Where is Margaret Mead When We Need Her?
We are in the midst of any number of internal culture wars within the United States, and these conflicts are destroying us as a nation.
And yet, we have always been a culture of cultures. Since our founding, immigrants have contributed various perspectives and experiences, ethnicities have brought a panoply of beliefs and styles, distinct levels of socioeconomic status and educational experiences also separate people into other kinds of groups with various views. These differences used to be the gloriously complex fabric that made up America. But sadly, our current president has negatively amplified every possible difference that any two people might. He wants us to believe that stubborn, angry loyalty to some group is normal, righteous, and a reason to oppress others. And Mr.Trump hopes that enforcing a concept of “us” against “them” will win him another fours years. He also doesn’t care how much hate is spewed about in the process, or who gets hurt.
But it doesn’t have to be like this, and we need to get back to who we are. What is needed, I think, is culture brokers, that is, people trained to recognize, define, understand, and eventually sort out those differences so that people of all stripes can better respect each other and live in harmony.
I’m not talking about mediators here — the problem is too big — it encompasses the masses and you simply can’t get a room big enough for some sort of group therapy at this level. Instead, we need experts who have spent their lives figuring out what culture and identity is all about, people trained to listen and learn, and who take each culture as it is without judgment.
Those experts on culture are anthropologists, but where are they?
I admit to being an anthropologist myself, and I know it’s not a normal job. In my experience, most people have no idea what an anthropologist does or why it matters. More often than not, when I say I am an anthropologist a wave of confusion passes over the listener’s face, because, really, it sounds like such an old-fashioned occupation, like an alchemist. In the popular idea of an anthropologist, we all wear pith helmets and break into tombs to steal gold chalices, or we are on our way to some remote island where we plan to burrow into a previously unknown village like a cultural stowaway.
Also, we are on the fringe because there are so few of us and we are hard to find. Most of the time we hide out at universities trying to educate 18-year-olds about the importance of recognizing other ways of seeing the world. Although the anthropological approach is appreciated on most campuses, anthropology departments also tend to be small and not showcased by the administration because we don’t pull in big grants. But anthropologists were the first to suggest the idea that one culture, one way, one group of people is not better than another.
Anthropology as a discipline came to America in the late 1800s with the teachings of Franz Boas. Although trained in Germany as a physicist and geographer, Boas’s life was changed during an extended stay with the Inuit of Baffin Island. That experience set the stage for Boas’s then-radical perspective on race and culture that would become theoretical foundations of American anthropology. He eschewed the popular idea that cultures could be listed by sophistication with Western culture, of course, at the pinnacle. He also rebelled against the common belief that race was biologically real, and that traits then used to define race (which was often tied to a particular culture or country) were immutable. Instead, Boas showed with physical measurements of immigrants and their children that those so-called defining traits were easily changed when the environment changed. Boas also wrought a cultural revolution within America in the sense that he changed the basic Western belief system that “West is best.” He was educating the world that all cultures are sophisticated, complex, and interesting in their own right, and therefore of equal value, calling his perspective “cultural relativism.”
As a Professor at Columbia University, Boas infused his teaching with this concept. He was also adamant that it was critical to study other cultures so that we would have a record of the grand variability in human belief systems before those cultures were wiped out by Western contact. To that end, he trained and encouraged a long line of American graduate students and sent them off around the world. Some, like Margaret Mead, became the public voice of Boas, explaining to the popular audience in lectures and books that there were many other ways out there, and they all had equal value.
Cultural relativism was a major shift in how “others” were perceived, and it was the birth of political correctness in this country. That training is also alive and well in today’s anthropology curriculums. We anthropologists are devoted to the variety of human cultures; we study them, we account for them, and we revel in them. And yet, in a time when Western culture is again pitting one group against another, the anthropologists aren’t there to help us get out of this hole, or even to explain it.
Perhaps the anthropologists are in hiding. After all, these are scholars with a bent for foreign adventure, not political games. They are also academics, people who tend to be happiest sitting alone in a library or under a tree watching people in some far-flung place. They also tend to be loners, people comfortable standing back and watching. But this is not the time for objectivity. Western culture desperately needs some guidance, and it’s imperative that anthropologists get in there and help negotiate whatever it is that makes some people hate those who don’t look, act, or think exactly like them.
It’s time for anthropologists to do their job and make sure every culture, every group, every identity gets the respect it deserves.
We are one species connected by our evolutionary history if nothing else. Cultural and physical differences are not threats to anything: they are simply part and parcel of the broad range of our species. Underneath all those layers of cultural and physical variety lies a shared mind and body that identifies us as one big family, and with a little professional help from the culture brokers, we should be able to get along just fine.
(Also published on Medium.com)