Saturday, April 6, 2019
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.
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 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.