Quotes & Commentary #29: Evans-Pritchard

Quotes & Commentary #29: Evans-Pritchard

A man is a member of a political group of any kind in virtue of his non-membership of other groups of the same kind.

—E.E. Evans-Pritchard, The Nuer

Evans-Pritchard—or “EP,” as his friends called him—was one of the great pioneers of cultural anthropology. His work among the Nuer, a Nilotic ethnic group living in modern South Suden, is now regarded as among the classics of anthropology.

I read his work when I was just a young anthropology student. After all these years, this quote has stayed vividly in my memory because, though not occupying a central position in EP’s thought, I think it says something profound about the nature of social behavior.

Consider this typical habit. If somebody from Europe asks me where I’m from, I say the United States. If an American asks me the same question, I say I’m from New York. If the person is a New Yorker, I say I’m from Westchester; and if they’re also from Westchester, I say I’m from Sleepy Hollow.

Thus, I locate my identity with increasing precision depending on the proximity of our origin. Differences between people become more important, paradoxically, the more similar you are. Freud called this phenomenon “the narcissism of small difference,” and it is memorably portrayed in EP’s book.

The Nuer, a tall, thin, pastoral, cattle-herding people, are constantly at war with the Dinka. The Dinka also speak a Nilotic language, are also characteristically tall and thin, they also herd cattle. An outsider would likely have trouble telling the two groups apart. And yet the Nuer look down upon the Dinka with disdain and disgust, regarding them are nearly subhuman, and never hesitate to inflict violent raids upon them.

This sounds ridiculous; but consider how often we do the same thing. Indeed, it is of the nature of our social identities that they are defined by the groups they are opposed to.

The phenomenon is especially visible in sports. Here in Spain, your identity is signified by the football team you support. Being a fan of any given team has political and cultural overtones. The ideological tension between Madrid and Barcelona is symbolized by the rivalry between Real Madrid and Barça (known as El Clásico). Likewise in New York the Yankees and the Mets attract different demographics.

Politics, too, is classic example. To be a Democrat means being opposed to everything the Republicans do and believe; and vice versa. To quote a recent Op-Ed article by the comedian Trevor Noah: “Either black people are criminals, or cops are racist—pick one. It’s us versus them. You’re with us, or you’re against us.” Even the minor parties are defined by their contrast to the major ones. A member of the Green Party is somebody too leftist and idealistic to be a Democrat; and a libertarian is somebody who disagrees with the Republicans on social issues and with the Democrats on economic ones. And so on.

Less apparent, though no less real, is the operation of this phenomenon in the sphere of culture. This was demonstrated by the work of Pierre Bourdieu’s classic sociological study, Distinction. There he documents how people use their taste in music and literature in order to define their position in the social scale.

Snobbishness is an attempt to distance oneself from other groups by snubbing your nose at their art and culture; and in so doing, you signal your allegiance to your own group and construct your own social identity. Just consider how much time people have spent publically complaining about Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey. Why do people so enjoy—in the privacy of friendly conversation and the openness of social media—berating movies, shows, songs, and books? And why do we often consider a person’s taste to be such a critical factor of who they are?

In the words of Oscar Wilde (who was right about everything): “More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.”

I myself, I am ashamed to admit, have viciously judged others by what books they read and didn’t read—even by what books they have or hadn’t heard of. Likewise, in various circumstances I have been judged for my lack of knowledge of Buddhism, rap, postmodern philosophy, contemporary physics, and the history of the United States.

The knowledge deemed “crucial” varies from group to group. And in each case, some other reason is given for their snobbishness. Buddhism can save your life! Physics is the nature of reality! You need to know all the names of the Supreme Court justices in order to be a conscientious citizen! And so on. But the truth is that all this knowledge, while useful and interesting, also serves as a social marker, identifying your place in the complex, ever-shifting, overlapping hierarchies that we use to negotiate the public world.

Take a moment to reflect on this. How much of your own identity is constructed from this process of embracing and scorning, of judging and condemning, of critiquing and collecting, of identifying and opposing? How much of our self-image is composed of the types of movies we watch, the genres of music we listen to, the sophistication of the books we read? How much of your sense of self is a reflection, a negative definition formed by you self-consciously not belonging to a certain political party?

Personally, when I ask myself these questions, I find the answer very disturbing. Yes, to a certain extent it is inevitable if we are to live in a society. But identifying yourself by variously allying yourself with, or distancing yourself from, various pre-existing identities seems like the very definition of superficiality. After all, if we are not to be mere party members or fans or cheerleaders, we cannot put together our identity out of puzzle pieces we find laying around. A true individual is not made of legos.

At the very least, we can keep this insight of Evans-Pritchard in mind the next time we feel inclined to judge somebody for their political party, for the team they support, for the books they read, or any of the other innumerable things we use to reduce the irreducible complexity of a human being down to simple social categories. Next time you have the urge to be a snob about your musical taste, to hate somebody because of their opinion, or to crown yourself with a halo for not being a Democrat or a Republican, consider how this very act of judging is a way of defining yourself. And do you really want your self-image to be the byproduct of snobbery?

Quotes & Commentary #5: Oscar Wilde

Quotes & Commentary #5: Oscar Wilde

“He began to wonder whether we could ever make psychology so absolute a science that each little spring of life would be revealed to us. As it was, we always misunderstood ourselves and rarely understood others. Experience was of no ethical value. It was merely the name men gave to their mistakes.”

—Oscar Wilde, A Picture of Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde could pack a library into a sentence; and this passage sends my mind off running in multiple directions.

First I am reminded of a book I read long ago: Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer. In one section, he talks about the mysterious phenomenon of expertise. How do you become an expert? There is the well-known answer, made famous by Malcolm Gladwell, that becoming an expert requires 10,000 hours of practice. When you pass that threshold, something strange happens.

Foer demonstrates this with a memorable example: chicken sexers. These are the people who examine the rear ends of baby chickens to determine whether they are male or female. (The unfortunate males are dropped down a chute where they are killed. Males are expendable, unluckily for me.)

The task is astoundingly difficult; professionals need to train for years to achieve the required accuracy. But when they do achieve mastery, they are able to see things that others cannot see, and they themselves can hardly articulate. Ask them to explain how they know one chick is female and not male (says Foer), and they will not be able to put their knowledge into words.

This is a universal experience. Teaching and doing are two entirely separate skills. Experts are often not great explainers; and great teachers are sometimes middling performers. Have you ever tried to learn something—playing an instrument, for example—from a real master? Or just somebody far better than you? Have you ever tried to teach a beginner how to do something you’re quite good at?

In these situations, the famous difference between knowing how and knowing that is manifest. I can tie my shoes without looking, but if I tried to explain the steps, I’d probably confuse myself.

Expertise is the product of experience. And experience, as Wilde points out, is just another name for our mistakes. This is easy to forget. A student won’t get better at anything unless she—or an expert teacher—critiques her performance and point out areas that can be improved. Simply strumming a guitar won’t make you Jimi Hendrix, and writing in a diary won’t make you Shakespeare.

Expertise requires that we judge what we do, and then constantly strive to do better. This is what separates training and doing, practicing and performing. In the former, we are self-critical.

Wilde brings in an interesting moral dimension to this notion when he says that experience has no “ethical value.” By that, I think he means that we cannot learn to become a good person simply by doing things. The ethical value comes from us. We need to apply some sort of criterion to our experience; we need to judge right and wrong, better and worse, desirable and undesirable. These judgments are themselves not products of experience; they are applied to experience.

We learn to be good by making mistakes and getting better at judging what is right and wrong, in just the same way that we learn to play piano by making mistakes and learning to recognize what sounds better and worse. Moral expertise is in principle no different from musical expertise: we learn from recognizing our own errors.

Wilde wonders whether we can “make psychology so absolute a science so that each little spring of life would be revealed to us.” I can’t predict the future, but there does seem to me something mysterious about expertise. How can we do something without being able to explain what we’re doing? How can conscious training create unconscious mastery? What is happening in the brain when we get better at something? Can mastery ever be distilled into a book of rules and precepts?

Lastly, there is his comment about “always misunderstanding” ourselves and “rarely understanding” others. It is so true that the motives of others often seem crystal clear, while our own remain deeply mysterious. Some perspective is needed to understand a person, and that is just what we lack when it comes to ourselves. And this lack of perspective on ourselves is one of the things that makes self-study so difficult. If we cannot see ourselves objectively, how can we accurately understand what we need to improve?