War and Peace

 anthropology  Comments Off on War and Peace
Sep 212016


This is part of a post I put up today on my other blog in honor of the International Day of Peace. It’s worth repeating, and I don’t mind if you share (with or without credit). Spread the word.

As a professional anthropologist I do not believe in some notion of universal human nature. All cultures are different, and some exist globally and in history, who seek/sought to live peaceably. Conflict is not in our natures; we learn it. In fact, a very good case can be made for the argument that genetically we incline towards cooperation. There’s also a good case to be made for the argument that prehistoric hunters and gatherers were peaceful people. It was the development of domestication and, thereafter, cities, that created the conditions for war.

What little we can glean from contemporary foragers is that it is in their best interests to share and live at peace. Presumably that was also true in prehistory. Unfortunately prehistoric foragers lived in conditions that no longer exist. The most obvious ones that have vanished are abundant natural resources and low population. Under those conditions, when local groups grew too big to be sustained by local resources they could simply fission and move to new territory without conflict. That state of affairs is long past.

The Genesis story of Cain and Abel is probably a fair summation in parable form of the state of affairs in Mesopotamia at the time of domestication. Their parents, Adam and Eve, were simple foragers when they lived in the Garden of Eden. They lived off the bounty of the land. But when they were expelled they had to grow their own food by the sweat of their brows. Whether foraging or farming, people need both vegetable and animal products for survival (as a general rule). Foragers can provide both for themselves by dividing up the labor and then sharing their resources. With domestication comes a problem. It’s not as easy to create communities that can both farm crops and raise animals. Both activities benefit from the same kinds of land, but if there is not enough to go around disputes may arise.

In Mesopotamia there was a simple solution to such disputes. Farmers could take the fertile river valleys and pastoralists (animal herders) could take the rugged hill country that was not useful for farming. Of course, the hills are not good for cows and pigs, but they are perfect for sheep and goats. Enter Cain and Abel. Cain raised crops and Abel kept sheep. With this division comes the need for trade: the farmers need meat and the shepherds need bread. One way to accomplish this is through peaceful negotiation. The other is to take what you need forcibly. Pastoralists have historically subscribed to the forcible course of action because they have the means at their disposal to be successful. They slaughter animals routinely, so they can turn the technology of death from animals to humans. In addition, they live in rugged highlands that are easily defended.

To protect themselves from such attacks, farmers need to build cities with walls and train soldiers for defense. And there you have it. Once communities develop with different interests you have the potential for conflict. Then as now the question is whether you are going to fight over resources or trade in harmony, and, then as now, fighting often seems to be the better option for one reason: profiteering. To put it in a nutshell, people have always gone to war to make a profit. Other factors come into play of course, but at heart someone is making a profit – always.

If it were illegal to make a profit from manufacturing guns and bombs no one would do it. But the fact is that weapons manufacture is hugely profitable. At this point, if weapons manufacture were outlawed national economies would collapse. What is more, if weapons manufacturers ran the risk of dying through the use of their products, they’d run a mile. But that’s not the case. One group of people makes weapons and makes huge profits, and a different group of people uses the weapons and die.  There’s the problem to be solved if you want world peace. As long as we live in a world where we’re content to let a small minority get fat at the expense of others, we’ll always have war.  We need to beat our swords into ploughshares.

My solution is in some ways simple, yet impossible to put into effect. Put the people who advocate war in the forefront of battle. If you want to make guns, you have to be the first one to put on a uniform and use them. If you want to declare war, you have to be on the front lines. I don’t doubt that conflict would cease instantly under those conditions.


 Spirituality  Comments Off on Voyages
Sep 202016


A friend of mine is preparing a course for adults called “I viaggi dell’anima” in Verona and has asked me for some input. My first task was to translate her advertizing materials into English from Italian. This was easy enough, even though my Italian is terrible. But there were some tricky spots. The title was the first challenge. Translating “anima” as “soul” is standard although it bothers me a bit. It could also be “spirit” but that’s a minor point. With “viaggi” I was more concerned. In general the translation is not hard – “journey,” “voyage,” “trip,” etc., but there are nuances there that I wanted to weigh. I discarded “trip” (a very common translation) as trivial. Who wants to take their soul on a trip? Perhaps “journey” was more weighty and promising, but I settled on “voyage” because of all its implications. I thought about the voyages of discovery of the 16th to the 18th century when European sailors set off from Europe into the unknown.

In hindsight, those voyages had disastrous consequences for much of the rest of the world but, giving the discoverers the benefit of the doubt, one of their motivations was curiosity. I mean, there were more sordid reasons, of course, but my point is that they were not going on trips or journeys to known, fixed destinations. They figured there had to be something out there beyond the known world and they did not know what they would find. That, I feel, is the spirit of “voyages of the soul” as well as of my life’s work in general.

The thing is that in my research, teaching, and writing I am always asking questions. These questions are my mental voyages in the sense that I don’t have a fixed destination, but I assume that the voyage will yield something of interest. Of course, in some endeavors, particularly in the physical sciences, questions often are expected to yield concrete answers. In social science and religion that is rarely the case. What is God? Who was Jesus? What is the spirit? etc. don’t really yield tangible results. But that does not mean that we should not ask the questions: quite the contrary. The questions lead us on voyages of discovery. We may not ever find definitive answers, in fact I suspect that is impossible. But what we find along the way can be enlightening as long as we look diligently as we journey along. In a way, that’s the point of this blog. I don’t have fixed ideas about what I am writing about. I’m enjoying the sights and picking up trinkets here and there to add to my store. Every little piece matters. Setting out to do something grand from the outset is more than likely to fail. But I’d like to believe that my collection gathered over years of voyaging has merit.


 Posted by at 8:52 pm

September 11

 Religion  Comments Off on September 11
Sep 112016

(FILE PHOTO) Authorities Release 9-11 Emergency Tapes

I don’t normally post anything about the events of 11 September 2001 in NYC on the anniversary, but we are now 15 years on and I think it makes a little sense to break my silence.  I was teaching that morning. The office manager in my building had her television on and before I went to class there were stories and images of the first strike being played. The actual hit had not been recorded, but there were images of the smoking building. At that time no one knew what was going on. It was generally believed that this was some tragic accident. So, I took note and went to class. When I emerged 2 hours later the campus, and New York in general, was in utter chaos. I am a trained emergency worker, so my first impulse was to drive into Manhattan to help. Many of my friends did manage to go down, but after I called my wife I decided to go home because she and my 9 year old son needed me. Crossing the Hudson was a problem, but by going a long way north I made it across and got home where I ended up staying for over a week because my university, Manhattan, and most transportation were shut down. Then came the aftermath.

15 years later, 9/11 is still very much with us. It was a watershed moment. It took me well over a year to summon up the strength to look in the direction of the place where the twin towers had been, and the gaping emptiness brought tears to my eyes even then. The Sunday following 9/11 I went early to the church where I was pastor — Stony Point Presbyterian Church in Rockland County, immediately north of Manhattan. When I arrived early for services, church members had completely festooned the sanctuary with US flags. They were all over the walls, stuck in flower pots, on my pulpit — everywhere. I was horrified. I don’t like nationalism under the best of circumstances, but this display was testimony to me of its worst potential. I made one clear pronouncement that got me reviled by a huge contingent of the church — “Either those flags are removed or I am going home.” The church members were not happy, but the flags got removed.

What I experienced happened in thousands of churches across the U.S. – sometimes encouraged or instigated by the clergy. But I was not alone either. There are some pastors who decry nationalism as much as I do, and see Christianity as a way of sharing common bonds between people rather than erecting barriers and promoting national pride. Christianity is also founded on the notion of forgiveness, not revenge.

Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount to turn the other cheek when we are hit and not to seek an eye for an eye. Instead we should love our enemies. I don’t hear that kind of talk from so-called Christian politicians. All I hear is “be tough,” “go to war.” So it was in the aftermath of 9/11. All talk of trying to understand why the hijackers had done what they had done was squelched under battle cries – “they hate freedom,” “bomb them back to the stone age” etc etc. Talk of Christian forgiveness was just seen as weakness. When, I wonder, will such talk ever end? Revenge NEVER works. Jesus knew this perfectly well. You can’t make peace with war – period.

So Bush led the U.S. into the Iraq War. Never mind that there were no links whatsoever between Iraq and 9/11. It was just a matter of quenching the nation’s thirst for blood. Politicians all signed on willingly because the people wanted blood (and the arms manufacturers who bought the politicians wanted profits). Great. What did the U.S. gain? Nothing except a radically shattered Middle East, hundreds of thousands killed, and the enmity of a giant swathe of the world – not just the Middle East.

Now the fallout is still with us. Everyone in the U.S. is blaming everyone else and running away from their bellicose statements of 15 years ago. When will someone have the courage to be a true follower of Christ right from the outset?


Sex and Gender

 anthropology  Comments Off on Sex and Gender
Sep 092016


Back when I was a boy in the 1950s the word “sex” was used to mean the physical act of course, but it was also used as one of your identifiers. Standard forms asked what sex you were, typically giving you the choice of male or female. This was taken to be a biological fact, case closed. By and large, biological sex is clear cut. Some special individuals confuse the general biology of male and female by having two sets of genitals, by having unusual chromosomal pairings, such as XXY, and the like. But these cases are rare. The problem in those days was that too many people wanted to identify social behavior with biological sex, classifying traits as masculine or feminine stereotypically. “True” men were tough and rugged, whilst “true” women were soft and caring – that kind of thing. In consequence male and female roles in society were cast along those lines. Biology was deemed to be destiny.

Then in the 1950s psychologist John Money used the grammatical term “gender” to apply to social roles as distinct from sexual characteristics. In Romance languages, masculine and feminine are applied, seemingly arbitrarily, to non-living things. Gender is fairly consistent across the languages, with some exceptions, because they all derive from Latin. Thus, “table” is feminine across the linguistic spectrum because “mensa” (table) is feminine in Latin. There are some quirks. In Italian, for example, some words, such as l’uovo (egg), are masculine in the singular but feminine in the plural, (le uova) — and you’d think eggs would be feminine all the time. All that aside, grammatical gender has nothing whatsoever to do with biological sex or its characteristics. In Spanish the word “masculinidad” (masculinity) is feminine. You could argue that there is a tiny bit of bias that creeps in. For example, in Romance languages the sun and day (“strong” times) are universally masculine, and the moon and night (“weak” times) are universally feminine, but I think this is a very minor point (deriving from Classical tales of the gods).

John Money’s use of “gender” to speak about socially constructed roles and behaviors among people, and “sex” to refer to biological facts, was revolutionary, and it stuck. This was the equivalent of the distinction between “race” and “ethnicity,” where “race” is treated as a biological fact, and “ethnicity” as a social construct. There’s a bit of a problem here in that “race” as a biological fact does not exist in the way that “sex” does. I’ve already dealt with the issue of race here: http://www.passionintellectpersistence.com/racism/  Anthropologists accept the fact that racial (biological) categories do not exist whereas ethnic identities do, but there’s still a lot of confusion about sex versus gender.

“Sex” as a biological category is not entirely rigid, but the line between biological male and biological female is not very blurry. Gender roles are a different matter entirely. The feminist movement of the 1960s and ‘70s adopted the term “gender” wholesale to separate biological facts from cultural facts. There is no biological reason why a woman can’t be a firefighter or a soldier, and likewise men are biologically capable of being nurses and nannies. Feminists argued, therefore, that men and women should have equal opportunity in the workplace based on ability and not on biology. There are a few limitations when it comes to sheer physical strength, but we’re talking about statistical averages here, not specific cases. If I’m trapped in a burning building I don’t care whether the firefighter who comes to my assistance is a man or a woman as long as that person can carry me out. As it is, for a great number of jobs physical strength is not an issue. Historically, high paid and prestigious jobs have been the prerogative of men, and feminists wanted to change that. No argument from me. There is no reason, except plain prejudice, why a woman can’t be a bank manager, CEO, or president.

The division of labor based on biological sex is very deeply rooted in culture, probably going back into prehistory. In foraging cultures (ones without domesticated plants and animals), men are more commonly hunters, and women are more commonly gatherers. This is not because men are more naturally killers than women, but because nursing mothers can’t easily go on long hunting expeditions carrying their babies. They can, however, easily carry their babies whilst gathering wild plants. This division of labor can set up the notion that men are naturally the strong killers whereas women are weak nurturers, but this idea is only loosely linked to biology. Women nurse babies because they have breasts. Of course. But a man is just as capable of other nurturing tasks as a woman, and a woman without a baby is capable of going on a hunt. In fact they do when there is a need. Hunting is not all about tracking big game as portrayed in Western movies and other media. Foragers live as much, if not more, on small animals that are trapped, netted, or dug for, as on large ones that are tracked and killed. It’s all protein. There’s no reason that a woman can’t net and kill a rabbit the same as a man – and they do.

The problem is that throughout cultural history, the division of labor based on biological sex has hardened more and more. Domestication led to urbanization, and increasingly jobs were assigned to men and women, not based on sexual characteristics but on perceived value. Men took the “good” jobs and women got the leftovers. That’s what the sexual revolution of the 1960s and later was all about – breaking down old sexual divisions. I applaud it all. I went to an all-male college at Oxford (because I had no choice), and belonged to all male clubs (also largely for lack of choice), but now these have mostly vanished. Hallelujah. The colleges and clubs have integrated with little backlash.

What bothers me is that gender stereotypes remain, even among people who claim to fight against them. Extremely popular sitcoms in the U.S., such as Friends or The Big Bang Theory, are as sexist as they come. In one episode of Friends, Rachel hires a male nanny (androgynously named Sandy) over Ross’s objections: he doesn’t believe that men should be nannies. Joey – macho man – chimes in at one point, “men can’t be nannies, that’s like a woman being a  . . .” then stops at Monica’s icy stare. “Yes,” she says, “what’s the end of that sentence?” Of course he has no real answer. But Ross gets more and more upset when he sees Sandy changing diapers skillfully, playing the recorder, making up games with puppets, and crying on occasion. Those are supposed to be female traits. Why can’t he be a MAN? That’s a sitcom, of course, but the show was extremely popular because it resonated with the general public.

There persists a notion that there are male and female character traits, and they are distinct. A “man’s man” enjoys football, plays poker, smokes cigars, works out at the gym, etc. etc. He’s tough, rugged, protective, and dependable. The equivalent “woman’s woman” is soft, nurturing, loving, and gentle. So even in a world where women can be doctors, CEOs, and soldiers, they still bring these “female” traits with them. The feminist backlash asserts that women can be just as tough, rugged, protective, and dependable as men, and, I suppose, though I don’t hear this so much, men can be soft, nurturing, loving, and gentle. Still no argument from me.

Here’s the sticking point for me. If we want to get rid of gender bias we need to stop labeling these traits “masculine” and “feminine” altogether. They are people traits. A woman shooting a rifle is no more demonstrating her “masculine side” than a man changing a diaper is showing his “feminine side.” THERE ARE NO SIDES. If a woman wants to drive a race car and drink whisky, have at it. If a man want to make daisy chains and dance in the meadows, more power to him. Do what you want, just stop thinking of these as masculine and feminine activities. They are activities – end of story.

Psychologists have known for over a century that people, male and female, are complex. They end up being steered in certain directions by culture, but that does not make them any less complex. Men are often especially afraid of showing their “feminine side.” Well, stop thinking of it as your feminine side. Think of it as who you are – a complex individual. I’m going to get personal now because this is a deep-seated peeve of mine. Last time I checked my physical equipment was all male. I can change a tire, hammer a nail, build a shelf, and so on, and when I was younger I played football and cricket. Yet, I’m also a dancer and a cook, I cry at the movies, and I changed my son’s diapers all the time. I am not displaying some kind of split gender. I am not sometimes male and sometimes female. I am what I am: complicated. So is everyone. I can’t help feeling that we’d all be a great deal more liberated if we dispensed with the notion of gender altogether.