Anthropology is the study of human societies and their development. It gives a window into the mysteries of human life, and a mechanism for understanding all of human existence.
My research is in Conflict Transformation—our field employs the findings of many others—some outstanding research from sociologists, psychologists, political scientists, and anthropologists, amongst others, when their findings help illuminate conflict and how we transform destructive to constructive. Anthropology provides a lens for understanding how societies respond to conflicts and how these patterns develop.
The famous anthropologist Margaret Mead was once asked: what is the first sign of civilization in a culture? She answered: the first signs were about 15,000 years old, the evidence was a broken femur that had healed.
Conflict arises out of the threat, or perceived threat, to the ability to meet one’s interests, values, or needs. The global coronavirus pandemic has produced many threats. I worry about public safety, risks to those I love, especially high risk groups like the elderly and immunocompromised. Dangerous misinformation elevates the threat, so I do what I’m trained to do: I try to alleviate ignorance with information.
Mead’s answer—healing—is important. It is not arbitrary that she has selected a healed femur. The femur is the longest bone in the body running from knee to hip. It would take six weeks with rest to heal. Her proof of civilization was to find evidence that people took care of each other and a person could not heal without help. In the wild an animal with a broken leg will die—no evasion of danger or scavenging for survival. In civilization the healthy take care of the sick.
The inverse is currently present in the US. Given the option to heal and protect life many are refusing to do so. The clearest path to healing is achieved by limiting the spread of the virus. The current best practices: wear a mask, maintain six feet of physical distance, limit social events and crowd sizes, and self-quarantine if you have been exposed or identify any symptoms. Minor sacrifices that, when broadly practiced, have a significant cumulative result. Now, however, some people are refusing to physically distance or wear masks, and some are having lethal COVID parties designed to test whether they could transmit the virus.
A significant part of our society seems to be retreating from civilization. Do they long for it to collapse into the law of the jungle?
With great frequency I see the denial of science and dismissal of facts because they do not align with people’s positions. The ability to incorporate new information is the demonstration of learning and growth, one of the things I measure when assessing student performance.
I am accused by some of bias when I present medical or scientific consensus, whether in courses I teach, in commentaries I write, or on social media platforms. I lament the ubiquitous spread of misinformation and propaganda and the resistance to critical engagement and thinking. I come from a line of scientists—my father, for example, was an MD, so this anti-evidence thinking is so counterintuitive, so self-destructive to individuals and to our culture and future.
We are not talking about solutions because there is no we to agree on a problem. This is a broken society I’m recognizing, the rote and categorical distrust and division only appear to be getting worse. The fracture is not in the femur, it seems to be in the heart of our culture, and healing is not being sought.
Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel Prize for her work answering the problem of the commons—that free riders frequently ruin public lands by selfishly overusing--laid bare by Garret Hardin. Ostrom showed the common adaptive models of indigenous and local community regulation by strong local norms that inflicted social consequences on the abusers. She found many cases from Nepal to Spain to Indonesia and many more, including localities in the US.
We are not healing from the coronavirus or as a society, because we lack the leadership and management required to protect the common good. People are choosing to believe a handful of doctors in an alt-right Breitbart news conference over clear medical consensus for the same reason that people believe Portland, Oregon is under siege, despite clear evidence to the contrary, and so on. Our leadership is looking after self interest instead of the common good.
Donald Trump is like a splinter, he agitates as long as he is present, and there is no chance for healing until he has been removed. Our framers provided remedies for addressing his corruption, but, as he has always done, his escalation is exponential—the more he gets away with, the more he tries. The problems become more overwhelming as they get worse each day.
The remedy, however, is very simple. Just talk with each other. When neighbors, strangers—even enemies—have a dialogue they start bridging the gap almost immediately. The common ground rapidly overwhelms the difference, and connection and trust are built. Don’t take my word for it, take the advice of Daryl Davis, a black man who has convinced more than 200 people to leave hate groups like the KKK. He starts by asking questions, and notes, “It all comes down to having civil discourse, and a willingness to listen to one another.”
We need not wait until Nov. 3rd to talk about our lives; we will start healing as soon as we start finding the humanity in each other. We are so busy angrily shouting at each other that we have forgotten to listen; let’s take our power back, find our shared humanity, and take care of ourselves—we’ve got work to do.
Wim Laven, Ph.D., syndicated by PeaceVoice, teaches courses in political science and conflict resolution.