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Friday, May 8, 2020

Are We All Different Or All The Same? History, Anthropology, And The Myth Of ‘Diversity’

At first glance the world’s cultures seem dramatically different.  How could there be any similarity between the peoples of Borneo and those of San Francisco.  Manners of occupation, worship, kinship patterns, housing, and dress are so radically dissimilar that one would have to conclude that diversity rules and that human beings are far more different from one another than alike.

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On closer inspection, however, it seems the very opposite is true.  Despite outward trappings, the same expressions of human nature are found everywhere.  Territorialism, self-protection and self-interest, and aggression are universal.  While Margaret Mead thought she had found an idyllic culture in the Trobriand Islands, later scholars, especially Derek Freeman dismissed her work as disingenuous, idealistic, and flawed.  The anthropologist G.N. Appel reviewed Freeman’s work and concluded”
Freeman examines Mead’s claim that Samoan culture had eliminated interest in competition and demonstrates that there is indeed keen competition in various Samoan cultural domains. Mead also claimed that the Samoans were ‘unaggressive’ and ‘one of the most amiable, least contentious, and most peaceful peoples in the world’. Freeman, using police records, shows that there is a high incidence of fighting and affrays between families within villages and between villages and concludes that the incidence of assault involving bodily injury is considerably higher than the American rate. On the basis of historical records he also demonstrates that warfare, contrary to Mead’s depiction, was ferocious and resulted in heavy casualties.
Freeman also shows that Mead’s assertion that religious feeling among the Samoans was superficial is at complete variance with the evidence, both for pagan and Christian Samoa. In a discussion on punishment, Freeman provides evidence to show that Mead was wrong in depicting Samoan society as neither severe or punitive. Freeman demonstrates that rather than a society that ‘is kind to all and does not make sufficient demands upon any’, Samoa has a culture, ‘in which it is traditional to have recourse to punishment, and frequently very severe punishment, in the interests of obedience and respect for authority, and those who have erred are expected to accept their punishment without demur’.
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Freeman goes on to challenge Mead on child-rearing and demonstrates that contrary to a conflict-free, easy and open parental upbringing ‘Samoan social organization is markedly authoritarian and depends directly on a system of severe discipline that is visited on children from an early age’
Mead’s assertions on Samoan character{are also flawed]. Mead claimed that the Samoans had no strong passions; that love, hate, jealousy and revenge, sorrow, and bereavement are short lived, all a matter of weeks; there are no deeply channeled emotions in the patterning of social relationships; that there was a lack of deep feeling; and there were no psychological maladjustments.
Freeman, using some of Mead’s own evidence, as well as other evidence, including that from his own field work, shows that on the contrary the Samoans are characterized by strong passions, bouts of extreme stubbornness, which has institutionalized methods of expression, outbursts of uncontrollable anger, high rates of aggression, suicides, including suicides as a result of shame over illicit sexual liaisons, and hysterical illnesses that are endemic.
The point is only that once one discounts Mead’s very subjective and idealistic reading of Trobriand Islander society, no other society has even come close to a peaceful, non-aggressive, happy, communal one.  Human nature rules in every known culture whether advanced or primitive.
Regardless of cultural difference women dress and act invitingly, seductively, and alluringly.  Women, who historically have been dependent on men’s protection, provision, and generosity, instinctively have known how to use their femininity to exploit men’s weakness and desire for it.

Women in most cultures dress to attract men, and it is no surprise that art from the Paleolithic to the present had represented the idea of feminine beauty.  While the Greeks especially were generous in their appreciation of the male figure, it is the goddesses, the queens, and the women of Rome, Egypt, Pompey, and the Levant who were featured.  In fact, the depiction of female beauty are remarkably similar across cultures.

The ideal of feminine beauty has not changed in millennia; and statues, masks, frescoes of Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Persians have portrayed the same perfectly proportioned face.  Whether such perfectly formed features and their harmonious composition signified health, wealth, and well-being; or whether there was some innate human appreciation for and valuation of harmony, the historical record is clear.  While some women because of some unusually outstanding feature or a sense of presentation and theatre might have been considered attractive, they are anomalies.

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Many Hollywood actresses have had the same classical beauty – Hedy Lamarr, Ava Gardner, and Vivien Leigh among them.

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The heterosexual bi-polarity of human sexuality is the standard in every culture.  While some societies have been more permissive and tolerant of homosexuality, none have raised it to an equal status.  There is no surprise in this similarity, for reproduction depends on male-female intercourse.  Despite modern claims to the contrary, the differences between men and women in terms of strength, ability, and behavior have always been pronounced; and the ‘typical’ man of all ages and cultures remains unchanged.

Once again, although some cultures are more open to variety in such standard behavior, the fundamental characterizations of men and women have not changed for millennia.
Biology, genetics, and human nature aside, there are other important similarities among all cultures.  No culture is atheistic; and whether pagan, idolatrous, or traditional, belief in a higher power, a supreme being, or a world filled with gods, is common.  Whether God has been created by Man or vice-versa, a spiritual life is common to all.

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There are no cultures which are indolent; and despite caricatures of cultures living in tropical zones, picking bananas and mangoes off trees, and living a warm, happy, untroubled life, societies are universally ambitious.  Families always want less poverty, a better and healthier life, more opportunities for their children, and work hard for it.

All cultures are wary of ‘The Other’, a seemingly hardwired and understandable concern about strangers, the unknown interloper, the possible enemy.  Communities are thus naturally insular, self-protective, and hostile to outsiders; and are anxious to conquer more and more territory to increase their safe perimeter.

Examples of human similarity are endless.  There seems to be no question that we are all the same and our differences are superficial and insignificant.

So why is so much made of ‘diversity’? Societies will always tend towards the center, minority races and ethnicities will either assimilate and adhere to social norms, or disappear, a result of natural selection; but as societies become more homogeneous, they, as distinct geopolitical entities will still express their human aggressiveness and territoriality.  The empires of Europe in the Renaissance were homogeneous in terms of race and ethnicity and heterogeneous only in terms of class, status, and economic privilege; but perennially fought other homogeneous states. In other words there is no particular value to ‘diversity’.  Cultures and groups within them always crave homogeneity – safety in numbers, the satisfaction and ease of being similar – but always seem to need to expand influence, territory, and power.

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In view of the power, ineluctability, and permanence of human nature, and the overriding common concerns of well-being, the meaning of life and death, the existence of God, and individual spiritual evolution, ‘celebrating diversity’ seems trifling at worst and insignificant at best.  No one, given life’s short, hard, and nasty term; its fundamental unknowability; or its persistently evasive meaning can really care about black or white, gay or straight, Latino or Anglo, Catholic or Jew.   One’s personal responsibility should be to sort out these conundrums from the static of ambition, materialism, and selfish egotism, rather than try to fit them into a more harmonious pattern. 

We are all the same, but don’t act like it.  If we were to accept the fact that we are all the same – human animals predetermined by human nature and conditioned by social need – and that ‘diversity’ is distracting at best, we might achieve the only real goal of value – figuring out what’s what before it’s too late.

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