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.

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