Saturday, April 6, 2019

The Joe Biden thing

This is not really a post about Joe Biden.  But we do have a problem here in the USA with personal space, touching, and the like.  So this is an attempt to put the Joe Biden phenomenon, including reactions to it, in a broader perspective than is usually presented.

So first of all: humans are primates.  Primates are, with a couple of exceptions, probably the most social of mammals.  And they are, typically, very touchie-feelie.  in 1979 I visited the Grenada Zoo and Botanical Gardens shortly after the Revolution.  The zoo was neglected, many animals were gone who knows where.  One large cage that had held a group of Grenada monkeys (Cercopithecus mona) had only a youngster in it.  As I approached it came over to the wire and held out its little hand, and took hold of my finger.  It didn't want to bite me; it wanted the touch, the feel, the reassurance perhaps, of a fellow primate, however weird.  When I was ready to leave, it did not want to let go.

Our closest primate relatives, the Chimpanzees and Bonobos (Pan troglodytes and Pan paniscus), behave similarly.  They are rarely far from contact with other members of their group.  They spend lots of time in physical contact, sitting together, grooming each other, the younger ones playing games that often involve ambushing and jumping on an adult.  In times of stress, they hug, kiss, or just reach out to touch each other.  Walking through the forest they will typically have a hand on a companion's shoulder or back.  

No photo description available. Which is to say that if our closest living relatives are like this, then our last common ancestor probably was also, and we probably are as well.  What's different about us is that we have culture, which we can use to mediate and attach symbolic meaning to our proximity, touching, etc.

Left: Female Bonobos groom each other. Jacksonville Zoo.

Human cultures express the ways in which individuals are embedded in their societies in different ways.  Some human cultures emphasize what my colleague and I (and others before us) call Independence Training, or IT.  IT focuses on the individual as an autonomous unit, a "lone ranger," if you will.  Many aspects of US culture support IT, including the ever-present educational directive to "do your own work," distaste for collective bargaining, the "most valuable player" syndrome in sports, the unease with international organizations like the United Nations.  And of course, proxemically, we have among the world's largest "personal spaces."

Of course, all cultures need to produce independent agents, people who can think and act on their own.  But many human cultures don't go as far as the US.  In many cultures there's more emphasis on the complement to IT, which we call DT or Dependence Training.  DT cultures produce people who are happy to acknowledge their being embedded in societies that emphasize not only their individual rights, as in the US, but also their collective responsibilities.  The relationship between people and the larger society is reciprocal; in IT-trained cultures like that of the US, the relationship is more antagonistic.

I sometimes illustrate the difference between IT and DT for my students by asking them to imagine boarding a bus to find just one other passenger already there.  They admit that, typically, in the US they would sit as far as possible from that other person.  In DT-focused cultures, like Grenada, more likely you would sit down right next to that other person, and start chatting.

It's important to keep in mind that IT versus DT is a continuum, and many, maybe most, cultures fall somewhere in-between.  I think it's fair to say, though, that most traditional cultures around the world are heavily DT.  The most intensely IT-focused cultures are those that have most strongly embraced capitalist modes of production.  Capitalism itself, as a mode of production, encourages IT by turning people into commodities, like boxes of cereal, that can be dealt with individually.  And capitalism hates unions, which are DT social organizations, because they threaten the ability of businesses to maximize their profits.

Bringing it back to Grenada, where I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the 1970s.  As a typically IT-raised US American, there were things I had to get used to in this new, DT-centered culture.  When I met someone, female or male, if we shook hands the handshake lasted a lot longer than I was used to.  In fact, we might keep holding hands through the beginnings of our conversation.  Sitting on a bench during meetings, the person(s) next to me would likely be pressed against me, even if there was enough room to separate.  A woman sitting next to me might put her hand on my leg to maintain contact while we talked.  On a crowded bus to school, boys or girls might end up sitting on my lap to make make room for more.

Importantly, these interactions were not typically sexualized.  In the US, any interaction that involves physical contact, especially between the sexes, is assumed to be sexual, and will likely be reported as such to the authorities.  In most other places, these sorts of things are just unremarkable parts of the ebb and flow of daily interaction.

 And, as primate societies go, US culture is more than a little dysfunctional in that it subverts the essence of primatehood: the social glue created by touching, feeling, being close, and so on.

This post is not really about Joe Biden, but...  Joe is clearly living in the wrong culture.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

The never-ending assault (rifles)

The US's "independence day" is July 4, 1776, although the war for independence didn't formally end until 1783. New Zealand's "independence" from Great Britain arrives in stages, but culminates in 1947. My point is, within a week of the mass shootings at two mosques in NZ, a relatively young nation, they have officially banned the ownership of assault-style weapons. Meanwhile, after 236 years of "independence" and decades of carnage, we still do not have the courage to do the same. We are still not an adult country; we remain a nation of adolescents, fixated on our deadly toys.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Trump's "natural instinct for science"

According to an article on the Intelligencer website, tRump says that his "natural instinct for science" convinces him that the science on climate change is incorrect.

I want to write something serious about this, but seriously... I will say that this stage of our attitude toward science has been brought to us, in part, by postmodernism, which in some of its guises argues that science is just another subjective way of knowing about the world. But it's also been brought to us by the US mode of enculturation we call independence training, which encourages everyone to believe that they, independently, can have an opinion about something that's as valid as anyone else's.
And to be fair, while we probably do have an internal program for making sense of the world, it's only the beginning of science. Our IT-driven educational system, supported by the larger culture, mostly beats it out of us by middle or high school. Some manage to overcome this; not tRump, though.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Thoughts on Kavanaugh

Friday night on Real Time, Bill Maher wondered aloud to the panel whether we are swinging the pendulum of justice too far, from never believing women who claim they've been assaulted to always believing them.  A neutral middle ground, maybe?  My opinion is that believing women should be the default option.

Over the years, decades, centuries, even millennia, we have emerged from cultures that systematically oppressed, exploited, mistreated, abused, and (to be frank) hated women.  For many of us, this culture was Indo-European, originally centered (probably) in Anatolia in what is now Turkey and spreading during the last 6-8,000 years or so to the southeast and northwest as far as parts of the Indian subcontinent and Scandinavia.  The Indo-Europeans were, essentially, farmers; as they spread they replaced or pushed into marginal habitats the foraging and other peoples who stood in their way.  It is the introduction of farming, especially the extensive farming required to support rapidly growing populations, that typically leads to reduced status of females in human cultures.

But this is not the only way of being human.  Foraging and horticultural societies do not typically share this sort of ideology; women and men tend to be relatively equal in status and often share leadership and other important group statuses.  These are what we anthropologists call small-scale societies, in contrast with the large-scale agricultural and, more recently, industrialized ones.  What I am leading up to is to suggest that the way we have treated women in our society is not the only way of being human.  In evolutionary terms, it is a derived, rather than primitive, trait, but it has a deep history.

We instituted affirmative action programs for minorities to counterbalance the effects of several hundred years of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and more subtle discrimination, especially for African Americans but also women and others.  Bill Maher, in suggesting that maybe we don't have to always believe women's accounts of sexual abuse, is like the people who claim that affirmative action is no longer necessary because discrimination is illegal.  I'm saying that we should believe them by default, because there are thousands of years of abuse to overcome.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The United States of Perpetual Unpreparedness

OK, somebody has to say it. 17 years ago close to 3,000 people died largely because the US was unprepared for an attack of that kind, or for that matter any kind. A year ago, a hurricane hit Puerto Rico and around 3,000 people died because, again, the US was unprepared. 13 years ago, possibly 2,000 people died when a hurricane struck New Orleans. Again, the US was unprepared. We are the Nation of Perpetual Unpreparedness.

Of course, I hasten to add, we are always prepared to drop bombs on people who have done us no harm.

Anyway, I wonder what will happen this time, as Hurricane Florence approaches the coast of Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Guest post: McCain and Vietnam

From a friend:

I was an undergraduate when John McCain was flying bombing missions over the Vietnamese People (yes there was “collateral damage”). As an anthropology major I was learning about the cross-cultural approach and cultural relativism. And the science of anthropology afforded me a new perspective on foreign relations.
I still have the cassette tape recording of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations investigating the origins of the “Vietnam” War. There was testimony by an OSS officer who was attached to the Việt Minh during WWII, and he said that Ho Chi Minh greatly admired the USA because it had fought for its freedom against the British Empire. The OSS officer continued stating that Ho had hoped that the USA would help the Vietnamese People win their independence from the French Empire after the Japanese Empire had been defeated. But the Senate chambers fell silent when the OSS officer finally said that Ho felt that a big powerful country like America could never become interested in a small country like Vietnam.
The United States of America was the enemy. The People of Vietnam were fighting for their independence from the French Empire, the Japanese Empire, and finally from the American Empire. Most people should now have that horrific image of Kim Phuc burned and scarred for life by American napalm dropped from an airplane on her village.