When National Self-Talk Goes Bad

Among the endless parade of Facebook comments, this one stuck out. In response to an article with more disturbing data about over-diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children and doctors who are all too ready to prescribe drugs for it, the comment began: “Americans are fat, drugged, obsessed and sad.”

Whoa. Quadruple whammy. I know I’ve been all those things, separately, from time to time. Sometimes even two at once, on rare occasions. But a national characterization? That seemed like a stretch.

We may not always be like the subjects of Rockwell paintings. But we probably are more often than we think.

We may not always be like the subjects of Rockwell paintings. But we probably are more often than we think.

The commenter’s name wasn’t obviously foreign, but one never knows. From the overall tone of the thread, I got the idea that the comment was more a lament than an accusation. But it stuck with me, and made me begin to wonder what we in the United States, as a nation, think of ourselves — and why it matters.

First problem: generalization. This republic is so large in population (topping 314 million now) and vast in geography (roughly 1,000 miles up and down and 3,000 side to side), encompassing so many climates, regions, cultures and traditions, that any generalization is risky. Add to that the increasing diversity of a nation that has invited immigration for more than 150 years, and lumping together the entire country in any thought becomes nearly impossible.

Besides, I was trained hard against generalizing, except when making broadly useful or complimentary statements. I work to avoid generalizing about Islam, for example, despite that religion’s radical and political wings and the events of the last 20 years. Individuals deserve to be judged on their own beliefs and merits; that’s a basic tenet of fairness. And I know plenty of peaceful people who are also Muslim. That analysis applies to just about any group. Still, the temptation to lump people together is strong. It’s easier to think about them as a lump than as separate people. Weak minds succumb.

But what led the commenter to write off the entire nation as overweight, high, intense and morose? Well, there is evidence of each characteristic. Watch the clientele at fast food restaurants, and soon you may notice a high incidence of overweight. (But do the same thing walking down the street — can you tell by looking who has a glandular problem, who eats to fend off emotional pain, and who is just slovenly?) I heard on the radio today that something like 20 percent of all Americans take some kind of prescribed psychotropic drug. (Again, for the one in every group of five, how do we sort between the misdiagnosed and those who really have a mental disorder?)

Obsession: episodically, it can be hard to distinguish from passion. Aren’t we taught to pursue what we want very hard? Intensely, even? And if someone you know is perhaps a little too house-conscious or boat-centered for your tastes, well, that’s their affair, isn’t it? Sad: well, as a nation, there’s a lot to be down about lately. And to be happy about. With 314 million chances, on any given day the average can just as easily be positive as negative.

Perhaps I expect too much from a Facebook comment. But I do detect, overseas and at home, a lot of down-talk about my country. Generalizations about us from abroad, I can ignore. We’re not immune to criticism in the United States, no matter what you’ve heard, but our skin is thick and strong.

But when I hear Americans getting down on Americans, it pains me. Oh sure, political haters will blather on and on about how their opponents aren’t real Americans. I’m not talking about that. Among the sane, the decent, the fair — we all know that your self-talk can pump you up or suck you down. I don’t think it’s any different in the lives of nations.

Yeah, I know nice doesn’t make news. But every day I see decent people in this country, all over it, doing everything from remembering to say good morning to helping clean up tornado rubble. Fat, drugged, obsessed and sad can just as easily be working out, clean, at ease and happy.

Let’s try telling ourselves that more often.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

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