Tag Archives: anthropology

Moving Beyond Civilization’s Tools of Control

LeviathanThis is a follow-up on my previous piece, “From Civilization to a Circle of Equals”, where I put forward a view that human civilization, since its flowering 5000 years ago with the invention of literacy, appears to have been built around the control of the majority of people within its purview by a minority elite.  This piece focuses on some of the specific mechanisms of control, some developed in ancient times but continuing today, and others that are more recent “innovations”.

I think it is critical that progressive people understand this history and these continuing mechanisms of control, so we have more of a chance to rise above these manipulations by controlling elites.  It is equally critical that we avoid advocating for these manipulations ourselves, in our efforts to create a more egalitarian narrative for human society going forward into the future.  Control, even by the forces of egalitarian ends, is still control, and diminishes the natural human spirit to control ones own destiny.

So here’s my list of such mechanisms, certainly not a comprehensive one, but some of the obvious bigees and a few others you might not have thought of.

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Reincorporating Hunter-Gatherer Wisdom in our Society

Stroller and SlingIn my previous piece, “Traditional Wisdom of Child Development”, I looked at how contemporary social scientists are rediscovering some of the wisdom of traditional hunter-gatherer societies, which were for most of our time on this planet the predominant human organizing principle and are arguably a more natural form of human community that the high-technology society that most of us humans live in today.

I got a handful of thoughtful comments on my piece, but I’d like to highlight one that I think was posing issues that really continue the discussion.  Amy Costello Wilfong wrote…

It’s not that I disagree with what you’re saying… but the immersion-type parenting you’re talking about is, quite literally, impossible for many people in modern American society. Two (or more!) incomes have become necessary to cover even basic expenses for families in many places, and I just don’t see that changing anytime soon. So the question then becomes, how can we accomplish raising children in an “immersive” fashion when we are forced to spend the vast majority of our time away from them? And how can and should teachers respect these basic principles of child development in the face of ever-increasing scrutiny, judgement, and standardization?

I think this is a well crafted “problem statement” for a key challenge we face as a society.  We (or at least our predecessors) have built a society where though we are free citizens and not slaves or indentured servants, many of us have to work so many hours to earn a living wage (if we can at all) that it constitutes a de facto indentureship.  Add to that that the massive scale of our society with the disenfranchisement and alienation it breeds, combined with perpetuation of ancient patriarchal “us and them” values, creates a subculture among us that is predatory toward out groups (“them”) particularly poor people, minorities, women and young people.  The latter in particular making it problematic for parents to let the “village raise the child”, sequestering kids instead in “schools”, institutions that paradoxically isolate kids from the dangerous real world while trying to prepare them for it.

So given the problem statement, what is the solution, or at least a path forward towards a solution?

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Traditional Human Wisdom of Child Development

For the first 200,000 years of the human species we were all hunter-gatherers, nomadic tribes of people scattered about the Earth living in sync with the natural ecology of our bountiful planet.  It is only in the past 10,000 years, with our development of agriculture and herding, that we developed what we like to call “civilization”, which according to Wikipedia is…

A sometimes controversial term that has been used in several related ways. Primarily, the term has been used to refer to the material and instrumental side of human cultures that are complex in terms of technology, science, and division of labor. Such civilizations are generally hierarchical and urbanized. In a classical context, people were called “civilized” to set them apart from barbarians, savages, and primitive peoples while in a modern-day context, “civilized peoples” have been contrasted with indigenous peoples or tribal societies.

Though hunter-gatherer societies (the “indigenous peoples” and “tribal societies” of the above definition) still exist in parts of the world today, the overwhelming majority of we humans live in more complex “civilized” societies, where we generally consider ourselves to have progressed and to be better off than our “primitive” kin.  That judgement of being better off has come into some question in the past 100 years with our legacy of devastating world wars, genocides, environmental degradation, and a continuing unequal distribution of resources leading to many of us having way more than we need and many of the rest of us having too little.

Others who have researched what life is really like in hunter-gatherer societies (based on archeology and studying those societies that still exist today) have made some surprising and perhaps uncomfortable observations.  These include that people generally spend less time working and are happier than in civilized societies.  It begs the question, what is the whole point of civilization?

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Are U.S. Kids Spoiled Rotten?

In an article in the July 2 edition of New Yorker magazine titled, “Spoiled Rotten: Why do kids rule the roost?”, anthropologist Elizabeth Kolbert takes a critical look at the “rules of engagement” between young people and their parents, based on studying everyday life for a group of middle class Los Angeles families. Kolbert’s conclusion is that the conventional approach to parenting among the studied families shows a permissive attitude that leads to young people being more dependent on their parents even well into young adulthood, a dependency she labels “adultesence”. Though this longer period of dependency could in theory be an indicator of a longer period of time needed to become functional in an increasingly complex society, Kolbert posits that…

Adultesence might be just the opposite: not evidence of progress but another sign of a generalized regression. Letting things slide is always the easiest thing to do, in parenting no less than in banking, public education, and environmental protection. A lack of discipline is apparent these days in just about every aspect of American society. Why this should be is a much larger question, one to ponder as we take out the garbage and tie our kids’ shoes.

Numerous examples are cited of kids in the study ignoring repeated directions from their parents to do various chores and demanding that parents do routine tasks for them like tying their shoes. Also examples of young adults returning to live with their families after college and exhibiting similar irresponsible behaviors, what Kolbert coins as “adultesence”.

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