The All-American Dichotomies of Cultural Values

It has been said that whatever one may consider a truly American trait can be shown to have its equally characteristic opposite. Although dualism in value patterns can be observed in most present-day larger societies, American society appears to subject its members to more extreme contrasts than is normally the case. Americans are faced during their lifetimes with alternatives which frequently represent such polarities as harsh competition and kind cooperation, a virtual fanaticism for hard work and a craving for leisure time, a pious-religious orientation and generous free thinking. These dynamic polarities complicate role definitions, make the smooth flow of a uniformly patterned life cycle impossible, and disturb the individual with a number of value discontinuities.

It would require an involved historical treatment to explore the roots of these dualisms in the American ethos and to arrive at a valid explanation for their development. Such elaboration is obviously not possible here, and brief reference to a number of historical antecedents must be sufficient. First, the Judeo-Christian heritage, so abundant in basic dualisms, has exerted one of the strongest influences. Second, some schisms and inconsistencies in American culture can be explained by the heterogeneous background of the United States' population. Unlike the cultural development of other countries, the American ethos did not evolve from one homogeneous group but from a conglomerate of ethnic and racial groups, each with its own convictions and mode of life. Third, a number of value dichotomies have evolved out of a unique interplay of social forces, including the American experience of opening up the New World and the adherence to certain moral and humanitarian principles. The challenge of the new and vast continent and the tasks of mastering it called for a sense of pragmatism, efficiency, and prompt style of problem-solving that often violated equally accepted moral and humanitarian principles such as cooperation, kindness, honesty, and respect for individuality. As a result of these divergent cultural themes, there is frequent value conflict or evasive compartmentalization of incompatible attitudes.

Among the manifold value schisms, some deserve specific mention because they cause confusion and uncertainty for Americans in general and for youth in specific. One must not lose sight of the fact that for a young individual who is in the process of forming his identity, there are not many conditions as exasperating and vexing as conflicting norms and values. Conflicting norms and values on the societal level normally have their lasting counterparts on the personal level. The following are examples of the prevalent polarities in American culture.

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