What America’s REALLY Fighting Over

The fight over marriage equality/gay marriage that is currently taking place in both the U.S. Supreme Court and in America in general sometimes seems like a tempest in a teapot. I’m not trying to minimize the pain and struggle. It just seems like it should be a fait accompli rather than a dynastic struggle.

One side wants the equal right to marry, complete with the attendant cultural recognition and legal protections. The other side says “no.” Yes, it’s a big step in equal rights for all people. It’s a big shift in gender and gender roles.

Plato and Aristotle relief carvingA brief analysis of the underlying assumptions of the two sides is illuminating.

One the one side, homosexuality is considered natural, as it is a naturally occurring phenomena that doesn’t harm anyone.

On the other side, homosexuality is considered deviant, dangerous behavior that threatens the world by its very existence.

Those two camps are pretty far from one another.

It turns out that we’re not just fighting over marriage rights, or even the definitions of core cultural pillars (gender, marriage, family). We are fighting over the nature of truth itself.

We’re addressing an age-old question: How do we know what we know?

Difficult-to-resolve issues usually have less to do with the explicit arguments, and more to do with underlying assumptions about the way the world works. In this case, the two great waves that are crashing together are:

  • On the one side, tradition, allied (sometimes tenuously) with traditional Judeo-Christian interpretations of the world
  • On the other side, a more secular, global approach to the world, aligned with modern interpretations of theology

Or, to take it back to Aristotle and the basics of rhetoric, we have an ethos argument (argument from authority or character) ramming up against a logos argument (argument by logic). And, just so it doesn’t feel left out, we have lots of pathos (argument by emotional appeal) on both sides of the issue.

  • Do we know something is “true” because that is the way our forefathers understood the world?
  • Or do we know it’s “true” because educated people said so?

The huge struggles that we’re facing, that divide the country and never seem to be adequately resolved, are part of larger cultural shifts and the necessary clashes that accompany change. Marriage equality is only one of these fights.

The current battle’s all over but the screaming, but the war’s going to be going on for a while.


From “Time Immemorial” — Prop 8 and a False Sense of History

In the U.S. Supreme Court discussions of Prop 8 yesterday (March 26th, 2013), Chief Justice John Roberts said something that made the little anthropologist deep inside me cringe.

Chief Justice John Roberts worried about change to an “institution that’s been around since time immemorial.”

Now, that quote doesn’t seem so bad, does it? On the one hand, we know what he means: that the institution of marriage has an unbroken lineage in the West. That’s more or less true, as far as it goes. But there are certain implications to his statement that are misleading.

Marriage isn’t really the same across all cultures.

There are actually multiple variations of marriage across cultures. Like gender, these categories are much more fluid than ideologues would have us believe.

There are a whole collection of practices that are beyond the pale of “traditional” Western culture: gay marriage, plural marriage, polygamy, polyandry, concubinage, and so on.*

Going further, we can also see that the practices of people are much more diverse than the ways we have to talk about it. Even in places in the U.S. where gay marriage is not accepted, a close look will find couples who are practicing it, even if it’s not legally recognized. In other words, the law is not “activist” as doesn’t promote homosexuality — just changes its legal status.

Marriage isn’t an unchanging institution.

Louis XIV Wedding
Was Louis XIV’s marriage like your own?

“Time immemorial” isn’t really all that long. A quick historical examination of how marriages are formed demonstrates that a hundred and fifty years ago, at the start of the American industrial revolution, marriages were much more between families than individuals.

It wasn’t until the industrial revolution that the whole idea of getting married and striking out wholly on your own came into vogue. When the American population moved from being predominantly agriculture-supported to urban-dwelling, the internal relationships of families changed.

If we look further out, we see that the “natural” American pattern of newlyweds setting up their own households is actually pretty rare worldwide. Neolocal residence patterns, while common in the West, only account for 5% of marriages worldwide.

Modern models of marriage are also a relatively recent development, and we still have traditions that come from our older system.  We consider asking a parent for a spouse’s hand in marriage to be quaint but a bare five generations ago, it was deadly, deadly serious.

If there is any shift that changed the nature of Western marriage, it was not, and will not be, the legal recognition of interracial marriage or same-sex marriage. It is, rather, the right of women to hold property and receive wages directly for their labor. This shift in gender roles is still having effects, and we’re still working out what it means.

Compared to the amazingly significant change that shifting gender roles in marriage is having, the recognition of gay marriage is nothing but the froth atop a much larger wave of change.

The  gender roles of American culture are both shifting and diverse. The negotiation of the meaning of gender may be complicated by the addition of new categories, but their inclusion into a more comprehensive legal framework will work to strengthen values of equal protection under the law. This battle isn’t a conflict between American and un-American values, but an attempt to resolve a conflict between two sets of values we hold dear.

* Note: I’ve picked only practices that a) are well documented in the anthropological record, and b) are generally considered consensual.

Leadership: Seeing the World through Primate Eyes

It’s not a trick. We’re always seeing the world through primate eyes. How does that shape the world we consciously see?

Precedence relies on cultural markers, but at the same time, those judgments also reach deeper into the primate mind. We look at common signs of social status, but on some level we’re also using a much more raw set of categories. Who looks like the biggest physical threat? Who holds themselves like a leader? Who are possible mates? Who looks like they might be competing with us for our own mate’s attention?

Primatology Is for Parties

Merry Party in a Tavern (Dirck Hals, 1628)Imagine you walk into a room at a party. The “culture” part of your thinking might quickly analyze what people are wearing, and what they’re doing. But there is a deeper, more instinctive level of analysis going on inside you, too.

For many people, this analysis of data goes on at a subconscious level. The pretty, flirty woman might get some glares. The big guy over there might earn himself wary respect. That older guy (or gal) with a circle of people around him giving him respect is probably a silverback. This is the primate mind, giving its two cents.

The social and instinctive categories interact. Social skill requires not just knowing the cultural symbols of power–a good watch, nicely fitting clothes of good quality, etc.–but also recognizing subtle clues. These signs are read in body language, tone of voice, and interactions with others. They are best revealed by subtle interactions, not static facts. The quality of eye contact, for instance, is at least as important as how much your glasses cost.

Leadership and precedence are complicated. Reading the signs can be more an art than a science. There are a lot of pieces to this puzzle, but I’d like to focus on two specific ones here. The first is this “self-confidence” that people talk about, and know when they see, but can’t usually quite explain in words. The second is “leadership”–again an amorphous concept more often recognized from its effects than its source.

Keep Calm and Carry On

So what is this mysterious “self-confidence” people talk about? We can talk about thinking this way or that about yourself, but it’s really the ability to effectively sort threats out and react appropriately. Leaders keep their calm. Effective, confident leaders don’t act threatened by their environment or members of the group.

But this calmness isn’t just a calm mind, it’s also a calm body. It doesn’t matter how wonderful you think you are on a conscious level if you have sweaty palms, a tense face, and shaky legs.

Some non-leaders often act threatened by others in the in-group. They challenge others in the group, consciously or unconsciously, trying to gain status. Other non-leaders, confident in their own roles within the group, don’t take part in that game, except to defend their own position.

Self-confidence isn’t just thinking the world of yourself. Self-confidence is knowing how you fit in on a primate level, and being comfortable with that position.

Taking Responsibility Isn’t About Taking

Effective leaders take responsibility for the group. Though these leaders don’t act threatened by members of their own group, they recognize threats to the group as a whole and take action on them–personally, or by directing others.

The Life of Buckingham (c.1855) by Augustus Leopold EggInternal threats to a group are actually often handled by non-leaders. If a leader is recognized and effective, then a threat to their position is a threat to the status quo. That means that others in the group will defend their position, as a way of maintaining their own positions.

If a leader is having to personally fend off challenges to his or her position, it’s a sign that the group itself is unstable. If a leader gets the reputation of taking care of himself first, and the group second, then challenges (successful or not) will inevitably arise.

“Looking Out” for Others

When we add these two factors of primate leadership together, we see something interesting develop: while non-leaders struggle for precedence within the group and struggle to maintain group stability, people in leadership positions watch outside the group for threats, while relying on others to defend their position.

That kind of model might sound counter-intuitive in Western culture, where an every-primate-for-himself model has been propagated. “Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw” leaves no room for the calm leader. But if we watch the best leaders through primate eyes, we might see more than we expect.

More Advice than We Can Handle

Human knowledge is growing by leaps and bounds. Since the advent of the scientific method, innovation has expanded, and there’s no reason to think it won’t keep going. This brings us to a new challenge in living in this changing world: what do we do with all this knowledge?

Advice to a Young Artist - by Honoré Daumier c1865-68In trying to take charge of our lives, we  use scientific knowledge. Maybe we don’t even realize that we’re making an intellectual jump.

Science tries to describe the world we live in, but we’re using that information to try to build a unitary model of the world, one that makes sense.

We’re assuming that there is “one true way” that can be found and understood. The underlying thought seems to be “if I act in accordance with science, then I am somehow more efficient, better able to compete, and thus a “success.” And as far as it goes, that is not only true, but a truism. Science is how we defined “efficient” and “compete” and “success.”

Proscriptive or Descriptive

Let’s grab an older example of the same leap. When Adam Smith, the founder of economics, analyzed and described human economic behavior (The Wealth of Nations, 1776), we (as humans) made a choice what to do with the new information. Smith, a moral philosopher, was being descriptive. He was explaining what humans do.

But as time went on, businessmen worked to cleave to Smith’s principles. We somehow stopped using the information to understand, and began adhering to its principles as the “right” way to act. We made the jump from accepting the work as descriptive to using it proscriptively.

Adam Smith wasn’t telling us to be cutthroat jerks in business. We’ve been doing that since the first people traded with strangers.

The West’s relationship with the work of Charles Darwin follows the same pattern. We took it too far. We went beyond the descriptive science of “oh, that’s how genetic selection works” to actions based on our understanding of that science. That is, we started using the knowledge proscriptively.

Theories of cultural evolution were used to bolster already existing colonial regimes; understandings of genetics were used to support eugenics programs. “Science” was used to bolster decisions that were thought of as hardheaded in a competitive world, but were sometimes more hardhearted than anything else.

We can (and do) look back on these decisions and say that it was “bad science.” It would be closer to the truth to say that this was a bad use of scientific knowledge.

Science, at its root, is an incredibly effective way of understanding some aspects of the world and generating certain types of knowledge. It promotes objectivity, rational thinking, and collaboration. Science is good stuff.

On the other hand, science is a human tool, and no tool is the right one to solve every problem. Science is not the philosopher’s stone, nor the universal solvent. Science is not alchemy. It won’t fix all our problems; that’s our job.

How Do We Decide?

Test Tubes
Where to look for answers?

Making such a leap – from using science as a method of understanding the world to using scientific knowledge for gaining a competitive advantage – is based on certain assumptions about what people are, and aren’t.

In order to effectively use scientific knowledge to guide our actions, we allow it to make certain decisions for us. Those assumptions depend on the field of study. Economists might see people as rational maximizers. Biologists might see us as competitive DNA delivery systems. Astrophysicists, as a group, see us as a small part of the universe. Anthropologists see humans as cultural creatures.

We are all these things, all at once, and more. Science, at its best, gives us systematically verified knowledge. But it doesn’t tell us what to do with all this knowledge. We  have to figure that out for ourselves.

Call Out the Inner Primate

Male silverback gorilla
Somewhere deep inside the mind…

When people are confronted by danger, they can accomplish amazing things. Yet, when we need to take action, sometimes we have to lie to ourselves. The inner primate, that instinctive part of us that usually lies buried, might not recognize the same signs of “danger” as the abstract part of the mind.

When we’re in a situation that truly and obviously threatens our lives, everything comes into focus. The sympathetic nervous system, which governs things like adrenaline release, takes charge and gets us moving–often with “fight or flight” responses.

If we find ourselves in a burning house, confronted by some danger on the street, or see someone we care about being threatened, it kicks in. Abstract thought melts away, and doubt leaves us. It gives us power we would not otherwise have.

Confronting Complexity

There are times when we confront dangers that aren’t so simple. Sometimes we need to rally the whole self to win some abstract competition, not just survive. When we’re faced with a tough situation, how do we call out the “inner primate”? How do we access that instinctive part of the mind?

The simple answer is that we lie to it. We convince ourselves, deeply and emotionally, that we’re fighting for our lives, even when that is not strictly true. We get ourselves worked up by worrying. The “this and that” of abstract thought melts away, and we become focused on a simpler world.

We can convince ourselves, through thought, that we are “fighting for our lives.” This is a way of self-justifying “antisocial,” or more accurately, “culturally questionable” behavior. Worry isn’t just something that distracts us and wastes our energy; sometimes it’s a way of working ourselves up to action.

That primate part of the mind isn’t too interested in details like the way that others who are not “our people” feel. It’s not that the primate doesn’t have feelings, it’s just that it doesn’t usually recognize people outside of our own group as anything more than competitors.

In the abstract, maybe we sometimes feel that everyone should get along. But in specific, such as when we are struggling for precedence within a group, or keeping ourselves safe, other considerations become more important.

Maybe this inner primate isn’t the most rational part of our mind, but it does have its uses. It’s also important to recognize not only its power, but its limitations.

U R Primate: Social Media, Social Animals

Flood Tablet 7th Century B.C.E.
Flood Tablet 7th Century B.C.E.

It’s a cliché by now that social media, from texting to friending, has begun to reshape how we communicate with each other. We now get jobs through LinkedIn,  keep track of our social networks on Facebook, post our favorite links on Google+, and sell our old furniture on Craigslist.

Since we’re primates at heart, what does the shift to the new social technologies mean for us? Now that we write instead of speak, how does that change our interactions?

Humans are social animals–we communicate, mostly, through language. Language allows us access to such advantages as abstraction. With language, unlike other primate calls, we can talk about things that have happened at another time or place (displacement), and we can create new words (productivity).

Without language, as a linguistically-interested friend of mine so poignantly put it, our options are “grunt” and “point.” While this might sound flip, it gets to the heart of the matter: without language, primates can only talk about here and now. After we humans developed language (Chomsky, among others, puts the date at 100,000 years ago: one of the more “recent” dates), there was a long stretch until we invented writing.

Up until the advent of writing (c. 3200 BC), communication was by necessity face-to-face. With the invention of the printing press with movable type (arguably 1450 AD, as earlier printing was only in the hands of a select few), we began to be able to do more than record thoughts. Suddenly we could distribute them to a wide range of people, and people we had never met.

Here and Now

Woman after flood with smartphone showing FacebookIn the Information Age, we can do far more. With hardly any effort at all, we can communicate with large numbers of people. But we’re still developing the politeness rules of social media. We throw about terms like “friend” and “follower” (and I truly do appreciate all of you out there!) and even “like.” These words have taken on new meanings in a new social context.

Publishing, itself, has grown from expensive, professional work to essentially “free“–especially if you don’t want to make any money on it and just want to get your message out there. If “media” is all these methods of communicating via technology, then we arrive at “social media” when the cost of such communication, at least on a per-message basis, drops so low that it becomes a cost-effective way to network socially with all those other human primates.

While “social media” is in many respects a new field for communication, at the same time it still has similar goals and rules. We still compete for the approval of our own groups as well as status within them. Also, we defend groups we identify with from outsiders.

While the means of communication have changed, our goals of reaching out to our “own people” remain. Our desire for a place, and respect, within our social groups has stayed the same. While we can ignore time and space, we can’t ignore that our goals haven’t changed all that much.

The Information Economy Is You

Primates are social animals, and humans doubly so. At least in Western Culture, we have it in our minds that the bottleneck in competition is always production. But sometimes the product isn’t only what we hold in our hands at the end of the day. Sometimes, what we’re making is just as much a social interaction or a social link, something intangible.

Palletising robotFrom manufacturing robots to call centers, we see a range of  jobs moving out of reach of Americans. The competition for these jobs keeps increasing, and not only is more education required to get a foot in the door, but more specific and specialized education is often required.

Manufacturing jobs have, to a large extent, moved overseas from the U.S., and/or are being replaced with mechanized methods. These methods refer not only to robots that do repetitive physical work (traditionally “lower class“) but also to computer programs that do repetitive mental work (traditionally “middle class“). Both of these types of jobs are being displaced, leading to a reduction in the overall number of jobs available in America.

Yet this movement of jobs covers a more important shift as we move into the Information Economy. With the rise in productivity in Western Culture, having workers who are efficient in producing traditional products is of less and less importance. What is rising in importance is the production of the new “true” product. This new product is not physical, but informational. We can see this every day if we just look around.

Products in the Information Economy

In the information economy, what is key is not “quality” in the older sense of a “good” product, but “informational” quality. Branding and good reputation is more important than having the “better” product in some “blind taste test” sense. Whether that product is actually better is no longer the key matter.

Because branding is further becoming more important than the actual product, representing a brand well is more important than improving the brand. Having employees stay “on message” is more important than having a good product. Purity of the message is the primary product, and the quality of the “actual” product only needs to be kept up to customer standards.

Cup of CoffeeSometimes “getting along” is more important than performing your job well, especially for entry-level positions. What is actually happening is a redefinition of “performing the job well” to bring it in line with the Information Economy. Even for the most menial of jobs, social factors and the ability to promote group harmony are of increasing importance. Looking and acting “the part” have risen in importance.

Perhaps outside of a few specific areas (possibly including medicine, car repair, and computer programming), the primary concern is no longer “the product” in any physical sense, but instead is an informational product: brand, experience, and buzz.

We used to complain about how advertisements were unrealistic, but in the information economy, every moment on the job, and sometimes off, is an ad. We now create our own “personal brands,” packaging and selling our sense of self.

On this note, we find that one of the most important “products” that we can bring to the table in an interview is either a lack of personal identity, or an identity that is easily meshed with others. While social skills have always had a role in career success, the Information Economy requires a new set of social skills. And more than ever, these are the skills that drive our careers forward.