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.

* 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.