Cultures are all Different, except when they’re the Same

It strikes me as a plausible proposition that anthropology developed primarily as a science out of democratic cultures. The openness fostered by democracy may contribute to curiosity and a desire for travel. Many consider the Athenian Herodotus the “Father of History,” but his work has many anthropological dimensions as well. I discussed in another post the archetypal Feminine within democracy, so it may be no surprise that the most famous anthropologists in the 20th century were two women, Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict.

We can imagine the stereotypical male being almost a parody of an anthropologist–narrow, rigid, calling anything different “stupid,” or “dumb” (this could have been a marvelous Monty Python skit with John Cleese). So we can see how typical feminine traits of fluidity, appreciating context, nurture and acceptance, and so on, might fit women best–in general of course.

Many have written extensively on Ruth Benedict’s classic, Patterns of Culture, and I will not seek to say what has already been said. Briefly, however, Benedict seems to have two main goals:

  • To demonstrate that various aspects of a particular culture all interconnect and influence one another, and
  • To show that cultures are fundamentally different from one another, and are developed internally, not dependent on race or geography
  • Benedict of course makes many interesting observations about the societies she observes and her work has great merit. But, just as John Cleese might marvelously enact a parody of an anthropologist in the field, so too anthropologists can sometimes parody themselves. It is possible to be so open, so fluid, as to lose one’s moorings.

By this I mean that, of course cultures are different from one another, but this should not surprise us at all. People are different too. What I find more striking are the similarities across cultures that testify to the essential unity of human nature. For example, Benedict tackles how different cultures treat adolescent girls. In one place, young teens are primarily feared. The transformation they undergo has an element of sacredness about it, but, the sacred can also bring terror. So the young girls are sent away from the community to live in tents apart for months at a time. In another culture, they are celebrated and receive something akin to adoration, with men of the tribe literally bowing to them as potential and future mothers of the tribe. In Polynesian cultures, Benedict asserts that no one makes a big deal of adolescence at all. No ceremonies exist to mark the passing from youth to young adulthood, but . . . during this time teens are granted a great deal of sexual freedom, which they readily take advantage of until marriage.

Benedict’s strong accentuation of differences, however, have her miss the overall point. Each of these cultures treat the teen years as a distinct phase of development, each other them apply different standards of conduct for teens and others in the tribe treat them differently than either children or adults. To me, this seems more striking than their differences.

I find this emphasis on difference–not at all unique to Benedict among anthropologists–as a symptom of the democratic cultures from whence they arise which also stress individual differences and uniqueness. Paradoxically, I think this leads us towards a fascination with cultures that are tightly interlocked and cohesive, for democratic cultures can produce no such thing.

When a book gets reviewed positively by diverse thinkers such as Rod Dreher and Cornel West, one should take note. Patrick Deneeen’s Why Liberalism Failed partially indulges in too much romanticism for the past. His book is more of an essay or a thought-piece, and so it has holes. Still, I find his paradoxical analysis that Liberalism–by which he means the liberal democratic order that forms the foundation of both Republicans and Democrats–has failed because it has in fact done everything it set out to do, compelling, and an interesting companion to Benedict and other anthropologists.

Deneen argues that the Liberal order, which had its origins in with the work of Hobbes and Locke, set out to create a radically new society with a very different conception of how an individual relates to the state and one another. Traditional societies saw the state fundamentally as a community of persons pointed in the same direction with the same values.

Liberal society starts with the premise that recognizing and maximizing individuals, and the inherent competition that comes with it, will create a more prosperous and workable state. Liberalism seeks to free us from all group oriented authorities that are not consensual, be it tradition, community norms, etc. It achieved its goals in spectacular fashion and we all partake readily of what it has to offer. It has brought unprecedented prosperity, but left us adrift at sea in a mass of individuals. In turn, this has led to the rise of statism, and emotionally driven authoritarian politics. Gone is the world of George H.W. Bush. Welcome to the world of Trump and Ocasio-Cortez. The success of Liberalism has brought us to place that will naturally usher in its demise.*

Deneen explains himself well on any number of podcast interviews, and the book has various and detailed reviews. I will mention two of his main points that might help us understand the polarity of the self-loathing expressed by some in academia and the progressive left, and the chest-thumping of the more nationalistic right.

Deneen mentions that Liberalism is supposed to make men “free” and “liberal” in their disposition. But the whole tradition of the liberal arts expounds a very different meaning of freedom. The great thinkers and writers from the ancients down through Austen and Dickens all characterize freedom as living with limits, be it the limits of nature, tradition, or the law of God. But the Liberal order defines freedom as acting without any constraint, be it constraints on the market, on family, on biology, and so on. So, Wal-Mart should be free to eradicate mom-and-pop Main Street. And, if every civilization that ever existed defined marriage in a certain way, that stricture simply sets up another bowling pin for the Liberal order to knock down. The whole history of the human past has no authority over the now.

Our orientation towards living without limits has led to our striking crisis of inequality. Our solution to this, however, is not to champion the limitations taught by the liberal arts, rooted in God, natural law, or nature itself, but instead to blame liberal education for being “impractical.” For Deneen, an insistent STEM emphasis only continues to feed the beast, though he surmises that we will avoid violence. John Locke himself argued that, of course his proposed new order would bring about a new kind of inequality. But this new inequality will give us much more overall prosperity, and indeed he was correct. Even the poor may not mind inequality so much because we all have iphones.** Still, the benefits of a liberal economy do not feed the soul.

So too, Deneen argues that Liberalism destroys “culture” as part of its operating procedure. To develop, culture requires place, habit, tradition, and local difference, none of which have a role in the Liberal state. We have no place, and if we live in a particular place for long, it may not have any “place” about it (suburbs are wonderfully convenient and give many obvious benefits, but most are interchangeable with each other).

I think this might explain why many in the west have a fascination with other cultures. The Pueblo and the Dobu people profiled by Benedict have a tight culture in which roles and identity stand out with perfect clarity to all who live within them. We may not want to live among them but we long for their sense of solidity. Conversely, the Dobu do not send out anthropologists to find out about us. A man who is full need not scavenge for food.

This may help explain the progressive liberal drive to limit free speech. They seek not the liberal idea of freedom, but taboos that might give us identity. I completely object to their methods and their goals, though I understand the impulse. You can only celebrate diversity for so long, until you realize that everyone has the same need to define themselves as a people, and we cannot define ourselves without living within limits .

Deneen’s book has few solutions in mind, and this has frustrated some reviewers. But he does he offer the following from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution:

In this enlightened age I am bold enough to confess that we are generally men of untaught feelings, [and] that instead of throwing away our old prejudices, we cherish them . . . . W are are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock of each man is small, and the individuals do better to avail themselves of the general captital of nations and of ages. . . . Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit, and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes part of his nature.

Dave

*In an interesting aside, Deneen points out that James Madison specifically sought to develop a government where different political interests were inexorably pitted against one another. He eschewed the idea of community almost from the start. These different and intractable differences would preserve liberty for each group by each interest group canceling each other out. Alas, he probably envisioned several kinds of difference, and not just two.

Or . . . perhaps just two versions of the same impulse? Many criticize Trump for his relationship to facts. But Oscasio-Cortez recently derided those who are “more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.”

**Deneen said in a recent speech that he leads at Notre Dame a class on the idea of utopia, from ancient days until now. At the end, he polled the class to ask them which society of those he presented would they least want to live in, and which they would most want to live in. They all said 1984 is the one they wouldn’t want to live in. But which would they choose? A handful chose the world Wendell Berry presents in Hannah Coulter. But about half the class said Brave New World.

“It was stunning that they saw it as a utopia,” Deneen said. “That’s liberalism succeeding, and that’s liberalism failing.”

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