About the Name of this blog

This blog's title refers to a Dani fable recounted by Robert Gardner. The Dani live in the highlands of New Guinea, and at the the time he studied them, they lived in one of the only remaining areas in the world un-colonized by Europeans.

The Dani, who Gardner identifies only as a "Mountain People," in the film "The Dead Birds," have a myth that states there was once a great race between a bird and a snake to determine the lives of human beings. The question that would be decided in this race was, "Should men shed their skins and live forever like snakes, or die like birds?" According to the mythology, the bird won the race, and therefore man must die.

In the spirit of ethnographic analysis, this blog will examine myth, society, culture and architecture, and hopefully examine issues that make us human. As with any ethnography, some of the analysis may be uncomfortable to read, some of it may challenge your preconceptions about the world, but hopefully, all of it will enlighten and inform.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Its All the Fault of Air Conditioning

Cool air

Recently my friend Patrick wrote a blog about what he terms “Southern Nice,” in which he defines a cultural artifact in the South where you wrap up your hatred of another in a cloak of false niceness.  He has gotten a lot of “Southern Nice” in response to the blog.

I cannot fully ascertain the validity of his concept, as I am not enculturated into the South, but I will say that it is the best working model of the behavior that I encounter on a day to day basis down here.  As with any scientific or cultural theory, I will therefore adhere to it until a better one comes along.  That said, I would like to deconstruct the possible origins of this phenomenon.

I blame air conditioning.

Let me explain the chain of reasoning.

First we will look at the evolution of emotional behavior, fear turns to anger, turns to hate.  Fear is the most primitive of emotions, followed by anger.  Hate is much more complex, but still speaks to our primal nature.  The chain, fear-anger-hate is a common one, so common that when Yoda tells Luke this, the entire audience can connect to what he is saying.  (If his thoughts had been abstract, and not part of the common collective knowledge, it would not have resonated.)

An example of this: let’s say you are a devout Fundamentalist Christian and you encounter a different interpretation of the Bible (perhaps one inspired by John Spong) which goes completely against what you believe to be True.  The natural reaction to this encounter is to fear: what if the other person is right?  What if I’m wrong?  The next step is to then become angry, angry that you have questions about something you feel you should have no questions about, then angry at the person who makes you question the unquestionable.  That anger then crystallizes into hate: you hate the person who made you ask a question that you feel should never be asked.  Hate becomes, in essence, the perfect armor against those who make you question your fundamental belief structure.

This pattern repeats over and over in human society.  The root of this chain is a lack of epistemology, which causes an inability to rationally asses a cultural challenge.  Lacking the solid epistemological groundwork to analyze the question and determine its validity, the person reverts to a root structural behavior.

Now onto “Southern Nice.”

The South is fully enculturated into a certain belief system, one of the most rigid belief systems I have ever encountered.  The reason for this is that for most of the existence of the United States, they have lived in a closed bubble – you were born in the South, lived in the South and died in the South.  You rarely left, and outsiders rarely came in.  (Unless they were burning cities to the ground)  This sort of isolation further reinforces cultural homogeneity and enculturation.

The South does things in ways that are completely different from, and holds beliefs that are utterly alien to, the rest of the country.  This was OK when they were an isolated, low population backwater.  It isn’t now, because of the huge influx of internal immigrants into the area.  (Which leads to the idea of transference, do the people in the south actually hate illegal aliens, or are they just transferring their hatred of internal immigrants into the one group they are culturally allowed to hate?)

The problem in the South arises when these new immigrants bring the non-Southern culture and value structure into the South.  They expect to have things like they are in the rest of the world.  (I certainly fall into this category, and it has caused me no end of difficulty here.)  The people not from the South have little tolerance for the racism, fundamentalism and general un-enlightenment of the people there.  They challenge the cultural belief system of the South.  The challenge increases cultural rigidity, because any system under threat reinforces the bulwarks.  Fear leads to anger then culminates in hate.

Thus “Southern Nice” is born.

So why do I blame air-conditioning for this?

Well until the invention of air-conditioning, no one not born to it could stand to live in the hot, humid and bug infested hell that is the Deep South.  People rarely even visited it.  The South was able to maintain it’s cultural isolation well into the 20th century because of that fact.  They didn’t grow with the rest of the country.

This changed with air-conditioning.  Air-conditioning allowed people not born in the South to tolerate the climate here.  No longer were the mass populations confined to the Rust Belt, the area of the most tolerable year around climate in America.  Air-conditioning flipped the concept of a tolerable climate from a cool climate to a warm one.  There was a mass exodus from the North East to the South and Southwest.  In 1900 all of the largest cities in America were in the North-East Corridor, running from New York City to Chicago.  In 2011, only two of the largest cities are still in that corridor, the rest have moved to the Southern Tier.  It has been one of the largest internal migrations in history.

And with the migration came new ideas, new ways of doing things, new societal constructs.  The immigrants to the South brought a Northern Value Structure, which threw into question the entire culture of the South.  You had the Civil Rights movement, you had a new emphasis on critical thinking, you had new religions and traditions, you had new political values.  All of these brought new questions and new, challenging ideas.

And that launched the behavior chain.

If it had not been for air-conditioning, the South would have remained an isolated bubble on the fringes of the United States, but with it, the South became a major population center which caused cultural dislocation.  “Southern Nice,” is a cultural artifact that evolved as a response to that challenge of an entrenched belief system.

It’s amazing the spreading impact even from changing one technological variable.

"Hate your next door neighbor, but don't forget to say grace." Barry McGuire, Eve of Destruction


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