Category Archives: Change

Race: Cultural Construct — And Very, Very Real

Anyone who has absorbed the content of an Anthropology 101 class, or even a general education class, knows intellectually that race is a fiction. What we don’t usually take away from these classes is the nature of “fiction.”

We think of “fiction” in the most simple, 6th grade terms — as “made up.” But as adults, it is easier to recognize that that a fiction is not the same as a lie — or even more simplistically “a random collection of disparate ideas.”

10,000 Monkeys

Better than 10,000 monkeys

But Shakespeare was not written by 10,000 monkeys on typewriters. Fiction is not random. In the same way, race does exist — as a part of culture.

The part of culture that we struggle with, especially our own culture, is that it is not coterminous with reality. But one thing that we know, as anthropologists, is that culture seems real. From the inside (and humans must by definition operate from the inside) we can’t tell the difference between reality and our perceptions of it.

The “crime” is not that we believe in race, but that we legislated it as if we bear the unitary truth of reality. The mistake, then, is not that our culture is “wrong” but that our expectations of culture are crazy.

A Teaching Moment

Saint Francis of Assisi by Jusepe de Ribera
Just another hotblooded Italian? No, that’s Saint Francis of Assisi.

When I was teaching Anthropology 101, I had a student in one of my classes who felt, very strongly, that his identity as an Italian-American was all the explanation that was necessary for his hot temper. No amount of argument would suffice to show him that what he was doing was embodying and reinforcing his culture’s expectations.

The discussion in class became quite heated, as he would not budge from the belief that his experience was not only valid, but indeed intrinsic. That, of course, is the power of culture.

The power of anthropology is not that we can step outside of culture and look at it. That is, I believe, impossible. We can bend and expand our culture, stretching our mind to extrapolate the nature of culture. But we can never wholly step away from it.

Anthropology: Proscriptive or Descriptive?

Anthropology is an academic discipline, and philosophically a powerful one. It allows us, from the inside, to stretch and turn our culture so that it can look at itself.

But we also know that it is possible, once we have begun these philosophical limbering exercises, to reshape not only ourselves, but culture as a whole. Like all science, anthropology lets us begin to reshape our minds in ways that let us begin to map the world the way it is.

But this idea, that we can reshape our culture to map the world, is based on the underlying cultural belief that culture and reality are the same thing. Believing that everyone should have an understanding of the world that matches an anthropologist is just as self-centered as atheists (for an example in the news) who believe that everyone should see the world the way they do.

All at once, it brings anthropology to the center and cheapens it. If anthropology is itself a discipline, then it has something to offer the world as it is. We don’t need everyone to be an anthropologist any more than we need everyone to be a doctor.

Instead, anthropology might consider focusing on what these truths we learn mean when we can present them without leading the listener to be an anthropologist themselves.

And if it is impossible for us to teach without leading the listener through every step of the whole process — if we can’t bring truth back for our culture — then that would explain the challenges we face as a discipline.

The difference lies in status. If anthropologists can access cultural truths and these truths are of some use, then we must teach from a rhetorical standpoint of ethos. If our only way of teaching is teaching others how to think, then we are in the business of changing culture, not serving it.

Race is part of Western Culture, and denying its cultural validity is an uphill battle. Instead, we must reach out to those who legislate and make decisions that cross cultural groups. These are the people who need to understand that everything they “know” about “the other” is from only one perspective.

…Now with the Power of Science!

I ran into a funny piece of advertising recently. It was for a facial cleaner or some similar product, and the product read, in big friendly letters (as part of the advertising on the front of the package):

Now with “science-y jargon blah blah“!

Okay, so I’m just paraphrasing the semantic meaning here. But, I’m pretty sure that we weren’t supposed to understand what it meant, just be impressed with its efficacy.

Science As Authority

Luckies Doctor
If “Science” says it, it must be true!

Using the idea of “Science” (the cultural construct) as a way of establishing authority in ads isn’t anything new. Even since science started being something that we listen to, instead of something we learn to do ourselves, marketers have been using it to affect our decisions.

Remember, in a perfect world, scientists have every obligation to share their data with other scientists. This is done for the sake of improving the world of science — to strengthen the academy. But for those of us on the outside — and with the incredible complexity of scientific research today, that’s almost everyone — we just have to take their word for it.

The New Alchemists

Gold Bars
Can science navigate the shoals of temptation?

The majority of scientists today work outside of the academy. They are in the employ of (not to put too fine a point on it) merchants. These merchants are themselves in the employ of shareholders, themselves. There are times, we can imagine, that this might present conflicts of interest.

It’s a trade-off. With much of research funding coming from private hands, and those hands being bound by (fickle) shareholder obligations, we’re making great strides in areas like consumer electronics and pharmaceuticals.

Patent wars are the result. And patent litigation is probably desperately against the scientific method at its core. The scientific method, at its root, is a collaborative method; that is its power.

But “scientists” working for private ends have a business model of making their patron happy as they try to create wealth through their knowledge. We’ve seen this model before — it’s the way that alchemy functioned in the pre-scientific era.

The People’s History

When the social sciences were first created, it was at a time when science was believed to be the answer to all things. It was a time when the physical sciences were growing by leaps and bounds, and people — at least the educated ones — knew in their hearts that the scientific method would crack the code of all things.

The idea was to take the methods of science and apply them to the behaviors of people. Anthropology, economics, political science, sociology, and the like all were ways of stepping away from softer approaches to humans, like history, and give the topic a more rigorous basis.

As it turns out, trying to use scientific rigor on complex systems is a lot harder than it looks. If we’ve learned anything, it’s that people are more complicated than we suspected.

The (Post?)Modern Human

Homo erectus endocast - Smithsonian Museum of Natural History - 2012-05-17
Are you thinking what I’m thinking?
Probably not.

People are complicated. So complicated, in fact, that we mostly understand them (ourselves!) through statistics and trends. Culture itself can only be understood in that way.

When we first started looking at culture, we really wanted to say “culture X believes Y” like it was some mathematical model. But now we have discovered that there is little in any culture that is truly uncontested.

Even what we once thought were simple cultures of simple people are incredibly complex, with “core” beliefs that are no more than trends. Even if we want to say something like “the Ancient Greeks were polytheistic” we can only say it with some certainty.

Complexity Isn’t New

Plato in Thomas Stanley History of Philosophy
from Thomas Stanley’s The History of Philosophy (1655)

Some of the Ancient Greeks believed that all the “gods” were expressions of one higher source. So, does that make them polytheists? Did they believe the myths we ascribe to them? Well, sort of.

Think of it this way: “do Westerners today believe in evolution?” Or how about “do Christians believe in the creation of the world in seven days?” The answer is “some of them” or maybe even “yeah, they trend that way in some sub-groups.”

To make things seemingly less complicated, we look at what beliefs are associated with other things, like political power. We choose to narrow what we’re looking at in order to make some kind of sense.

But at the same time, we have to realize that when we narrow down what we look at and see only dominant trends, we do the same thing that we do by choosing to watch only certain news sources in our own culture. Since we only have limited attention, we chop off a chunk of what’s going on, placing abstract boundaries that reflect our own values.

Like the postmodernists argue, we can’t pay attention to everything. And choosing what we pay attention to is an act of politics and an act of power.

Rise of the Machines

Daniel Maclise - Caxton Showing the First Specimen of His Printing to King Edward IV at the Almonry, Westminster
The printing press revolutionized History by making its creation accessible to all.

But we can no longer pretend that we’re passive consumers of culture and history. The “common man” has access to more education and wealth than ever before in history.

With the rise of the printing press, mass literacy, and more recently the Internet, we’ve given voice to people and groups that were previously silenced. Where once putting pen to paper was the domain of the elites, now it’s open to nearly everyone.

The cost of publishing has gone down to near-free, and the challenge is getting people’s attention in the resulting cacophony. The question isn’t “can I get published?” anymore. While the gatekeepers of traditional publishing still hold the keys tightly, there are other kingdoms of communication, and some of them aren’t so hard to enter.

Now that the means of communication are open to all, it is harder to cling to the old adage that “history is written by the victors.” History, as always, is written by the literate. But more and more, that’s nearly everyone.

Not only can we see how complicated and varied people are in their decisions and lives, but we’ve become engaged in documenting it in ways that couldn’t even be dreamed of a generation ago. Though we have hardly begun to scratch the surface of it, social media has become “The People’s History.”

“…And I Feel Fine”

Sunset over New York City - 1932
Are we in the sunset of Western civilization?

The “End of the World” is always an alluring subject.

I’m not referring to people’s religious convictions about a coming Apocalypse, Armageddon, or Ragnarök. I’m thinking of every survivalist out there and everyone who obsesses about earthquakes, global warming, tornadoes, invasion from China, and so forth. It’s not that these things couldn’t happen. It’s just that change — even massive, disruptive change — isn’t anything new.

Climate Science as Apocalypse

I’m not a climate-science denier. Yes, global warming is happening. Yes, it is going to terribly impact weather patterns, and thus food production and the frequency of “natural disasters.” And yes, policy-level decisions made at this time will work to ameliorate the impact some of these challenges. Otherwise, things will be messier than they need to be.

But that’s a far cry from the collapse of civilization, the death of Western culture, and a Mad Max-like future. The changes that will be necessitated are probably no more massive than the ones that were caused by the Industrial Revolution and the Digital Revolution.

Yes, we are right to worry about the disruption that man-made climate change will bring. But we’re not taking into account the fact that in a larger sense we’ve already lived through changes just as massive and just as terrible.

The Times, They Are A’Servin’

In Katrina's Wake
We can expect to see an increase in natural disasters.
We can also expect to see people adapting resiliently.

In the past 200 years, about three quarters of the people in Western culture have completely changed their lifeways. Two centuries ago, we were mostly small-field agrarians. Life changed, and people became factory workers. It changed again, and now many of us work in service industry jobs.

The true scope of the service industry is bigger than we usually think. It’s made up of everyone who doesn’t actually produce things we need, pass down culture, or protect our people and way of life.

You might think that you’re not in the service industry, but it’s wider than we usually acknowledge. If you’re a computer programmer and you make video games, you’re in the service industry every bit as much as your friend who works at Starbucks. The entertainment industry, to name one, is little more than a more-respected part of the service industry — at least in the hunter-gatherer sense.

Many of these “service” jobs are lucrative, from movie and sports stars to the founders of companies like “Facebook.” It’s not that these services aren’t real, it’s just that they aren’t usually connected to the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. They’re also not usually all that involved in the reproduction of culture — except incidentally.

Back in the “Real” World

At the same time, we’re pushing on the traditionally “productive” (in a cultural sense) professions in order to pay for more entertainment. We’re cutting pay for our teachers, disrespecting our priests, slicing benefits to factory workers, pressing farmers on crop prices, and frowning down upon our soldiers.* In fact, of the traditional professions, only medical doctors seem to be doing well.**

But the point is that we’ve been through massive changes, and we’re still going. On a cultural level, the changes that we face probably aren’t any worse than the ones we’ve already been through. Addressing these problems early and thoughtfully will help us make a smoother transition. But panicking that it’s the “end of the world” will not help us.

* If we put yellow ribbons on our cars, and then don’t react to the VA scandals, what does that say about us?

** As a side note, the respect given doctors can help us understand the power of unions — and by “unions” I mean specifically the American Medical Association.