Friday, March 16, 2012

Questioning authority (British and American differences)

I remember back in the 1980s when I shared a house with the American poet, Lyman Andrews, who worked as an American Studies lecturer at Leicester University at the time.  He used to really make fun of what he saw as the British tendency to obey authority without question.  He saw it as virtually a form of instinctive sheepishness.  His theory was that you only had to behave like a figure of authority and British people would obey you without question. 

Part of Lyman’s attitude came from his own rebellious personality (he was a raving alcoholic, openly bisexual, and loved to behave outrageously) but mostly it was cultural, I’d say.  His assertion that Americans are far more likely to question authority figures is almost certainly true.

British people are brought up from a young age to respect authority and there is a reverence for rules and laws that can mystify many other cultures.  (There is, of course, the British yob/hooligan subculture which delights in deliberately breaking rules, but they are the exception that proves the rule).

The advantage of such conformity, of course, is that Britain is essentially a very stable society and hasn’t had as many destructive upheavals as our European neighbours in the past two hundred years, or extremist governments, for that matter.  If you want something changing in Britain, you are supposed to go through all the proper channels and at some point in the future, it might or might not happen – in the meantime you are supposed to endure things as they are – which can be somewhat frustrating to say the least!  Another criticism of the British attitude (that even Brits themselves will often acknowledge), is that there is a general reluctance to complain about anything, a fear of “kicking up a fuss”, even when people are treated in an obviously rude, or poor manner – such as getting a bad service in a restaurant. 

American’s value their freedom, which is a good thing.  But the American attitude towards authority isn’t always entirely healthy either, in my opinion.  At the extreme, many Americans can seem distrustful to the point of paranoia at times, when viewed from a British perspective.  Conspiracy theories (many of them positively outlandish) about the government and other public bodies abound in the US.  There is also a tendency sometimes for rants about the Bill of Rights and the US Constitution to be invoked for trivial matters like getting a parking ticket.

My American wife doesn’t quite agree with me on this next point, but I would say that generally speaking, the US authorities allow more freedom, but if you cross the line, they come down on you much heavier and in a more pedantic way than in the UK.  In Britain, there is a tighter overview of things, but there is a more pragmatic approach taken by people such as the police and other officials and much of the time you can be let off for transgressions, even when you have clearly broken the rules.   In some ways, the overall net effect of the US and British systems are the same, but how they go about things can be quite different.

I would also say that although joking around with officials such as customs officials and the police can often be a tricky game to play, I personally suspect that you can get away with an awful lot more in the UK.  US officialdom doesn’t take any crap, basically.  As American writer, Bill Bryson says: “I had also got used to the idea that here (in Britain) you can make quips all the time and in America that can be very dangerous. I wrote about it in one of the books. Once I was going through customs and immigration in Boston, and the guy said as I went past "Any fruit or vegetables?" and I said "OK, I'll have four pounds of potatoes if they are fresh" and it was like he was going to take me off and pin me to the floor.”

If my wife is anything to go by, Americans tend to be troubled by things such as the number of CCTV cameras that exist in the UK, which are seen as an infringement of privacy (I don’t like them much myself either, but I am generally outnumbered by other Brits who tend to see them as deterring crime).

There is also a big fuss here in the US at the moment about airport security checks – although I do suspect that part of the difference in attitude is that in the UK, where domestic terrorism has been a major problem for longer, the security has been incrementally increasing over decades, so we have got gradually accustomed to it - whereas the US had very little internal security before 9/11 and then lots after, so many people resent suddenly being searched after traveling more or less unhindered for years.

Brits, on the other hand (well, certainly me), are disturbed by what seems like an extraordinarily high amount of people who are incarcerated in the US.  7% of all Americans are locked up in a jail at any one time, which is the highest documented rate for any country in the world according to Wikipedia.  I know that the US has lots of problems with violent crime, but it just doesn’t seem right for a democracy to lock up so many of its own people (even if there is popular support for it).

I guess my overall view would be that the US can seem paradoxically both a bit more anarchic and a bit more authoritarian than the UK, if that sounds possible?  Maybe “authoritarian” is bad word usage, maybe it’s better to say that the authorities just seem harsher.  I guess it’s also worth noting that Britain is fairly extreme in that the police aren’t evenly routinely armed, so that is the kind of “norm” that I come from!  (Of course, many in the US and some on the rightwing in the UK would just say that Britain was just too soft and a “nanny state”).


  1. I love reading your blog Paul! It's great!

  2. Thanks, Runs with trauma, this post ended up longer than I originally intended! :-)

  3. It's really hard to put a finger on it, but you've done a nice job. It is hard to describe. I think the police are very intimidating in the US; not so much in the UK. I do like all the CCTV - I admit to making me feel safer in the UK.

    1. Cops seem to have a lower social status in the US generally, well certainly down here in Florida.

  4. I was at Leicester Uni in the early 80s but Economic and Social History was my subject!
    I think in the UK there is the option to get away with things- at the moment because of "political" feeings in the police connected with withdrawn funding it is perfectly possible to get away with it= sorry to say it, but I have defence lawyers telling me this is the situation