Sunday, September 21, 2008

Slouching toward modernity....   posted by Razib @ 9/21/2008 10:38:00 PM

Young and Arab in Land of Mosques and Bars is an article about a few young Egyptian men who moved to Dubai and how it changed them. The piece is an illustration of a very narrow slice of Dubai life; after all most young men in the city are not Arab, but South Asian (Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, etc.). Nevertheless, there are particular points which align with broader trends which we have discussed on this weblog. For example:
This economically vital, socially freewheeling yet unmistakably Muslim state has had a transforming effect on young men. Religion has become more of a personal choice and Islam less of a common bond than national identity.

I have already mentioned several times the cross-cultural sex differences in religiosity. The article makes it clear that freedom and choice result in a drifting away of many young men from traditional religious norms. Not all of course. I believe that the "traditional" institutions which have constrained, channeled and sometimes altered species-typical urges and biases are features of the Post-Neolithic mass society. These mass societies, what we term "civilizations," are characterized by powerful male packs who generate within group cohesion by reducing internal variance in norms, behavior and symbolic markers. The variation is to some extent generated by genetic variation (personality differences, etc.), so without constant social pressure the extant phenotypic variation in behavior starts to show up again. Of course even in a modern economy where "rational actors" are individual agents who operate within a fluid market of goods and services these packs remain (social networks and connections), but the bureaucratic meritocracy breaks down their determinative power. The packs are a parameter in your success in life, but they are not the parameter. Man exists apart from the pack as a selfish consumer and personal producer, and to some extent these individual identities are given notional primacy. But it is not just a modern capitalist economy which allows this individualism to flourish. As documented in Benjamin Friedman's The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth the norms which we might define as broadly liberal individualism seem contingent upon a regime where one perceives that the future will be characterized by greater prosperity than the present. Which bring us back to Dubai; its prosperity is to a large extent built upon debt. I suspect that there's a good chance that when its economic growth is curtailed Dubai will become much less free-wheeling.

Addendum: Though in this post I allude to the constricting effect of the pack norms, obviously many people receive psychological utility from packishness. The cognitive "hooks" for pack behavior vs. individual consumer behavior are different, but they're both there in various proportions in all of us. Unfortunately I think that the modern liberal individualist society has inverted the totalism of the pre-modern traditionalist culture in terms of prioritizing only one aspect of our psychological predispositions. While in a traditional setting many who were by nature individualists chaffed at the social controls, today those who might benefit and find particular comfort in packs are marked off as somewhat deviant (e.g., women who are raised with liberal values but convert to a very traditionalist religion and immerse themselves in a subculture where their personal choices are constrained and channeled).

Note: The relationship between the main individual profiled in the piece and his girlfriend reminded me of the South Park episode Raisins. Ergo, the image.