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.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Inconvenience of Reality


The truth does not set us free, it typically just makes us uncomfortable.  A prime example of this is the rampant racism in this country.  Despite, or more likely because of, electing a black President, bigotry has not declined.  Tangential to this is the strong uptick in sexism that runs parallel to racism.  This is the uncomfortable truth that we face.  However, rather than just complain about the phenomenon, I would like to try to examine some root causes of the behavior: shame, fear, and identity.

The first driver of prejudice is shame.  For generations we literally enslaved blacks and we oppressed women.  Both were treated appallingly by the power structure and denied recourse to protest that repression.  Black men were not counted as people until after the civil war, and then it was a further 100 years before they truly earned the right to participate in the democratic process.  Women didn't get a universal right to vote until 1920, although some states adopted suffrage before that.

This is shameful, and any rational person in 2013 should recognize how appalling that truth is.  However, people don't always react the same way to shame.  Some people, and I would hope the majority, although recent events make me question that assertion, use the shame as a driver to guarantee that those mistakes are never repeated.  Shame has been used throughout history as a powerful method of discipline in a social structure, and therefore is often corrective.

Unfortunately, some people cannot correctly process shame.  Instead they refuse to see their behavior as inappropriate, and actually transfer the shameful behavior onto the actual victims.  You see this in a number of events recently.  President Obama being constantly criticized as un-American, arrogant, uppity, and a host of other epithets that condemn him for the audacity of becoming President.  You also see this in the Trayvon Martin case, where the black teen is de facto guilty, and judged to be in the wrong automatically, even though, if he did fight back, he was acting under the same principle that allowed George Zimmerman to legally murder him.  And even further, you see this is the repeated refusal to acknowledge rape as an actual crime, and the pushing of the idea that women contribute to their own rapes through their bad behavior.

In all of these cases, shame is being transferred off of the person who cannot accept it, and it is being placed on a person or group who in way have any guilt in the matter.  This is unfortunately a common behavior pattern among people who lack the maturity to face a horrible reality.  Part of the problem here is that since they did not personally engage in those behaviors, they feel that they bear no responsibility.  Further they feel that assigning them responsibility for the actions of people in the past, or other people in the present, is utterly wrong.

This is correct as far as the individual goes, but there is another layer at play here and that is societal guilt.  Societal guilt is not personalized, but belongs to a large group of people and is the method of mitigating bad behavior by a culture.  A prime example would be the Holocaust; only a relatively small percentage of the German population actively participated in the atrocities, but a wide swath stood by and watched it happen.  In this, they became complicit, is not directly guilty; and that is what societal guilt is meant to address.

Even though the Civil War ended almost 150 years ago, and the Equal Rights movement ostensibly came to an end 30 years ago, much of the bad behavior is still being perpetrated.  But rather than acknowledge it, the guilt is off-shored and placed on the people who do not deserve the blame.  The racist attitudes justify the ill treatment of minorities and women, by essentially blaming them for their own condition.  In doing this, the racist and sexist attitudes become fully justified in the mind of the person who holds them, and removes the burden of shame.

And to address another elephant in the room, there is a genuine phenomenon of reverse racism and counter sexism, where minorities and women turn the tables against white men.  However, it should be noted that this phenomenon is distinctly different from traditional racism and sexism.  These are response behaviors, basically stemming from the idea, "You hate us, so we will hate you back just as much."  Although it drastically increases the problem, it is a natural response.  However, since is it such a different imperative from traditional racism, I am going to leave it out of this discussion.

The second driver is fear.  As I have discussed in previous blog posts, the fear-anger-hate chain is powerful and ubiquitous.  But the root imperative is fear.  With racism and sexism, the fear is both extremely simple and highly convoluted.  The root cause of the fear is the idea of loss of privilege, white men have essentially run the show in most of the industrialized world for centuries.  Losing that basic power structure is deeply troubling. 

White men have been on top for so long that we literally do not know how to function in a world where we are not the ultimate power.  You see this in the repeated meltdowns over President Obama.  He is going out there and acting just like a white man, asking for motorcades, for marines to hold an umbrella over him, traveling the globe and talking to world leaders as an equal.  How arrogant of him.  To many who fear the loss of their influence, he is the ultimate harbringer of their doom.

The convoluted part comes in the realization that ye shall reap as ye have sown.  The comedian Patton Oswalt talks about using a time machine, and how it would be great to use it to visit the past, because there never has been a time when being a white man hasn't been awesome.  However, he cautions against using it to go to the future, because what we have done is going to catch up to us, and the future is "gonna suck."  We are going to eventually have to pay for our millennia of bad leadership decisions.

This fear drives both racism and sexism.  They are the dying gasps of trying to stave off an inevitable future where the white male has, at best, limited ability to control events, and at worst will become the oppressed minority.  The fear of what might happen to us makes it imperative that we keep everyone else down, by whatever means are necessary, and bigotry serves that very well.  In fact, through careful application of it, we can even get some of the oppressed people to buy into the story.  Allen West and Phyllis Schaffley are perfect examples of this.

Add to that the second layer of fear, the fear that we are not superior.  Much of racism and sexism is supported by the indisputability of the superiority of the white male.  We view ourselves as smarter, more talented, better leaders, and generally better people than either minorities or women.  And every time one of the other groups does an excellent job in a "white role" it undercuts that certainty.

This is also why President Obama gets described as lazy, ineffectual, and incompetent.  And unfortunately, to be honest, it comes from both sides of the white political spectrum.  The issues of complaint about the President may be different, but underlying both sides is this hidden message that a white man could do it better.  The lionization of Bill Clinton by both side proves this idea.  I should note here, there has been significant criticism of the President from the African-American community, but it is fundamentally different in tone, and often echoes the idea that he isn't doing enough for their community.  However, given the issues surrounding his Presidency, he would only make it worse and heighten the racism, if he actually did more.  Notice the furor over his  relatively mild statement regarding Trayvon Martin,

The last piece of the racism puzzle is identity.  For much of human history, the world has revolved around ideas of us and them.  We define ourselves by certain identifiers, race, religion, and culture.  The ideas of what make us, "us" are very powerful and form the basis of a racial identity.

The vampire mythic sequence illustrates this very well, we are both drawn to and repelled by the other.  In the older vampire stories, the monster wanted to seduce our women and steal them away, which meant that he had to be destroyed with a stake through the heart.  This symbolized the need to strike at the core of the dangerous other.

In today's world of "sparkly vampires" we want to mate with the vampire, not to embrace the other, but to subsume the other.  The ultimate message of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Twilight is that we need to make the vampire more like us.

This returns to the issue of bigotry.  We can accept a black man if he is more white than the average white man.  In fact, most of my white friends who have the one black friend typically describe them as "the whitest black guy in the world."  By taking on a "white" identity, the otherness becomes neutralized and they are save.  Even if they are a different skin color, they do not challenge the predominant white identity of our culture.  They become "neutralized."

The same goes for women.  If a woman acts girlish in the work world, she is basically a threat to the cultural identity of what an employee should be.  If she cries, or talks about "female problems" or in any way breaks the mold, she becomes a danger.  Basically, to function effectively in the work world, a woman must be indistinguishable from a man.

However, there is a double standard for women that does not exist for racial issues.  It is OK, and even expected, that a woman fill a traditional role in the non-work realm.  That is also part of the identity issue, a woman has a specific role to play in our cultural structure.  She can step outside of that at work, but not outside of work, and that is part of what is expected.  However, a minority can never step outside of the "white" role, or they instantly become a threat.

The problem with this arises from the fact that we are not allowed to talk about these issues, and that acerbates all of them.

If we were allowed to address the issues of shame, we could talk openly about the atrocities of slavery and Jim Crow and try to make some sort of peace with the past.  We cannot fix what has gone before, but we certainly can acknowledge that we have done horrible things and commit to never repeating them.  Germany engaged in this purging of their societal soul after World War 2.  They did not eliminate the Nazi movement, but they served to marginalize it to the point that only the most extreme racists would embrace it.  In this context, shame becomes a powerful tool to cleanse out the festering rot of bigotry.

Second if we could openly discuss our fears and our insecurities, we could meet them head on.  Most of the time, fear is unfounded, and in this case, it is particularly so.  If we were allowed to have open discussions that made people realize that another group's success does not in any way diminish our own, we might come to terms with our fears.  Just because white male influence is waning does not mean that we have become reviled.  However, if we do not address this issue, our fears will become a self fulfilling prophecy.

Finally, we need to stop defining our identity by race, sex or creed.  Even defining identity by nationality can lead to problems, but that is a more natural division.  At lease, if kept in check so that it doesn't devolve into extreme nationalism, it can become a tool to unify people.

At the end of the day, we need to realize we are all Americans, whether we are male or female, white black or brown.  Only then can we begin to move past this mess we have made for ourselves.

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