager chairs it, the banks underwrite it, recommendations are written, media endorsements follow, and action-items are executed. It is very corporate – team-building, buy-in, scorecards, and all that. Whereas in other cities a blue-ribbon committee is the surest way to avoid a problem, and usually nothing more than cynical pandering, committees in Charlotte have an earnest appeal. People raise their hand to serve. We consider it an honor to be among the elect to bring order to the city. We become part of the can-do crowd. After all, we believe no issue is truly insurmountable, no problem is without a solution, as long as we bring our resolve and resources to it.

Because this approach defines us, when a problem is entrenched and complex, when it is long-standing and multifaceted, and our hammering doesn’t work, we become beside ourselves. We practically have a pathological breakdown when issues are not resolved.

James Hillman, who launched Archetypal Psychology, a post-analytic psychology that places questions of the soul at its center, asserts that everything that affects a community is first and foremost psychological in nature. The workings of our mind are central to our experience. Our world-view and approaches to things are not just products of individual imagination, but of the imagination of the consensus influenced by a variety of factors – religious, philosophical, scientific, artistic – that have developed over time.

So what are the psychological roots of Charlotte’s can-do attitude? Why does Charlotte behave the way that it does? What are the limits of that approach? Charlotte is a town that goes to church on Sundays and makes money on Mondays. Success is a home and garden in the suburbs, safe and clean streets, and notice and respect from others. It is nothing that would embarrass us or risk us receiving an invitation to the club. We fragment out what doesn’t make for a good image into separate neighborhoods that we don’t claim. We manage toward more of what we want, seeking rational efficiency through planning, budgeting and controls.

Where does all that come from? It comes partly from an 18th-century Scotch-Irish culture that re-settled the region after the Catawba Indians. It also comes more fundamentally from three historical world-views that are inherently contradictory yet in combination define Western culture and Charlotte in particular: dualism, materialism and Christianity (all three of which the Scotch-Irish embraced enthusiastically).

Dualism is a system that divides phenomena into two distinct and irreducible realities. We separate the spiritual world from the physical world. We separate the physical world into subject and object. We separate the spiritual world into good and evil. Materialism is a concept that physical matter is the only reality and that everything, including thought, feeling and mind can be explained in terms of matter and physical phenomena. Christianity is many things, but relevant here is that followers of Jesus are unto Christ and therefore called toward Christ-like perfection.

All of that finds its way into what Charlotteans do and say, the choices we make and attitudes we have. Here are a few of the consequences: soul is contained in each of us separately, but not in our landscape or built environment. Physical well-being and worldly possessions express our elect status. We are called to improve ourselves and the world is perfectible. These notions are the confluence of our western traditions that we make real in how we behave.

And so we join the Chamber and vie for the School Board while shopping for cars and voting for intervention in Iraq and reading how-to books and exercising at the YMCA. We act to have more and become better. We are driven to fix things – often without reflection.

It may all make sense, and work just fine, until it doesn’t make sense and no longer works at all. In the face of challenges that seem intractable, it helps to know ourselves.

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