Remember the extended family – the living arrangement in which several generations and/or distant relatives all live together in close proximity, so that there is strong bonding and support among them? Older generations help raise the young, and the younger generations care for the old. Each person has a large investment of time and energy in everyone else’s lives.
That living arrangement has largely disappeared in America, and has been replaced by the so-called “nuclear” family: parents live together only with their children, and only while raising their children, and then the generations go their separate ways, often living far away from each other. In many cases, children are raised without close contact with their grandparents and, likewise, grandparents grow old in retirement homes without close contact with their grandchildren, or even their own children. People who are more than one generation apart have relatively small investments of time and energy in each others’ lives.
Why does this matter? For most Americans, family ties are greatly attenuated compared to those of people who live in extended families. When grandparents, and even parents, live far away, their lives and deaths can mean relatively little. The loss is still felt, but the emotional impact is much less than if the generations lived closer together and spent more time together. When you see people every day, they matter more to you than if you see them infrequently.
Now, let’s consider families in the Third World. Most people in Third World countries — in Iraq, for example — live in extended families. Their economic realities simply do not enable them to live far away from their relatives. Accordingly, we can expect people in Third World countries — in Iraq, for example — to feel their family ties much more strongly do most Americans.
Now, let us consider the massive and disastrous carnage that George Bush has created in Iraq. With each Iraqi death, likely there is a large, extended family of people who feel personally devastated by the loss — devastated in a way that most Americans would never feel and never understand, because Americans do not live in extended families. To many Americans, the death of a distant relative — say, a grandparent or cousin — might mean relatively little compared to the impact such a death might have on an Iraqi. Now let us consider some possible ramifications of this cultural difference:
1) If Americans feel relatively little pain from the death of their own distant relatives — grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, etc. — then Americans might be more willing to support a president who calls for bombing a foreign city and killing the distant relatives of people living there.
2) If Americans bomb a foreign city and kill the distant relatives of people living there, then the survivors might get much more upset about it than American would understand. Americans might underestimate the pain and hatred that their bombs create. They might find themselves asking, “Why do they hate us so much?”
Now, to answer the rhetorical question I posed at the beginning of this post: no, I do not believe that America’s nuclear families will cause America to be more likely to use nuclear bombs, but I do believe that America’s nuclear families make Americans much less conscious of the pain they cause when they kill people in countries where extended families are the norm. One reason why a large majority of Iraqis now say they support killing Americans, and why Americans cannot understand this, might be that Americans are blind to the pain that is felt by people living in extended families, because Americans don’t, themselves, feel this pain. This is not to suggest that Americans should return to living in extended families, but it does suggest that Americans should recognize the limits of their perceptions concerning the death of other peoples’ family members. People in other countries might hate Americans for very good reasons that Americans do not recognize.