Bitco David and I chewed the fat today about cabbages, kings, and other things – when the topic of personal responsibility, choices, and we do what we do came up. I commented that my educational background was in cultural anthropology and I figure anyone who works with people, as I did, would be better off understanding cultural anthro first. David shared his experiences regarding choices made under pressure.
Often the choices we make are influenced by what is going on internally or what is going on externally. It is not really a “freedom of choice” thing.
Anyone happen to remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs from college?
In general, people make the best decisions they can from the options they are provided with at the time. There may be no good options. If you need food, water, shelter, and warmth then you do what you have to do to get it. There may only the the best of the worst options. Attempting to survive is not making decisions you have to live with – it is a primal need.
A freely made decision is more like having someone take you to any restaurant of your choice and tell you that you can order anything you want and they’ll cover the tab. That is freedom of choice. Making choices based on limitations isn’t so much a choice as a desperation move.
Back when humans moved from troop-primate behavior to clans or tribes we didn’t have members of the clan who were not valued. Everyone worked together to survive. It is true that a blind or deaf child might die young due to the harsh living conditions, but any member of the clan that survived helped doing something. We know from Neanderthal graves that they took care of people with serious injuries or deformities. These folks did not live in a vacuum.
A deaf child grew up with the clan and perhaps did not speak. But there have always been signed trade languages around the world. It would be wrong to assume there was no communication. The child would develop a “home sign.” That child could help gather food, as an adult perhaps was a skilled flint knapper or had some other skill. Similarly, a blind adult or a mentally ill adult who hallucinated voices or visions, or even an epileptic might be a shaman. Life was hard – we all lived together or we all died separately.
Nowadays we have deaf culture, which actually doesn’t meet the anthropological definition of a culture (but, oh well…) and we treat the less than perfect as if they were defective in some way. Yet, in our past we cherished each member of our kinship group because we were all necessary to the survival of the other. The cognatively dull could still participate in gathering or cleaning or hauling water. A man or woman who didn’t adhere to the rules of the kinship unit were not sent to jail, but were punished through loss of wealth, loss of esteem, or loss of power – and the ultimate punishment was expulsion, a near-certain death sentence. There were no prisons. Those are relatively modern.
We have teenage gangs now – as well as then – because they replicate the very primal need of primates to expand out from the home group – the unattached males. Only back in the day, there were older males teaching them how to hunt or how to become “men” through various means. We don’t have it now – haven’t for a long time – and we have chaos as a result. There is no place for them to go – no new territory, no way to make a mark in their world.
Our rituals are largely gone. Our extended families are gone. We think the nuclear family is king, when it never was. We don’t invest in each other. We barely know our neighbors. We hear people screaming and don’t even call the police. When I was a kid I learned braille to learn to write to a blind friend. I learned ASL to talk to a deaf friend. I had friends with withered arms or legs from polio and didn’t consider them defective. When, as an adult, I worked with the homeless, they were more likely to have empathy for someone else who was suffering than most of those who see suffering as a personal choice.
The deaf in our modern society are isolated in a way they have never been until more recent history. No, they didn’t have all the amenities that perhaps we do now, but they had family. There were communities of the deaf that sprang up on Martha’s Vineyard and Paris (among other places) when society began concentrating in the past 300 or so years. We didn’t always have such barriers and separations.
And because our communities were smaller, our families larger and more involved with each other – people knew who was deaf, hard of hearing, blind, etc. Nothing then or now is perfect, certainly, but our alienation from each other seems more complete now than at any time in the past.