Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Friday, November 8, 2013

Culture and Kin

Both Ellen and Arun left notes that Susan Ossman, author of Moving Matters (the book I talked about two days ago) will be speaking at the American Library in Paris next week.  Health permitting I'll try to be there.  November 13 is the date and the event starts at 19:30.

I also note on the American Library website that one of my top reads this year, Logevall's Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam, was nominated for The American Library in Paris Book Award.  May I say that I really hope he wins.  This is an extraordinary book that I reviewed back in July.

On to another great read.  This one definitely lends itself to Slow Thinking.  It's called War in Human Civilization by Azar Gat.  Daunting to write, I would think, since this topic is huge.  Have to admire however, his ambition, and truth be told, he stole my heart in the first few pages when he said, " Most of all this book is an invitation to participate in an intellectual adventure.  Reading for and writing it were done with a consuming interest and were a source of immense pleasure for me.  Hopefully, this will filter through to the reader."

It does.  He begins the book with the State of Nature (the human one) and examines the evidence for and against different views of human nature.  Are we naturally warlike and aggressive animals or is this something we picked up along the evolutionary trail while we were out there hunting and gathering or sowing seeds?  He arrives at his answer (it's both he says) through a very meticulous step by step review of the biological, anthropological and archaeological evidence.  You don't have to agree with his conclusion to admire the method or his ability to write with such clarity and to keep this reader interested along the way.  Call me the quintessential general reader - I possess no advanced degrees and have no pretensions to being any sort of intellectual - and so far I'm really liking this book and learning a great deal.

One idea that definitely tickled my interest was when he talked about kinship - that biological tie that drives both cooperation and competition.  The more genes we share with another, it is said, the less likely we are to commit violence against each other.  Unless, of course, there is some reason for rivalry and conflict that overrides this.  Anyone who has ever seen a French inheritance fight between siblings knows exactly when competing interests trumps family.  Still, Gat says, the Arab proverb,  "Me against my brothers, me and my brothers against my cousins, me and my brother and my cousins against the world," has been shared by many peoples.  Kin counts.

But how do we know for sure who is and who isn't kin?    There is basic biology and today we have DNA tests that can confirm this with a much higher level of certainty than in times past.  But even when these things didn't exist,  kin didn't necessarily mean that one actually shared genes.  Adoption has certainly been one way to make someone kin.  Marriage is another - the mother of your cousins is family.  The pattern of a woman leaving her original family and being absorbed by a new tribe or clan is a very ancient one, and one that still seems to exist.  The "foreign bride" is a concept we all know (and generally speaking, we often take this pattern for granted ) while "foreign groom" is a bit odd.  A little residual sexism there or just genuine surprise that an old pattern is being changed by modern ways?

Gat argues that there is another factor at work here when we examine who is and is not kin - who is an isn't worthy of being called "family":  culture.
"As cultures, particularly among hunter-gatherers, was local and thus strongly correlated with kinship, cultural identity became a strong predictor of kinship."
It follows from this that the farther a culture or language spreads, the larger the group of people we consider to be close to us.  These are the people we would sacrifice for, the folks we may fight with from time to time, but given an external threat, these are the people we would fight with and for.

What he's saying is that there is a rational basis for ethnocentrism.  Since kinship is a factor in determining how we orient our aggression and how we choose to cooperate with others,  it has been vital in the history of Homo sapiens sapiens that we be able to separate "us" from "them" - the former being natural allies or ones we assume will be more willing to sacrifice for us or for a common project.
"In the hunter-gatherer regional group of around 500, shared culture was a distinctive mark of kinship, as well as a strong basis for social co-operation.  This is the deeply engrained evolutionary root of enthnocentrism, xenophobia, patriotism and nationalism... One's people or nation - an extension of the original genetic cum cultural regional group - can evoke the greatest devotion, indeed, fraternity with a motherland or fatherland (the words are revealing), no matter how genetically related its members actually are (a feature that varies among modern peoples, albeit with surprising genes-culture congruity)."
Interesting argument, elegantly laid out and eloquently written.  Is it true?  On some level, I think it is. Benedict Anderson's imagined communities are based on this.  This, quite frankly, illogical sense of comradeship (kinship?) that we feel toward other members of our nation-state.  There is something that compels us to treat them a bit (or even a lot) differently than "strangers."  We assume, with very little hard evidence, that a New Yorker and a Seattleite, a Parisian or a Toulousain, are somehow bound by a tie that is almost mystical - its a weird combination of political/cultural/lingual ties that translate into a feeling (an emotional response) that isn't terribly logical when you step back and look at it from afar.

Which is exactly what happens to migrants.  A migrant goes from one imagined world to another and learns on the way just how weird it all is.  In some ways we become cultural relativists in spite of ourselves.  We detach and re-attach and the world we left and the world we choose have to come to some sort of equilibrium in our heads.  The home culture and the culture of arrival can not be the last word ever again and we know this in our bones.

Being social creatures, we cannot live among a people and forever think of them as "strangers."  It may take a few years but what usually happens is that we come to view ourselves as "one of them."  Depending on the receiving country/culture, this is more or less reciprocated over time as we signal our willingness to adopt the culture and become kin.  In my own experience, what I find fascinating is how my marriage to a native seems to be for so many of the people I know here in my adopted country, the signal that makes me part of the family and that was true even before the long process of integration bore fruit.   I'm kin even though I'm not a citizen and may I say it's a very odd place to be.

But what is completely lost in the migration journey (provided we integrate to a certain extent) is that certainty the homelanders generally have that they are living in the best of all possible worlds, surrounded by people who are, however distant they may be genetically or geographically, family. For a migrant "family" has expanded to include an entirely new group and the question for every migrant is how to balance those loyalties and the very strong emotions that arise because of that sense of connection.  Clearly, the interests of each family are different and yet membership in both creates a third interest which is, whenever possible, a real desire, a deep psychological need, for both to get along.   Duals (and by this I mean any bi-national or bi-cultural individual) do not want conflict between the two cultural/political/lingual groups - it is never EVER in their interests.

In this, do we see a force for peace between "imagined communities"?  Gat talks about "people swapping" as a real factor in favor of it within a tribal or clan system.  With international migration growing is this group 214 million strong, a means of reducing competition and conflict between nations?  I don't know.  Maybe and it's something to ponder.

What I do know is that every migrant who has come to the realization that his world is only one world among many equally fine worlds, who is a living breathing bridge between one or many (and here Ossman's serial migrants may be doing more good than they know), can choose to play a role in extending that feeling of kinship among all peoples.  That, I think, would be a very fine way to be a "global citizen."

"If a man be gracious and courteous to strangers, it shows he is a citizen of the world, and that his heart is no island cut off from other lands, but a continent that joins to them."

Francis Bacon

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