People ask me all the time why anthropology matters. Here’s my answer:
I grew up in a small college town where there were two fates: either you were going to college or you weren’t, and it was painted on your forehead from the time you were born. The kids who were going to college were bullied by the kids who weren’t – held against lockers and pounded with charliehorses. And the kids who weren’t going to college were bullied by the kids who were – slammed with judgments (“He’s not very bright”) and digs (“You probably don’t know who this is, but there’s an artist named Andy Warhol…”) There were two sides to this town’s turf, and either you were too smart or you were too dumb. You were never just, simply, you.
I was one of the kids who would be going to college. It was never a question. But when it came time to go, I begged my parents to let me do something, anything, else. Education, to me, didn’t represent advancement or enlightenment. It represented separation and loneliness. The more educated you became, the more of a sad jerk you became, jailed within the walls of your own construction, unable to hang out at the local bar or hockey game without looking like you were trying.
But I lost that debate, so off I went to Northfield, Minnesota, a small college town that was almost identical to the one in which I grew up.
Once on campus, I struggled to find my major because everything I put my hand upon seemed to reinforce the idea that knowledge was a form of progress – that it spiritually raised a person above his fellow man. The poor folks of Northfield led charming lives, but bless, they didn’t understand the ways of the world, and that was something sad, something to be pitied.
Finally I stumbled upon anthropology. It was the only academic pursuit that seemed to deliberately destabilize the ego and the walls we build between ourselves and others. Like meditation or religious study, the discipline broke down the construction of knowledge, class, and the self with total fearlessness. In so doing, it achieved an understanding of others that was free of the tension that had divided my childhood.
Sure it was an exclusive club. You had to speak a certain code and work your way through a certain ladder in order to get into it. But you had to do the same kind of stuff to succeed in that local watering hole or hockey game, too. And the point of anthropology was to remind us that we all, no matter where we were, had tricks of the trade for keeping people in or keeping them out.
This is why anthropology matters. It has nothing to do with understanding tribes or rites of passage. All of that is just kind of decoration and metaphor. Anthropology matters because, no matter which side of the tracks we grew up on, most of us find ways of bullying each other every single day – of putting people down and imagining that we are better than them, better than their politics, their values, their grammar. Anthropology matters because your ego has gotten away with this sneaky shit for too long, and it’s about time that somebody finally cried ‘mercy.’