Section Eight: Society



In this section, we will explore a third basic humanist theme:  the “social animal.”  Of course, there are lots of social animals – bees and cows and lions and whales, etc.  But what kind of social animals are we?

At birth, we can’t walk, talk, find food, or protect ourselves and we’ll be that way for quite a while.  But we do communicate!  We cry or make gurgling noises; we gesture with our eyes, mouths, arms, legs and bodies.  We signal that we’re afraid or hungry or cold, that we’re contented or comfortable.  In short, we’re born with a vocabulary of sounds and movements that very soon take on meanings.  Gradually, the sounds are organized into naming and calling.  Parents, as we know, wait anxiously for the first “dada” or “mama.”  With a little bit of luck, someone will respond.  So, from the outset, we are creatures of transaction.  Most of us will be members of a family.  Sadly, there will also be babies who don’t have families to raise them.  But, one way or another, time and memory will play roles in our development.  We will share a living history.  Being a social animal means at least that much of us.

As we grow, our senses develop.  The world is filled with richer and more complicated stimuli.  We learn to walk and to talk.  Now, we can get into trouble.  We go where we’re not supposed to go, we say what we’re not suppose to say.  We become explorers, finding new and interesting spaces and asking questions, all kinds of questions.  The curiosity we talked about in the Philosophy and The Humanist Connection, Introductory Course shows up very early.  We learn to separate the permitted and the forbidden.

With development come “do’s and don’ts.”  So shouting during a game is encouraged; shouting in school is punished.  Pretty soon, we figure out that some people are allowed to shout in order to keep us quiet but that we are not allowed to shout back.  We find out that some people like parents and teachers and policemen can shout just because of who they are – i.e. there are important and not so important people.  In short, we begin to acquire values, to read cues.  We get rewarded or get into trouble.  In a sense, we’re at the start of our moral and political awareness, an awareness of power.

We test the limits.  “How much can I get away with,” is the child’s guide as the parent or teacher of a 5 or 6 year-old will tell you.  We hear the word “don’t” over and over again.  We hear words like “good” and “bad” over and over again.  So we learn obedience and rebellion.  We’re introduced to correct and incorrect naming; we distinguish truth from error.  This process, getting more and more complicated, will go on all our lives.  It starts when we were born.

Pretty soon, we run into puzzles.  For example, we find out that the signals that say we are hungry are not the same for all human beings.  The responses are not the same for all human beings either.  Some families eat their meals together, others don’t.  Some families separate children and adults at mealtime.  Others don’t.  And some eat where, when, and what they can and stay hungry most of the time.  Some things are food for us, some are not for us but for others, and some things aren’t food at all.  We get hints of what privilege and status mean.  Much the same pattern is true for our emerging interests and enjoyments.  So infancy and childhood exhibit both the biology of the species and the sociability of difference.

We develop attitudes, interests, and vocabularies.  We develop habits, efficient shortcuts for doing things like tying our shoes or greeting our neighbors or using our minds.  Habits seem just as natural as gravity or breathing.  So, if challenged, we say something like “Everyone does that.”  A bit later, in school perhaps, we meet people with different habits.  We find out that everyone doesn’t do that.  We meet strangers who are sure that “Everyone does that” but who don’t mean what we mean when they say it.  We’re learning the difference between form and content.  New attitudes and judgments appear – my habits are better than yours, truer than yours.  The seeds of loyalty and bias, of hierarchy and differentiation, of cooperation and toleration, are planted.

Language evolves with our experience and we come to depend on it more and more.  But language is a puzzle too.  We make sentences long before we learn about nouns and verbs and predicates and without looking at a dictionary or knowing the rules.  In fact, we don’t even know there are dictionaries and rules until later in our development.  Even then, we make sentences without consulting the books.  The Harvard linguist, Norm Chamsky, claims that there is a “universal” grammar built into our brains that allows us to use language long before we study a language.  Whether he’s right or wrong, we do know that we are talking animals and that talking is a big part of being social animals.

Communities and societies have local vocabularies and local ways of making sentences.  Environments are different so vocabularies are different.  The Inuit for example have dozens of words for white; you and I probably settle for a meager few.  We speak a language – later we’ll also read language – but we also recognize other languages when we meet them even if we don’t understand what is being said.  We may try to learn another language – schools or jobs may expect us to – but out “native language” just seems to come “naturally” and another language is a struggle unless we’re lucky enough to live in a bi-lingual society like Canada.  We find out, too, that if we street people and tourists alike, don’t know the language of a place then we don’t know how to get around, how to survive.

Often too, habits are not just different but threatening or seem threatening.  This happens with things that are lofty like what counts as the good life – ethics and religion – or ordinary like what’s the right thing to wear to a party or a meal, i.e. customs and manners.  Once upon a time, custom, a socialized habit, taught us that showing the ankle was taboo for “decent” middle class women.  Covering the face becomes a battleground for Moslem women in Western societies.  Perhaps we learn that, “Men don’t cry, “ and that “Children should be seen and not heard.”  There are rules all around us mostly in the form of commands – but they feel as if they are built into the world.

In short, a hidden curriculum equips us for living in societies, even the simplest societies.  Of course, they aren’t that simple.  We learn from the moment we’re born and without realizing it.  Some people even suggest that we start to learn in the womb.  We learn by imitation – as when we play house or war.  The Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget, called attention to the games we play.  By stages, he claimed, they introduce us to the ethics of fairness and playing by the rules.  Only later do we formulate this mimicry into rulebooks and laws.

The hidden curriculum has its teachers – parents, priests, politicians, entertainers, etc.  Sometimes, as with teen-agers, our peers teach us more effectively than the adults around us.  Events and things are teachers too, like the death of a public figure, or like a war or a holiday or an impressive building or what have you.  All of this happens to us and is absorbed by us.  We are students without realizing it.  Like us, our teachers are students too.  They transmit the curriculum by being who they are, by the roles they play, and by how they behave.

The name for this process is culture, its science is anthropology, and we’ve only dipped into it.  Culture connects us to fellow human beings – some like us, some not – and to the rest of nature.  Without culture, human potentialities would remain limited and even dormant.  We simply couldn’t become “human.”  That’s why culture can rightly be called our “second nature.”  But it can also teach things that are misleading or false.  We can acquire attitudes, beliefs, and practices that get us into trouble.  Culture makes us and at the same time mislead us.

Reflection: Think about a food that once upon a time you didn’t like.  But now you like it.  Can you remember how this change happened?  Looking back, was the change a good thing or a bad thing?  How would you explain your answer?

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