May 15, 2007

Bearing Arms v.s. Baring Arms

As we head into the frenzy of the 2008 U.S. presidential election, it would well-serve politicians and citizens on both sides of the border to read Michael Adams' Fire and Ice. Adams is the co-founder and president of polling company Environics, and his interests have evolved from subject-by-subject polling to macro-level social values polling. This book examined the U.S. and Canada along 100 social values points, and the results contradict commonly held assumptions about these two neighbours.

I was in the last year of high school when the warning bells were struck over the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement (which later morphed into NAFTA), and how it would precipitate the decline of Canadian culture and values. The rhetoric spun on both sides of the debate here in Canada, from Mulroney's handlers to the Council of Canadians was particularly divisive.

It appears the worry was not warranted. The differences among Canadian and American citizenry are rather striking. As Adams writes, "[the research] show that Canadians' values are significantly different from (and more postmodern than) Americans, it also reveals that the two countries' values are actually becoming more disparate".

Among the findings: Canadians have evolved from being much more religious than their American counterparts to being considerably less so; twice the percentage of Americans than Canadians think violence is a normal part of life; Americans are much more prepared to take greater risks to get what they want than Canadians; almost double the percentage of Americans than Canadians think the use of violence is an acceptable way to get what you want; whereas 8 in 10 Canadians are skeptical of the claims of advertisers, 4 in 10 Americans believe a widely advertised product is a good one; 77% of Canadians said that immigrants have a good influence on their country, whereas 49% of Americans felt the same way.

I am convinced that the fact that Americans kill themselves and each other with the use of firearms at ten times the rate that Canadian do is one of the most powerful influencers of the data above and on the two countries' overall political landscapes. Indeed, whereas 49% of American households have at least one firearm, only 19% of Canadian households do. What is further striking is that censorship of broadcast media on sexuality, nudity, and certain forms of violence is particularly high in the U.S., often from the very same proponents of the right to bear arms. And surely the fact that Canada abolished slavery 70 years prior to the United States represents an early defining point in Canada's social values.

In terms of the family, 49% of Americans agree with the statement that "The father of the family must be master in his own home", while only 18% of Canadians agree. Not surprisingly, 38% of Americans stated that men are naturally superior to women, compared to 24% of Canadians. Is it any surprise how the two countries differ in the recognition of equal rights for same-sex couples?

One of Adams' most astute observations is that "the two regions in North America that define the extremes of social values north of the Rio Grande--the U.S. South...and Quebec...are also the regions that have come to have disproportionate political clout in their respective countries". Both regions are clearly values incubators and each has come to define and influence their respective country's overall direction over the past 50 years.

For any potential leader, be they cultural, political, or business, understanding the social values of our two countries is a very necessary undertaking. I present these findings not as a normative exercise but as a descriptive one. It has been argued by many that Canadians solely define themselves in opposition to their American neighbours. Adams points out that through our founding ideas, our institutions, and our building of our country, Canadians have created a distinctive and enduring nation.

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