Sacred or Silly?

Or…What I Learned in Introduction to Cultural Anthropology in College


I still feel like I’m wading through a lot of muck, so I apologize up front if this writing piece (and maybe my next few) aren’t very clear. (Maybe I’m never very clear?) But I have to write some things to work back up to writing. I don’t operate my best as a functional human if I’m not writing. So here I go…

When I was a college freshman 24 years ago, I took ANT 101, like a bunch of other aimless young people trying to fill in general requirements and declare a major. I liked the class, but it’s the only anthropology class I took, because by then I’d moved away from my original pre-med biology major and toward my eventual completed political science track. I did learn a few lessons from that class that stuck though, and most of the lasting and (I think anyway) important lessons weren’t really part of the established curriculum.

On the second day of class, the professor handed out a worksheet describing a daily ritual undertaken by the vast majority (almost everyone) in a certain culture. The handout described how the people of this culture, soon after waking each morning, went to a basin in their dwelling, and took a small stick with coarse bristles on one end and stuck the bristled end in their mouths and moved the stick around for somewhere between 30 and 200 or so seconds and then spit into the basin. Virtually everyone in this culture did this every morning and most of them also completed this ritual before retiring to sleep at night as well, and some of them even did it more often throughout their day. And members of this culture who didn’t do this at LEAST once a day were fairly harshly judged and ridiculed. Weird, right?

Well…not really.

Some of us realized without being told that the handout was about brushing our teeth. And it was about our ‘own,’ modern culture. The professor wanted to make a point (and I think it was well made, at least to me), that we can look at cultures from the past, or even modern cultures different from our ‘own’ as foreign or mysterious or strange, but those same cultures of the past, or cultures different from the way we live, or even us looking at our own culture in new language and from a different, removed perspective could view us/ourselves as foreign or mysterious or strange. The professor wanted us to realize that just because something seems different to us, doesn’t mean it’s bad or wrong, and also that something familiar, described in the right way, can seem ‘exotic.’ It was meant to be a way to sort of uncouple ‘unfamiliar’ and ‘bad/wrong.’ To open up our minds to unfamiliar things and not automatically consider them uncomfortable or worse. Those were intentional teaching objectives. He plainly told us so after finishing our handout on tooth-brushing. And they obviously lasted for me. I remember them 24 years later. I try not to view or interact with the unfamiliar from an automatic place of ‘uncomfortable’ or especially not ‘bad/wrong.’

But greater lessons learned in that class came from watching my fellow students recognize tooth-brushing…or not. Particularly the ones who didn’t get the meaning of the handout before the professor revealed it out loud for the class. Most of them read over the words in confusion and then made an evaluation about whatever culture the handout was about as ‘primitive’ or weird or whatever. A few of them settled in to absorb what they could from genuine, well-intentioned curiosity. And I learned then that some people’s organic reaction to learning about other people is to look upon them with judgmental and dismissive eyes, and others’ natural inclination is to look with wondrous and open, enthusiastic ones. I learned that I’m the second kind of person (or at least I want and try to be), but most of the people I know are, and our almost blindly patriotic/nationalistic, white-supremacist contemporary American society sets all of us (including me) up to be the first kind. To believe at least at the start that different experience and different behavior from ours is less than or meaningless or even dishonest.

I was inspired to write this after reading some Americans react with hostility and offense to some foreign (and even some domestic) press describing the actions of our current government in addressing social unrest, the ongoing (at least it is here) pandemic, and the upcoming presidential election in the same general tone and specific language OUR press almost always describes hardship and disaster and corruption and rights violations and poor management in other places and cultures. I didn’t feel defensive and angry like they did. But I understood that Intro to Cultural Anthropology paper was about brushing teeth, and its intended lessons landed and stuck with me. Those heated responses and the continued division and denial I keep seeing brought that college class up to the forefront in my head. I wonder why so many people in my ‘own’ culture are so resistant to criticism or even just accurate descriptions of behavior and implied intent and current events void of positive ‘spin.’
When you remove all the language and visuals that court comfortable familiarity, brushing our teeth reads pretty weird. And there’s the choice…are we curious to learn or curious to judge? Is what we’re seeing sacred or silly or scary? What attachments have we made in our heads to learning things that are beyond the familiar for us? What about when we find out that the weird, uncomfortable thing we learned is really about us?

It’s not just things other people do in other places that are strange and scary and unsettling and ‘wrong.’
I think a lot of us are so conditioned to see ‘other people’ as weird and wrong and easy to negatively judge, and we are conditioned to never see ourselves as anything other than normal, if not good. But I think a dose of that foreign press language describing the events unfolding before us is good for us. I think we should all read a couple carefully worded articles about tooth-brushing, and accept that those ‘foreign’ descriptions are really accurately describing us. 


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