Let’s Try Saying “Americans” Instead of “America” – A Lesson from Canadians

On the fourth of my trips to Adler’s Vancouver campus last fall, I came before the Canadian border officer, as I had each time before. I was ready for the questions about why I was coming to Canada, and gave the same explanation as previously – that I had been asked to teach a class at our Vancouver campus which was being done primarily by videoconference but required a certain number of in-person sessions to be taught. This time, the officer looked at me with a look of slightly injured pride and asked, “Couldn’t they get a Canadian to do that?”

I have been reminded of that question in the past week as I have read about the response of Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, to the sudden restrictions on travel and immigration imposed by the Trump administration, and in response to the horrific killings of six people at a mosque in Quebec. Each time, he has referred to “Canadians” rather than to “Canada,” in his responses:

To those fleeing persecution, terror and war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength…

Diversity is our strength, and religious tolerance is a value that we, as Canadians, hold dear. Muslim-Canadians are an important part of our national fabric, and these senseless acts have no place in our communities, cities and country.

While Trudeau has garnered praise as an individual leader for his responses, they struck me as very Canadian responses nonetheless. They are also very Adlerian responses, because Alfred Adler and Rudolf Dreikurs emphasized people working together and feeling a part of a community, rather than people trusting to a nationalistic, ethnic, religious, or cultural identity. As Eva Dreikurs Ferguson put it:

Because Adler considered that each human is part of a social community, our sense of self is a function of our social identity. The primary need of all human beings is to feel belonging, to have a place, in the social community. In the infant, that community is the family. As the person moves into an increasingly larger sphere, the social community to which he or she seeks to feel belonging is increasingly broad. The ultimate social community to which an adult seeks to belong is the human species as a whole, as part of an enlarged sense of one’s own humanness. (Dreikurs  Ferguson, 1984, p.4).

My experience with Canadians has supported the notion that they take responsibility as people for the society they create, and for its values. They are pragmatic – like when they decided that using pennies was inefficient, and decided to round each cash transaction to the nearest nickel; or when they decided that people can use whatever language they like to conduct business but that they won’t require anyone else to learn that language. They do what works, while respecting people in the process. These are the characteristics they have in mind when they proudly refer to themselves as Canadians.

The attitude carries over even into provincial identity, as in the case of one 94-year old woman riding the SeaBus ferry when I rode it – who introduced herself as “a proud British Columbian!”

Americans, by contrast, look to the entity they have created as “America” to define their values, and to measure and judge the values of others. We talk about “Liberty” and other “American ideals,” but we easily level the charge of being “Un-American” or “Un-patriotic” against those with whom we may disagree. I don’t often hear people describing themselves as “a proud American,” much less “a proud Illinoisan.” We spend a great deal of mental energy and public discourse deciding what “America” means and how we shall treat those who disrespect this nation and its symbols. That is what gives us the peculiar recent scene of an American physically assaulting other Americans who were burning the American flag in constitutionally-protected protest, and being hailed as a “hero” for doing so. This is reminiscent of the story of Barbara Frietchie in Whittier’s poem: “’Shoot, if you must, this old gray head / But spare your country’s flag,’ she said.” We tend as a nation to treat our symbols as being more valuable than our people. That may well be part of what people have in mind when they use the term “ugly American.” We tend to believe that we are “exceptional” just because we were born in the USA. And that makes us exceptionally conceited, in the eyes of many others in the world.

This focus on “America,” at the expense of a focus on “Americans,” is what gives us intolerance masquerading as pride, cruelty masquerading as strength, and slogans masquerading as policy. “Make America great again” and “America first” reflect nothing of our values, actions, or beliefs as Americans. They reflect a poorly defined nationalistic identity (often a white Christian heterosexual national identity) that is seen as the be-all and the end-all – as the source, rather than the goal, of our pride and our efforts. And which, incidentally, is quite vulnerable to being hijacked to serve purposes of power, exclusion, and spite. The hashtag “#MAGA” is too often appended to online expressions of hate, resentment, distrust, disparagement, and distortion.

I think we need to spend more time thinking about what we, as Americans, stand for and believe, and less time talking about what is “good for America” or “true to America.” Those ways of thinking have given us the McCarthy inquisitions and blacklists, wars, suffering, and death. And now those ways of thinking threaten to give the rest of the world a very negative image of our people as a nationalistic, jingoistic, judging, selfish, superiority-seeking group of human beings.

We should not need a giant green statue – weeping or not – to define our attitude toward newcomers to our land. America is what Americans believe, say, and do. “America First” and “America Strong” are meaningless without considering what Americans believe, do and say. We need to look within ourselves, and examine our values toward other human beings – toward our neighbors – whether down the street or across the globe.

Reference:

Dreikurs Ferguson, E. (1984). Adlerian theory: An introduction. Chicago: Adler University.

 
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