Why do so many of us get pleasant, uncanny sensations when we throw a coin in a fountain and see it resting in the water below? What’s the cultural psychology here? What do such coins have to do, for example, with rock concerts and the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”?
It’s best to start by reviewing the shift in perspective that occurs when the coin moves out of our hands and into the fountain (or pond…but fountains make better pictures). When we grip that penny or other coin in our hands, we’re totally in control. The coin is literally “in the palm of our hands.” It’s also intimately connected with us through what anthropologists call “contagious magic,” the principle that physical contact creates a bond between people and objects, a principle that’s affirmed every time someone pays thousands of dollars for a piece of clothing worn by Jackie Robinson or John Lennon, or avoids the chair recently used by someone they don’t like. The same principle applies at the edge of the fountain. We’ve kept our coins close to our bodies in our pockets and purses, and now we’re holding them in our hands. Through physical contact, these coins have become an extension of ourselves—a light-hearted, personal avatar.
Then we throw the coin in the water and the whole picture changes. We lose control. We let go of our avatar, and suddenly it looks tiny in the water, much smaller than it did in our fingers a second ago. Often we can’t even be sure which coin is ours, lying there among all the others. Our individual coin is now just one of many. What do you call this reversal in perspective?
“Sectarianism involves strong feelings, deep resentment, a searing sense of injustice, above all, anger,” explained renowned British social anthropologist Mary Douglas in an important lecture, Seeing Everything in Black and White, delivered shortly before her death in May 2007.
She added: “All of these are intensified when religious loyalty is engaged.”
It’s hard to disagree with Douglas’s analysis of the sectarian vision – in particular, she must be commended for highlighting the importance of how, under certain circumstances, combining religious belief with powerful emotions, can fuel and give impetus to terrorism.
So let’s go back to Douglas and review what she had to say about such militant religious groups.
Probably the most important point that Douglas makes concerns the “wall of virtue” constructed by those in the sect. Behind it members can look outwards at other people and classify them as different sorts of human beings – in short, “people not like us”.
Of course, such a classification system doesn’t necessarily lead to conflict or violence – there are plenty of pacifist religious sects in Western and other societies (Amish, Quakers or Swami Narayan) which classify other people as (more or less) metaphysically inferior and place huge restrictions on the number and type of transactions (sharing or exchanging food, handshakes, or daughters and sons) between members and non-members – but in certain circumstances it does. Continue reading “The 'wall of virtue' that surrounds followers of Isis will not be broken down by bombing Syria”→
If Republican senators from tobacco-growing southern states believe in social responsibility, they would fully explore the TransPacific (TPP) trade agreement’s potential impact on countries around the world — including provisions that influence the ability of American tobacco corporations to flood the globe with cheap, cancer-causing cigarettes — suggests the author of a book on the history, social costs and global politics of the tobacco industry.
“One of the great paradoxes of tobacco,” said Peter Benson, PhD, associate professor of anthropology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, “is that while the U.S. government and public health community became increasingly aware of the harms of tobacco, the trade wing of the American government has been busy fighting for the expansion of new markets in the developing world, where they want people to purchase American-made cigarette products, like Marlboros.”
Remember when your mother or other responsible adult told you as a small child to tie your shoelaces so you would not trip and fall? I do. And I’ve carried out that hard-to-learn-as-a child-shoelace-tying maneuver ever since.
Now, my tying skill is used on a pair of old running shoes, which, with the over-cushioned insoles removed, I find very comfortable for everyday walking. The shoes do though have very long laces. Even when tied with a double knot, the laces create large loops.
Two weeks ago I was walking along a footpath, shod in my favorite running shoes. Heading in the direction of my local bank, I become aware that the tip of my right shoe is caught in one of the loops of my left shoe. It’s happened several times before, and I’ve always managed to quickly disentangle myself without taking a tumble.
This time I’m not so lucky.
My foot is well and truly stuck. Down I go, breaking the fall with the palm of my right hand. The pain is excruciating, especially as I land on a hard surface composed of small stones. I roll over onto my right shoulder. I am aware that the area around my right eye has just skimmed the ground. That part of my head hurts. I swear a lot, both at the injuries and my own stupidity for not being more careful to prevent something like this happening to me.
A few weeks previously on TV I watched Australian Olympic gold medallist, Sally Pearson, fall after hitting a barrier in the women’s 100m hurdles at a Diamond League meeting in Rome. She landed on her hand. I winced while watching the slow-motion replay. Later, an orthopaedic surgeon described Pearson’s injury as a “bone explosion” in her wrist, which highlights the delicacy of the human hand bones even in very fit young people. Those images, of Pearson sitting on the track in agony, and the information about her multiple broken bones flash through my mind as I lie on the ground. Continue reading “Fear of falling”→
Hollywood star Ben Affleck’s attempt to suppress a story about a slave-owning ancestor of his has caused something of a furore, especially in the U.S. The information about Benjamin Cole, a great-great-great grandparent on Affleck’s mother’s side, who was “trustee” of seven slaves in Georgia, came to light after Affleck agreed to participate in the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) genealogy programme Finding Your Roots.
Affleck, a self-defined “moderately liberal guy”, was horrified when the information about Cole was brought to his attention by researchers. So he decided to lean on the show’s producers to omit this detail before transmission last October, as he evidently felt that this information contaminated his public and private self. “The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth,” he revealed on Facebook after he was forced to apologize once his attempted cover-up was revealed by WikiLeaks.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post invoked cultural anthropologist Franz Boas’ demolition of “scientific racism” (in which character and behavior among groups or “races” are supposedly aligned with biologically inherited characteristics such as skin, hair or eye colour) to reassure Affleck that his “embarrassing” ancestor had zero input into his own character or personality. “If your grandfather was a louse that has no more bearing on you than if your neighbor is one as well,” declared political columnist Richard Cohen. “We may be our brother’s keeper, but we are not carbon copies of our ancestors.”
Cohen’s reprimand to Affleck that he was “dumb to pressure PBS” is itself interesting. That attitude fits Western-type hyper-individualist cultures, where family bonds are typically weak or restricted though not completely absent. Even, I surmise, in Hollywood or in the offices of the Washington Post.
Tear gas is not uncommon in Port au Prince. Over the past decade, whether it has been protests over food shortages, controlling political demonstrations, or ‘peacekeeping’ actions by the infamous MINUSTAH UN forces, tear gas and other methods of crowd control have been a reality of the political and social landscape in downtown Port-au-Prince. A veteran reporter in Haiti told me that he had developed all sorts of strategies to deal with tear gas, ranging use of lime under his nose to more preventative measures like always having a paint masks handy.
But as of late, a new method of mass crowd control has been quite literally ‘sweeping the streets’ in the capital of Haiti. A type of pepper spray spiked water is being shot out of water cannons and into crowds of protesters. Dlo grate, or itching water, as it is referred to in Haitian Creole, is a now common term in Port au Prince. While not all have felt its devastatingly powerful effects, knowledge of the new tactic is widespread throughout the city.
The visit of French President François Hollande was the backdrop for the most recent student protest and excessive police response. Student protests are not uncommon in Port-au-Prince, and for the past years these demonstrations have often targeted the government in power. On May 12th, outside of the Faculté d’Ethnologie, the storied home of Haitian anthropology and site of many student demonstrations, 50 or so university students protested the arrival the French President– the first official state visit of any French President to Haiti. Given that Hollande had just rescinded an offer of reparations to Haiti for the damages of slavery and exploitation (officials insisting he was talking about a ‘moral debt’ and not a financial one), such a protest was largely predictable. Other protests in the plaza of Champ de Mars supposedly numbered around 200. During the day of his visit, students and protesters chanted ‘Nou pa esklav anko!’ (We won’t be slaves again), invoking France’s historical role as a slave owning colonial power, and hinting at the continual neocolonial tactics used by France and the broader international community. Some students provocatively dressed as slaves outside the university campus.
During the late morning that Tuesday, I was in the second floor computer of the Faculté d’Ethnologie preparing a seminar that would be cancelled 45 minutes later. I could hear student chants that had been building for an hour or so. But new noises soon entered the air-conditioned room, and students sitting around me got up from their computers to see what caused the loud commotion.
From the second floor balcony, we could see that a black armored national police truck had parked itself outside of the walls of the school. On the top of this tank, visible over the wall, was a large turret fixed with a water cannon. The noise we could hear was the water that was being shot at students, occasionally hitting the metal door of the courtyard. The demonstration was non-violent (a Professor later remarked that he saw one student throw a stone, only to be quickly reprimanded by other demonstrators), yet the tank was parked right outside the courtyard, knocking students to the ground with a surge of water even when they were inside the gates of the university. From its position higher than the university walls, the water cannon was policing actions of even the students inside the gate. Continue reading “Pepper water and protests in Haiti”→
Last Friday, after it was announced that the Conservative Party had won a wholly unexpected overall majority in the UK parliament – “the sweetest victory” according to its leader and returning prime minister, David Cameron – I decided that the best thing to improve my mood would be to cook my family a Keralan-inspired chicken curry. Looking in the refrigerator and cupboards I found that I had all the ingredients except for some curry leaves, which impart a distinctive citrus-like flavor to the dish.
So I head to my favorite Pakistani-owned food and spice shop, one of several such stores on Hatfield Road in my home town of St Albans, an affluent commuter town nearly 20 miles north of central London.
The shop I visit is a type found in urban areas throughout the U.K. wherever there is a sizeable south Asian population. This one caters for the local British Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities, as well as a small number of people from other ethnic minority groups, including black Africans and Indo-Mauritians, keen to lay their hands on a wide range of competitively-priced goods –branded pickles, powders and sauces; vegetables such as okra, sweet potato and aubergine; and freshly-picked herbs like coriander, mint and, of course, curry leaves. At the back of the shop is a halal butcher. The team of young men clad in white overalls chop chicken and lamb into large or small pieces as requested, a service notably absent at local supermarkets run by large retailers such as Morrisons, Sainsbury’s or Tesco.
When I arrive at 1:30 in the afternoon, I find that the lights in the shop are off. I try the door. It’s locked. Of course, I say to myself, all the staff have gone to Friday prayers at one of two mosques further along the street.
What to do? I walk to some of the other South Asian-owned stores thinking that one might be open, but have no luck. Evidently everyone is at prayer. I look at my watch and calculate that that it won’t be very long before prayers are over and the shopkeepers and their staff return. Because it’s a sunny day and I have time to kill I sit on a bollard and watch the world go by. Sure enough, just before 2 pm, people pour out of the mosques and the retail sector in that part of Hatfield Road returns to life (thus neatly demonstrating how individuals animate or energize institutions). I purchase the curry leaves and a few other bits and pieces, and make my way to the checkout at the front of the shop. The friendly, elderly bespectacled owner, still wearing his skullcap, begins to press the keys on the old but still functioning cash register.
We have never discussed politics before, but out of curiosity I ask him what he thinks of the election result. “Well, she’s back again,” he sighs referring to the re-election of Anne Main, the St Albans Conservative candidate. “I don’t think anything will change round here. We had better get used to it.”
I think to myself that he is answering my question according to a local perspective, whereas I was expecting that he would offer his opinion about the national scene. Nevertheless, like many first-generation South Asian migrants, the manner in which he answers my query clearly signals that he is not a Conservative supporter.
The shopkeeper carries on processing my items, carefully placing them in a plastic carrier bag. Then, with a twinkle in his eyes, he adds: “I was saying to my wife yesterday that back in our home town at election time two or three people would probably have died. Nothing like that happens in St Albans.”
“Yes that’s true,” I say. “It’s a bad result for Liberal Democrats and Labour in St Albans but at least no one died.” We both laugh, and in doing so celebrate a change of government without bloodshed, even though it’s a government neither of us approves of.
‘In the UK using a pencil to mark ‘X’ in the box alongside the name of one’s preferred candidate really is magic, isn’t it?’