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.


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

Concern about Employees Means More than “Canned” Tips on a Website

McDonald’s has come under fire in recent weeks for a series of posts on an employee web portal (now deleted) which struck many people as insensitive at best and hypocritical at worst. The “tip sheets” included a health page from a university-based group of authors that cautioned readers to limit their consumption of fast foods. Other tips included financial advice to sell unused items if money is short, and at the other extreme, what to tip your au pair for the holidays. Given the company’s largely low-wage workforce –  an issue that has been receiving unflattering attention (including some strikes by workers) lately – these suggestions struck many as insulting. Some were appalled that a website for a fast-food company offered suggestions about applying for food stamps.Continue Reading Concern about Employees Means More than “Canned” Tips on a Website

October 22, 2013 Rally for Illinois Marriage Equality

Rally in Springfield
October 22 2013 rally in Springfield

I traveled to the Illinois State Capitol this week with a busload of faculty, staff, and students from Adler School of Professional Psychology, for a rally and march in support of SB 10, the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act, which passed the Illinois Senate earlier this year but did not pass in the Illinois House. The hope was that it would be taken up by the House during the veto session, and would overcome the perceived resistance of some religious groups, particularly of traditionally African-American churches. Continue Reading October 22, 2013 Rally for Illinois Marriage Equality

A Tough Uncle: On “Being Losers”

In the latest example of what are becoming all-too-frequent acts of unspeakable horror, homemade bombs killed three people and seriously wounded dozens more at the beloved Boston Marathon this week. The act itself seems to fit the definition of terrorism perfectly: an indiscriminate strike at ordinary, innocent people in a moment of national celebration, forever tainting the memory of the event, and forever changing the lives of thousands or millions of people who had to witness it, even apart from those directly impacted.

Now that (as of the moment) one of the suspected bombers has been killed, and another is still at large, the media have seized upon any story they can find. In doing so, they spoke to the uncle of the suspected bombers, who gave the reporters his unvarnished opinion about the crime (this from an Associated Press story):

Asked what he thought provoked the bombings, Tsarni said: “Being losers, hatred to those who were able to settle themselves. These are the only reasons I can imagine of. Anything else, anything else to do with religion, with Islam, it’s a fraud, it’s a fake.”

Continue Reading A Tough Uncle: On “Being Losers”

Professor Sir Michael Marmot at Local Conference on Urban Mental Health

Today’s keynote speaker at the Adler School of Professional Psychology’s conference on urban mental health was Professor Sir Michael Marmot, a researcher at University College London who specializes in studying health inequities around the world. He made a number of excellent points.

One of his points was that disparities in income and wealth have been associated with poor health outcomes in the US and Britain more than in other countries (for example, the Scandinavian countries). He pointed out that Britons have universal access to health care, but lower income Britons, like lower income Americans, still don’t have the health enjoyed by similar income people from some other countries.

The take-away from all this is that neither more money nor wider availability of “health care” (actually, the system of paying for medical treatment services. about which we argue so much in this country, and which other countries provide free) can ensure good health for large groups of people. Of course, if a person is diagnosed with cancer and has no insurance, he or she may die. But prevention is also important, as is managing the traumatic stress that goes with poverty. Nutrition, exercise, attitudes, and avoiding risky behaviors such as smoking and heavy drinking, need to be combined with better access to health care, to produce healthier communities.

Another point he made is that some decisions made by public policy makers, economists, and politicians – such as a decision to let unemployment rise in order to avoid inflation -may be expected to cause some people to die, because unemployment is correlated with higher rates of suicide, homicide, and illness. Although “correlation is not causation,” his point was that some evidence cannot be ignored without dehumanizing the people who experience problems of poor physical and mental health. We should be looking at the processes that lead to these outcomes, rather than characterizing the people who suffer from them as less worthy than ourselves and excluding them from access to the resources that could help them.

Our current conversation about whether people are “entitled” when they need help from the rest of us – with getting food, health care, and safe places to live – was obviously in the background of all he was saying. Race is an obvious issue when discussing this, and he described his research with the castes of India to illustrate that marginalization has real effects on people’s health, even with financial and service resources being equal.

Professor Marmot’s work is available at the “Marmot Review” of the Institute for Health Equity at UCL. The conference link is here and the Twitter hashtag is #ISE2012.

SMART Recovery expands Chicagoland meetings

I have been talking this week to some individuals who are Facilitators and Advisors to SMART Recovery groups in Chicago, and have learned that more meetings are taking place than ever before. This is a positive development for people struggling with drug and alcohol dependence, and for the professionals who need self-help resources to provide referrals for their clients.Continue Reading SMART Recovery expands Chicagoland meetings

Suicide shouldn’t be politicized, but…

I don’t ordinarily like to bring my political views into this blog, but there are some examples (like the Florida law that makes it illegal for a doctor to ask if there are guns in a house with young children) that seem to cross from politics into ethical dilemmas. This blog post on Mother Jones’ website, about the disturbing trend of teen suicides in Minnesota – taking place a climate of bullying and intolerance of homosexuality, and politically-pressured silence on the part of school officials – has serious implications for mental health professionals.Continue Reading Suicide shouldn’t be politicized, but…

Psychology and Ethical Behavior

Economic decisions can trump ethical ones

Today’s New York Times has a guest column by two management experts who have studied ethical decision-making in business. Their findings suggest that the line of reasoning that fines and penalties should deter unethical behavior is not borne out by research. Instead, these measures seemed to encourage irresponsibility because they led to makng choices solely on the basis of gain or loss, instead of on the basis of right and wrong::

“An economic analysis would predict that the threat of sanctions would increase compliance with the agreement. Instead, participants who faced a potential fine cheated more, not less, than those who faced no sanctions. With no penalty, the situation was construed as an ethical dilemma; the penalty caused individuals to view the decision as a financial one.”

This is relevant to everyday decisions in business as well as the overall way of thinking about safety and responsibility. On the one hand,, it suggests that deregulation should not lead to any increase in unethical behavior, because fines and penalties don’t act as deterrents. On the other hand, it also suggests that the “invisible hand” of the market would not serve as much of a deterrent to unsafe or unethical behavior, either. The argument that companies would not knowingly risk expensive disasters because they would hurt the bottom line doesn’t seem to have been borne out by last year’s BP oil spill. Instead, it suggested that a combination of accepting risk and diffusion of responsibility among the contractors did indeed lead to cutting corners and trying to save a few dollars in profit, leading to the disaster we all saw.

Diffusion of responsibility is the concept that was described in the social psychology research that followed the murder of Kitty Genovese, a New York resident, in the 1960’s. Researchers used it to explain why none of the witnesses called police or tried to intervene: everyone assumed that it was someone else’s responsibility. As we hear about BP suing its contractors over the explosion and spill, I’m reminded of the theory. No doubt, the attorneys who litigate the case will want to turn that psychological theory into a financial reality by establishing that BP had a right to expect its contractors to act responsibly, but was not responsible for ensuring that they did.

So what are we to do if neither the threat of fines nor the threat of economic losses seems to deter irresponsible or unethical behavior? Are we doomed to endure more Enrons and Deepwater Horizons? Perhaps the idea of social interest, Alfred Adler’s central concept, can help. Being aware of the effect of our behavior on others, and of having a responsibility to contribute to the common good as a central purpose of life, will help us to serve as responsible consumers, investors, leaders, and neighbors.

You may also know this as the Golden Rule.