Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Teaching Sister Wives: An Exercise in Contextualization

Look!  Pretty, happy, polygynous women!  Sisters....belonging to one mister.  I don't know how many of you have been dealing with this one in your classes this past year.  I guess the show is now in its second or third (?) season on TLC.  I know that this past year, as we have covered the kinship/marriage chapter in both my Cultural Anth and General Anth classes that students have been bringing it up in class discussions (and to a lesser extent that Big Love show on HBO).  Of course, being as students are all unique and individual they have different takes on it but it does seem that by that point in the semester, most are afraid to be too judgmental because of me snarking at them about that whole cultural relativism thing for a few months.  There, also, seems to be a bit of that interpretive drift stuff involved:  the more you watch it the more you think that it seems reasonable.  Anyway, I have quite a few students who watch the show and find themselves wondering….”wait, is this good or bad?” 

Full disclosure:  I admit to being more than a little irritated by that smug, self-centered husband Kody the few times I have watched it.  (The things I do for my students.)  Dude is driving a two-seat Lexus convertible while his wives are making do with broke-down Suburban things.  But, except for those gosh-darn pesky feelings that the wives, occasionally, allow themselves to feel but then quickly tamp down; they are all so gosh-darn happy.  Get the point?
Anyway, Sister Wives has caused me to speak a bit more about polygyny both in my online and in my face to face classes.  What follows in the paragraphs below, more or less, are the issues I try to bring up to explain things.  But then I, eventually, realized after explaining all that in those paragraphs below, that it is a good moment to add two additional points to push them beyond a simple view of the role of cultural relativism in our discipline.  First, you can't really understand complex issues like polygyny (of for that matter polyandry) by only looking at the emic perceptions of the participants of from only the views of one extended family unit:  its is the society-wide perspective that, also, most be understood.  Let's all chant:  cultural context; cultural context; cultural context.  Second, maybe...just is okay to judge or, at the very least, it is okay to explore the consequences of some behaviors on that wider group.  And then we can all be happy hating on Kody.  Works for me.

Here goes (and feel free to correct me when I am wrong.  I probably am.)

Polygyny has some interesting consequences for a society.  Since male/female ratios tend to be about 50/50 in the world when left to "natural" forces.  (Edited for clarification:  interesting aside:  the full complexities of human sex ratios still have some mysteries to be uncovered.) When one man marries say 4 wives, then three men, theoretically, do without.  If this is a repeated pattern in a society this tends to drive up the marriage age for men--they have to wait to get married and drives down the marriage age for women--they are married off young because they are in short supply and, thus, desirable.  Society-wide over time you get a pattern of older men with multiple wives and younger men without any wives.  This is what you see with the Maasai, for example.  And some men will, always do without.  Powerful older men end up dominating the society and women (girls) get apportioned to them.

The societal problem that often results (and all societies have problems that they deal with because of their structural organization; one of ours, for example is the race/poverty issue) is a large number of young men who can, potentially, cause trouble for their elders.  After all, the women may find them more attractive than their elder husbands.  The solution of the Maasai for many years was to send the young men away to do other things; cattle raiding/warfare, for example.  This used to work better for them in the past but now that you can't go out to kill a lion because of that whole endangered species thing, there are issues.  Thank goodness, there are jobs available for Maasai moran with American Express.

In America, there are a few areas where some Mormon sects (not part of the mainstream church) still illegally practice polygyny; like you see on the show Sister Wives.  Interestingly enough, those areas end up with a surfeit of young men.  These young men tend to be viewed by their small, local groups as "bad"; a convenient view for the elder men to encourage because they threaten those elders.  Social workers in Salt Lake City, for example, report that young men from these communities often show up in the city, chased out or dumped off by those older, more powerful men.  The guys are a problem because they often have not been educated in a way that employers find attractive.  Also, many of the young men have internalized the idea that they are “bad” so they tend to act out.  Here is a basic newspaper article published a few years ago from the Denver Post that lays out the issues in terms students can understand.  There is even a Wikipedia entry under "Lost Boys" on the subject.
And there is even a recently released film called Sons of Perdition which shows the consequences for children.  It was shown this month on Oprah Winfrey's new television network OWN.  A basic review of the documentary was published at the beginning of this month at the Washington Post.  It is on my list of things to watch this summer so I can't really comment, yet.
After all that, I try to get the students to discuss that "is it good or bad" issue after they realize that the show doesn’t show the full picture of polygyny.   Hopefully, while they may realize that anthropology doesn’t necessarily try to answer that question because of the dictate of cultural relativism BUT anthropology doesn’t argue that you don’t have the right as a person or as a society to make judgments.  In fact, one of the advantages of anthropology as a discipline is the way it forces you to look at issues not from a personal or individual point of view but from a society-wide perspective.  I think we would all agree that polygyny isn’t the “victimless” practice of free individuals making free choices that the show tries to depict.y

So, anyone else facing questions about the show?  Are you going with the "its all good" philosophy?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Pushing back against Islamophobia

My daughter (readers of the blog know that she is a college student at the University of Texas) is in Beirut. She is in an intensive summer Arabic program at American University in Beirut. She has, also, been doing some research for her senior honors thesis in the History department at UT which she will be completing this coming year. I am very proud of her.

Back home, when I share that information, I am greeted with the type of comments and looks that define the world of an anthropologist outnumbered and outgunned in Texas, America, U.S.A....all the way....

Let's tell this one through visual culture, today. Here is what they are thinking:

and here she is in Beirut:

So far, so good. But then the summer is still young. Plenty of time for her to acquire a few labels. /sarcasm.

Seriously, though. I have the care of her car and I was pleased to find that she left behind some of her CD's acquired at UT. My current favorite is by Omar Offendum, a Syrian-American poet and rapper. I am trying to figure out ways to integrate his work into my Cultural class. Here is some of his work courtesy of YouTube. The first is a somewhat personal expression of the bicultural/bilingual realities of being an Arab-American. Some of you may recognize Paul Anka's Destiny being used here as the driving tract. Paul Anka was of Syrian/Lebanese descent:

Here is a clip of one of his live performances of Damascus:

And here he is performing his poetry which allows you to appreciate the beauty and complexity of his lyrical construction:

I speak no Arabic but this Arabic language version of Langston Hughes' The Negro Speaks of Rivers moves me as much as the original poem:

I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

More to come....
Edited 10:20 to replace incomplete video posting with two live performance selections.

Tutaendelea...we will continue...

I see the viagra sellers have been keeping everyone occupied in my absence. I will be trying to find my way back to my voice in the coming weeks. There have been some rather significant issues at my institution. I made myself a promise when I started the blog that I wouldn't have it become a personal bitch session for me and that I would post out of a sincere desire to share about teaching anthropology. I haven't felt able to do that so... I didn't. I think I can now but I feel a bit rusty so I appreciate your forbearance as I feel my way back. Bas.