Thursday, December 20, 2007

Culture, anthropology, and what it means to be human

OK, I realize it has been far too long since my last blog entry, but the constant demands of grad school sort of made this, along with many other things, lesser priority. The crazy semester is now over, thank goodness. Now the wait to see how I did on finals and term papers and what my ultimate grades are.

One of my planned winter break activities is to catch up on some non-course-related reading. One of these readings is by a KU professor, Robert Minor, titled, Scared Straight. The subtitle is: "Why It’s So Hard to Accept Gay People And Why It’s So Hard to Be Human." I’ve only just started it, but I’m already enthralled with his writing and teaching about why LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender) people are so feared in our culture that there is an average of one gay man killed every two weeks in America just for being gay. Minor states: "I still see a nation obsessed with maintaining gender roles … I see men’s groups struggling to know why they exist and where to go next. I see therapists who are still trying to help people cope with a system that is profit-oriented and coping-oriented, not human-oriented or healing oriented" (Minor 2001: 4).

In his own words, Minor’s purpose for writing this book is to argue "that none of us, regardless of sexual orientation, will be able to live as human beings until we are able to fully accept transgendered and bisexual people and lesbians and gay men as invaluable gifts of our common humanity. The fact is, getting in touch with our humanity, no matter what our sexual orientation, is tied to doing the fear work we all need to do so that all of us can embrace gay people. And that means that, by doing their own fear work, gay people themselves will find a greater self-acceptance" (ibid.: 1, my italics).

On a personal level, I am working on that last italicized sentence. After doing my own self-exploration in therapy this past long summer, I came to accept what deep down I’m sure I’ve always known: I’m gay or at least somewhere on that end of the continuum between gaydom and bisexuality. And, as I explore (although not physically yet) and learn more about myself and accept who I am, I’m also exploring our predominant cultural views and prejudices against homosexuality and bisexuality. At least Minor’s book is helping to explain why there is so much fear about homosexuality. And, as a Religious Studies professor, Minor also explains that the Bible does not in itself claim homosexuality a sin, but rather that it has been reinterpreted by Christians to match our predominant cultural views of "normal" vs. "aberrant" behaviors just as it was once "reinterpreted" to allow the continuance of slavery and the gross mistreatment of indigenous peoples not only here in the US but worldwide.

Perhaps this is why I’ve become an anthropologist. (As an anthropologist, I’m in good company, by the way, since Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict were both bisexual.) Perhaps this is why I became interested in other cultures and peoples at an early age—not just out of mere interest but because somehow I knew there was something about myself I would eventually have to face and explore from "outside looking in" in order to gain some measure of self-acceptance, to realize that what our culture proclaims is "normal" is by no means universal and unchanging.

As an anthropologist, I see different cultures on their own terms of what is acceptable vs. not acceptable. Minor states that we "live on the basis of the definitions and ideas about reality our culture gives us. And we do so without much reflection about them" (ibid. 27). He uses the apt metaphor that we’re like fish in water: the water surrounds us without calling attention to itself, and most of us never live in an alternative to the "wetness against our scales."

Drawing of heart-taking ritual from Aztec codex, ca. 1500 A.D.

Anthropologists are often asked: How could such amazingly advanced and sophisticated civilizations as those of the Mayas and Aztecs have committed such "atrocious" acts like blood-letting from tongues and genitals, the ripping out of still-beating human hearts, ritual decapitation, and human sacrifice? The answer is easy. They grew up in their own cultures, their own water against their scales, their own beliefs of right vs. wrong, their own need to ritually appease their own gods (1), living with the taboos and fears of their own culture that happened to be different from ours. (By the way, lest one think that 500-1,000 years later we are so much more advanced and less brutal, think about it: we still kill and maim in war [look at Iraq] and in the streets of our cities, and many in our own culture [including sports heroes] take pleasure in organizing and watching boxing, street-fighting, dog-fighting and other such forms of "ritual blood-letting".)

Yet, living in our own prescribed culture of right vs. wrong passed down to us through our families and constantly reinforced through symbolism, the media, and religion among many other things, we resent anything that threatens to shake those foundations of our reality, such as love and marriage being only between man and woman. Hence the fear, the often violent reactions toward those of us who break that mold of reality that provides us with that deep sense of who we think we are—that hodgepodge of beliefs, rituals, morals, and behaviors we call our "culture."

As an anthropologist, I explore not only the contemporary and historic "realities" of other peoples and cultures, but also my own deep-rooted sense of "reality," its origins and foundations. And exploring and breaking through the boundaries of one’s own culture, one’s own deep-seated prescribed sense of reality, is scary. It’s part of that "fear work" Minor discusses that each of us must do if we truly want to be human. Truly living and being human, I’m coming to realize, means separating myself to some degree from what my culture "expects" of me as a man, a human being, and that takes courage and guts.

(1) Olmecs, Mayas, and Aztecs believed human sacrifice was necessary--the shedding and offering of blood in death was believed equated with the shedding of blood in childbirth and was considered a means of rebirth, to continue the life-giving and life-sustaining forces of sun and rain, necessary for agriculture and food production. It is believed many in the Mayan and Aztec civilizations considered giving their lives in this way as a god-given honor.


Minor, Robert. 2001. Scared Straight. St. Louis: HumanityWorks!


Nick said...

I am always perplexed how conservative Christians can get so worked up over homosexuality (the best basis I've ever found for thinking it's sinful is one or two lines in Leviticus) but be completely blind to the utterly relentless attacks on materialism throughout the New Testament.

To be a good Christian, it seems to me, you should stop worrying about sex but give away your car...

My serious point here is: basically I agree with you about cultures, and the mental traps they put people in. This is just a really strong example: "Christian culture" doesn't even let Christians actually read the bible with an open mind, and find out what their religion was originally supposed to be about.

Dave said...

Right on! I think people just often grow up in their own cultural belief systems without ever "stepping outside the box" and questioning them. First, questioning it is scary, because if you decide you don't conform you feel more isolated and alone; and second, it's easier to "go along with the crowd" and believe what everyone else believes because going against the grain means having to think for yourself and being responsible for your own actions. How awful that would be!

What really amazes me is that women, who are discussed negatively in the bible so many times, and are even today being persecuted as the "lesser humans" in Christian (and Moslem) society, could still be Christian (or Moslem). That's got to be the height of submission to the (male-dominant) status quo and ultimate lack of free thought.