The concept of cultural fitness helps to explain how all types of cultural transformation and modernization may, or may not, translate into psychopathology. A leading thinker on this subject, the anthropologist Raoul Naroll, wrote about cultural fitness in relation to many categories of psychosocial pathology, demonstrating that entire cultures can be sick if the "moral net" deteriorates beyond a certain point. His book The Moral Order identifies the types of developments that can cause a culture, and its members, to develop pathological characteristics.17 Like others who see that we have a human nature that remains constant, Naroll perceived that all viable cultures throughout history have succeeded by organizing themselves around the actual nature of the human being.
Naroll spoke of the human instinct for meaningful relationships to others, for official ceremonies that connect the individual to the group while fostering a sense of identity, for cooperative and shared activities that weave people into a community, and for convincing beliefs and rituals that allow members to find refuge in the spiritual world. Together, these constitute the moral net of culture. Members of a culture can expect mental health advantages if the moral net is intact, whereas endless ills emerge when a culture's moral net becomes weakened.
The inability of a culture to take adequate account of the core requirements of its members can sometimes trace to happenings that precipitate social change on a scale that exceeds the culture's ability to adjust to those changes. Included here are disasters of various sorts, widespread migration resulting from war, breakdowns in belief systems, and political calamities. The affected culture might experiment with short-term improvised strategies that prove to be misguided.
Sometimes, when cultures suddenly come into contact, one culture is overwhelmed and thrown out of equilibrium. Much of the actual research examining the relationship between modernization and mental health has focused on the issue of culture change. One consistent finding has been that rapid culture change from a non-Western to a Western orientation raises the level of mental illness. A cultural disintegration model would explain the escalating rates of psychopathology in terms of the affected culture's diminished capacity to accommodate the essential needs of its members. A similar type of interpretation could be made with regard to the research that has found strong correlations between modernization and specific types of mental disturbances, such as depression, psychosomatic disorders, anxiety disorders, and alcoholism.18
Hypercapitalistic cultural designs have also been imputed to be a primary source of dehumanization since they underpin a society in which impersonal economic forces have taken over from traditional social ones. They petition members to enter the commodity sphere and to entertain general life orientations that preclude the satisfaction of more important nonmaterialistic ones. America, as the fitful climax of material reality, has attracted many descriptions of its inhabitants as joyless and dispirited. In his book The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry explores the maddening effects of modern capitalistic structures in America, which lead him to conclude that "an American is probably the most unhappy citizen in the history of the world."19 Hypercapitalism, and the related thematics of discontent and unrestrained consumption, may be examples of cultural survival mechanisms that omit key human considerations from the overall life equation. Their dehumanizing effects may receive their energy from the negative freedom that is the foundation for capitalistic success.
When cultures are stable, and when they fall at the healthy end of the moral net continuum, we would expect in theory to find relatively pathology-free members. It may seem fantastic to speak in terms of entire societies that are free of psychopathology, but several reports can be found of societies that, when discovered, had no apparent indications of "neurotic" afflictions. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose writings in the eighteenth century are sometimes seen as the start of the modern study of culture and psychopathology, commented on the healthy mental constitution of "savages." The groups thathe observed were, in his words, "without hardly any disorders save wounds and old age."20 This led to his controversial assertion that civilization somehow proves toxic in terms of mental well-being.
Even in more recent times, one can find detailed accounts of cultures wherein members are immune to the types of mental disorders that are so common in the West. Some of these are described in the following chapters. Among other things, it will be shown that the so-called clinical mental disorders are not inevitable. Instead, the degree to which members suffer these disorders may be largely the result of psychic predispositions associated with recent cultural developments and the overall process of modernization. As a prelude to this, the next chapter examines the general fate of identity, as well as consciousness and psychological defense, under conditions of modernity.
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