Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Senator Ben Sasse doesn't understand human nature (part II)

In my previous post, I tried to introduce the anthropological concepts of Independence Training (IT) and Dependence Training (DT).  These are contrasting parameters of enculturation that all human societies share, but to differing degrees.  All humans start out completely dependent on parents and other caregivers, perhaps even a whole village.  The task of enculturation is to produce adults who are autonomous, independent agents with the capacity for making appropriate decisions.  But to remain a functioning society, these individuals also need to maintain their interconnectedness, their interdependence, on all others in the group.

Some societies do a pretty good job of balancing these two competing parameters.  In general, though, we can say that small-scale societies in which most people know pretty much everyone else probably place a heavier emphasis on DT.  Small-scale societies, usually comprised of foragers, horticulturalists, or pastoralists, are fragile.  They value egalitarianism, and they use DT to keep members from growing into social monsters who can tear holes in the social fabric.

For example, Ju/'hoansi foragers of the Kalahari traditionally kept hunters from becoming full of themselves by "insulting the meat" that they brought in.  They would gather around a newly-killed antelope and complain about how bony and thin it was, how there was so little meat on it that it was hardly worth the effort the hunter made to bring it back to camp.  They did this, as they explained, to "cool the heart" of the hunter, to keep him from thinking of himself as a big man.  Then they happily devoured the antelope.

In larger-scale societies, things become trickier.  These are societies based on agriculture and, more recently, industrialism.  They are much more people-dense, and most people are strangers.  DT is harder to maintain; there are rulers (chiefs, queens, pharaohs, and so on.  There are ranked social classes.  Rather than promoting good behavior through internalized social controls, there is now external control: ecclesiastical religion, police, armies, and so on.

And there's something else.  Since the 17th century most large-scale societies have become embedded in what has become a world capitalist system.  Capitalism is an inherently exploitative and alienating system that discourages DT, because capitalists would rather deal with workers one at a time rather than as a group banded together for the collective good.  So IT is encouraged.  People are alienated from the means of production, and also from what were their traditionally meaningful and sustaining networks of kin, friends, and neighbors.

So we have moved away from the webs of relationships that dominate small-scale societies (DT).  Our webs are smaller: a nuclear family, a few friends, because capitalism requires that we be able to uproot ourselves across the country to the new factory or place of business.

 To be healthy, as intensely social mammals, and especially primates, we need our interrelationships, our webs of interdependence.  We are driven toward sociality by what a friend and I are calling our social imperative*, but we are stymied by our culture's hyper-IT, itself a servant of capitalism, which produces too many people who care only about themselves, who lack empathy and a sense of social responsibility.

These are the "adults" that Senator Sasse thinks we should all strive to be.  But this cannot form the basis for a functioning, healthy society.  It can only lead, as it largely already has, to dystopia and dysfunction.  It produces the sort of people who think they shouldn't have to pay school taxes because they, personally, have no children in school.

And that is our very serious problem.  Too many Donald Trumps.

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* Cring and Kephart, hopefully forthcoming.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Senator Ben Sasse does not understand human nature

I finally got around to viewing Bill Maher's most recent edition of Real Time, in which he used the "N-word" while talking with Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE).  I think the reaction has been overblown but maybe more about that another time.

More interesting to me was Sasse's discussion of his new book The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance.  The bottom line appears to be that Sasse thinks Americans don't stop being children as they move into their adult years; we need to grow up, and become "independent" instead of remaining "dependent" as is expected of children and teens.

Sasse has fallen into the conceptual trap of the US Folk Model, which holds that people should strive to be hyper-individuals, independent of all obligations to the social group, dependent on only themselves and their ability to become "self-made" women and men.  US culture reproduces this folk model though a mode of enculturation called Independence Training (IT)*.

IT begins the day we are born: babies are encouraged (or forced) to sleep alone; play alone ("entertain themselves"); wean themselves from mothers' breastmilk as early as possible.  We even think it's a good thing that they learn to "cry themselves to sleep."  As we grow and pass through school, college, and on into the workforce, IT is continuously reinforced on us.  We are admonished to value doing "our own work" over cooperative work, we take innumerable tests that rank us top to bottom; we even take "IQ" tests that rank us by "intelligence"; we play games in which there is a single "most valuable player" even in team sports, and so on.

As Hsu pointed out, this is not the only possible human model.  In some cultures, such as traditional China, Dependence Training is valued over IT.  People in these cultures seem to understand that humans are social animals, living in social groups, and that functioning social groups require members who are willing to be to some extent dependent on the group.  Otherwise, you don't have a social group, you have an aggregation of organisms each working against all others.  Of course, there has to be some IT, even in DT-heavy societies, because people do need to grow up and learn to make decisions, and act on them.

What we lose sight of in America is that an IT-heavy society that degrades the idea of dependence is going to be dysfunctional.  Our IT goes so far as to deny us national health care, deny us debt-free education, even deny workers the right to form and join unions for the betterment of their lives as workers.

Extreme IT creates social monsters like Sen. Sasse.

* Chinese-American anthropologist Francis K. Hsu wrote about this years ago, see especially his 1953 book Americans and Chinese: Passage to Differences.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Purging the blackness...

Our so-called president Trump is practically frothing at the mouth to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act; to back out of the Paris climate agreement; and to roll back the recent loosening of restrictions on Cuban and trade and travel.  Does anyone else see a common thread here?

Hint: these were all accomplished by former president Obama.  You know, the African-American, or Black guy.

That Trump and his inner circle are motivated in all this by racism may not be true, but it sure seems likely.  Very likely, when you consider the history of people like "advisor" Bannon and "attorney general" Sessions.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Congressman King's precursors

As reported here and elsewhere, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) recently claimed that we owe "civilization" to the Europeans; nobody else contributed significantly.  This idea is straight out of the playbook of the 19th-century evolutionists, who claimed that contemporary humans were stuck at different points on a unilineal evolutionary ladder leading from "savages" to "barbarians" and, finally, contemporary Western "civilization."  One of the leading purveyors of this notion was Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881), an early American anthropologist.

The paradigm of unilineal evolutionism was debunked for biology by Darwin himself, who imaged evolution as a tree with many branches rather than a straight ladder.  The debunking of the cultural myth was largely begun Franz Boas (1858-1942), another American anthropologist who stressed the importance of particular histories of cultures and societies over their ranking on some grand, ethnocentric scheme.

But the idea that societies and cultures could be ranked on a unified scale from "primitive" to "advanced" remained in the general folk model of many Americans and Europeans.  This is a slide I use in some of my classes to illustrate Theodore Roosevelt's investment in the idea.

And this idea is still alive and breathing.  Rep. King's thinking is in a direct line of descent from Morgan, and Roosevelt.  The maybe puzzling but definitely sad thing about this is that not only is King not alone, but somehow, with so little knowledge of human nature and history, he manages to maintain a high position in our government.  One would have thought that the demythologized view of humans ought to have become dominant by now.

We need anthropology, its knowledge and perspective, more than ever.

Monday, March 13, 2017

"The idea that every culture is equal is not objectively true"

Rep. Steve King (Iowa): "The idea that every culture is equal is not objectively true."
Well, yeah. There is a sense in which the ethnocentric Rep. King is right, but it's not the sense he was thinking of. Some years ago, in Exploring the Ways of Mankind (1960), anthropologist Walter Goldschmidt proposed some criteria for objectively evaluating cultures without being ethnocentric. He suggested that we look at how well a culture satisfies the physical and psychological needs of its members in terms of:
--Nutritional status
--General health (physical and mental)
--Crime, violence
--Domestic stability and tranquility
--Stability of relationship to resource base

On these measures, American culture is not doing so well. Don't tell King.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Denying science



You know, I've been used to this kind of thing for many years, because being a linguist/anthropologist means having to listen to people who don't know shit tell you about language and human nature and expect you to respect their nonsense because they're human and they can talk, which means they know all there is to know.

Now, though, this mental illness is spreading into other domains: evolutionary biology, environmental science, etc. Too bad there's no cabinet secretary of cosmology; Trump surely would have found somebody who would be telling us that the Sun revolves around the Earth.

EPA head Scott Pruitt denies science on global warming.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Who's surprised?

It's been a while.  So much has been going on, so much has happened, so much of it positively depressing and angering at the same time, that it has been hard if not impossible to focus the anger.
And frustration.  But what I wonder about is why anyone is even surprised that our country is descending into fascism.

There are a couple of different threads to this story, feeding into each other, reinforcing each other.  Perhaps the most immediate is our (US) national obsession with "business," and "businessmen" (face it, it's mostly men, and the women involved are honorary men).  Success in "business" is the Holy Quest of our land and has been pretty much since the beginning.  It almost seems not to matter whether the "business" succeeds or fails, the Quest is the thing.  And the people (mostly men) are the priest/leaders of this quest. They are the Holy Ones, successful or not, because they went on the Quest.  Trump is one.  Holy, untouchable, simply for having made the Pilgrimage.  Even as a failure most of the time, still able to command others to value his opinions, perverted and destructive as they might be for the rest of us.

There is another thread, and that has to do with the nature of "business" as it has developed over the last few centuries.  "Business" as we mostly know it grew out of the incomprehensibly vast profits created by the European imposition of predatory capitalism on both the New World and Africa beginning (roughly) in the 16th century.  West Africans were transported to the parts of the New World (the West Indies, Brazil and other parts of South America, parts of Middle America, and southern portions of North America) to labor without pay in the service of this predatory capitalism.  They worked mostly on plantations, growing and harvesting sugar cane (itself brought from the Old World) and processing it into sugar, rum, and molasses.  They grew other things too (tobacco, rice, indigo, cotton, etc.) but it was the immense wealth built by Sugar that fueled both the growth of global capitalism and the Industrial Revolution.

And as this happened, the plantation, and especially the slave-based plantations, among the earliest large-scale factories, became the working model for the "business corporation."  Power and authority flow from the top down, and all below serve the Masters.  Everything in the societies based on this system is subordinate to this essentially fascist structure, and many "third-world" problems remain in the places where it flourished.  The social structure of the southern US, the Old Confederacy, is still riddled with the rotting remnants of this system.

So, is it surprising, really, that a "businessman" who grew up comfortable with this type of predatory, fascist way of making a living would display the pro-fascist leanings our new president displays?  Couple this with his severe personality disorders, which apparently may include something called "malignant narcissism," and we are in trouble.  If there are any adults left in Washington I hope they can get rid of him very soon.