People power


The word ‘anarchy’ has long been misconstrued as meaning ‘chaos and violent disorder’.

1. a state of disorder due to absence or non-recognition of authority or other controlling systems.
synonyms: Lawlessness, nihilism, mobocracy, revolution, insurrection, riot, rebellion, mutiny, disorder, disorganization, misrule, chaos, tumult, turmoil, mayhem, pandemonium
2. absence of government and absolute freedom of the individual, regarded as a political ideal.
The word has, since the 1660s at least, always carried both of these meanings.

A direct translation from the original Greek αναρχία or anarkhos‘, would be ‘without (‘an‘) a leader/ruler (‘arkhos‘)’. And I think we can see the huge split in the two definitions thus: while an anarchist movement sees the second – the political ideal which elevates (and demands) every citizen’s participation and contribution and chooses an optimistic view of human nature and sociability, anyone describing anarchism from the position of the entrenched ruling elite will, of course, plump for the first – chaos, mutiny, insurrection.

It seems almost impossible for us in our large, centrally-controlled nation states* in the 21st-century world to imagine how an anarchist society might work. Indeed, I am new to anarchy myself (identifying as such only within the past 12 months) and still learning. But it unquestionably true that anarchism is the longest-running system of human organisation, the form of social organisation within which the human species evolved and grew up, and it continues to be the way in which mobile hunting-gathering-foraging peoples live. I guess that, if pushed, I would suggest a political system of local collectives which decide issues by consensus (predicated upon total freedom of movement and the choice to join together in whatever collective best suits your own inclinations), accompanied by a system of participatory representative democracy at a larger level, so that all citizens could/should take a turn in representing their communities.

An anarchist world would not be without problems and divisions, of course. So many, many people are unhappy, ignorant, lazy, mis-educated, and in order for us all to live and let live, we will need to address this. But community life breaks down a huge amount of barriers and heals a lot of wounds, as I know myself. Working hard together on projects that are larger than one’s own concerns is excellent at creating ties between people. Hunter-gather-forager communities do have to work to keep everyone equal. Typically this is accomplished with humour and love, gentle teasing, and practices such as ‘insulting the meat’ to prevent prolific or skilled hunters, for example, from getting too full of themselves. This is a lovely post about how this egalitarianism is sustained, and reproduced generation to generation.

Although we may think that such organisation is impossible in the huge nation states of today, if we stop to think about most of the movements and technologies that make major and positive changes to our lives, we can see that it’s always people/citizens that make the difference, make the change. A truly representative government should indeed always follow the people, but our governments, only having to worry about their remit every 4-5 years, often do so only when forced to by overwhelming public feeling. Universal suffrage, the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements, the dismemberment of empires, LGBTQ rights, environmentalism; all of them started at grass-roots level, all eventually gaining enough momentum to force policy change in governments. The fight goes on on all these fronts and new movements begin all the time.

But does this not inevitably lead to the question: so why do we need the governments? They almost cannot help becoming distanced from the people, because they are corralled and given special status. While the hunter-gatherers make sure no-one’s ego gets over-inflated, our leaders are driven around in fleets of limousines with police escorts and wined and dined in palaces. They almost cannot help getting mired in corruption and graft because it costs so very much to become a leader. Because half of our MPs were privately educated, networks which link them to business and the judiciary are inherent to the system. A sense of specialness and privilege imbued since primary school is hard to eradicate (just go and have a look at some of the private schools and prep schools and try to imagine what it might have felt like, walking into one of those places every day, seeing other children walking into crappy comprehensives. There’s no need for the difference to be articulated, it can be seen and experienced).

Westminster School
McEntee School (my school)






Meanwhile, 75% of human ingenuity, creativity, intelligence, passion, ability, talent, is languishing. It’s stuck behind gender and colour bars, wasting away in refugee camps and prisons, working in bullshit jobs or sweatshop jobs or slave-labour jobs. It’s scrabbling to feed its children and pay for medicine and school and housing while we pour oil on the land, plastic into the sea, particulates into the air. We have all drunk the Kool-Aid about anarchism. We don’t feel capable of dealing with these huge issues, making these important decisions. But it will take every single one of us getting involved in our society to change our society. Not just by voting – our representative democracies are at best a compromise, at worst a sham – but by acting, organising, communicating, taking responsibility. There are different things that all of us can do, from the utterly radical to the small and everyday. Try something. Take back power, a little at a time. Join a demonstration, educate yourself about some issues, give your plastic packaging back to the supermarket, volunteer, change your bank or your energy supplier, support a grass-roots movement or campaign in your area or globally. It feels good. It feels like being an independent, free, human being with a brain and a heart. Like being an anarchist.

*Gonna do a post about the origin of nation states another day – it’s a fascinating subject

The Cosmic Egg

Persian relief from the palace of Darius the Great

Many societies have had the idea that the universe or reality was hatched from some sort of ‘cosmic egg’. In a beautiful version of this story from Finland, the egg breaks in half, with the the top becoming the sky, the bottom the land, the yolk the sun and the white the moon. The ancient Greeks had the ‘Orphic Egg’ from which the god Phanes hatched, a deity of procreation and new life, a bringer of light to the cosmos, and a possible ancestor of Lucifer.

Our own society was hatched from those old Greek eggs, as well, although we often underestimate these days just how much of our understanding and view of the world is still essentially a Greco-Roman one. When Europe burst onto the world stage as a major player and not just a provincial backwater, in the centuries after the conquests of the Americas, elites looked back to the powerful civilisations of Europe that had gone before upon which to build and justify their claim to world domination. It was important to legitimise their lust for wealth and destruction of other peoples and cultures by insisting that European philosophy, art, technology and religion were the epitome of human products. In that way, we could pretend that we were ‘doing them a favour’ in annihilating these people and their societies.

But how much of this was anywhere near the truth? There is no doubt that Greco-Roman culture produced immensely beautiful and unique art and architecture, and also significant philosophy and ‘science’ (although that is a modern term). None of it appeared from out of a vacuum, though, and most was built upon firm foundations laid by ancient Asian and North African civilisations. But the Greeks in their writings of all kinds were trying to establish themselves in opposition to these great cultures to the east and the south, especially the Persians.

Carthaginian mask of a female deity

The Romans built upon this legacy, admiring the Greeks and picking up much of their aesthetic and philosophical sense from them. In Republican Rome, the principal enemy was the huge maritime power of Carthage (based in modern-day Tunisia), and when Rome finally crushed and destroyed that civilisation, it demonised the Carthaginians as monstrous barbarians, while eradicating entirely any histories that the Carthaginians might have left themselves. Both Greek and Roman traditions insisted upon the corruption, ‘effeminacy’ and sycophancy of eastern and southern peoples, who were characterised as glutted and spoiled with wealth and who prostrated themselves before great kings. When European empire-builders came to write histories in the 19th century, they not only picked up these Greek and Roman biases, but in fact made the dividing lines between the ‘Classical World’ and the rest of the ancient civilisations even more definite.

As early as the Crusades, travellers to the eastern Mediterranean region encountered the written works of the ancients, preserved by Arabic-speaking scholars who had continued to pursue the philosophy, science and mathematics they found in them. In the Renaissance (14th-17th centuries in Europe), great works of sculpture from the Greek and Roman periods were unearthed as cities were expanded and rebuilt. Dazzlingly lifelike compared to Medieval artforms, these and the texts might indeed appear to be the work of superior beings. Moreover, they were European in origin. Although made by pagan hands, which horrified some Christians, the art, architecture, drama and thought of the Classical world became the basis of Western culture.

And so it makes perfect sense that the empires that we created would share the Classical values of slave ownership, misogyny and prejudice. If, indeed, our Classical forebears were so wise, talented, even perfect (except for their paganism), then it would be heretical not to build a civilisation on slavery and inequality, and to insist, just as the Romans had (about our Northern European ancestors, no less!), that theirs was a civilising mission, and one that could now also bring the light of Christianity as well as that of Phanes. We are killing them in their millions, but we are saving them for God! I’m sure all those Africans, Americans and Indians were grateful for that.

Right into the 20th century, if you wanted to make a building have gravitas and authority, you based its design on Classical forms of architecture, and probably placed a Latin inscription upon it. So many of our great public buildings in Classical style were also built with money derived from slavery. Philosophy and medicine were based on works by Aristotle and Hippocrates. Early on, modern medicine had to struggle hard against the theory of the humours. The value of works of art was judged by their resemblance to real-life objects and forms. It was not until the works of colonised peoples and distant cultures, like Benin or Japan, flooded into Europe, that modern art began to dismantle these judgments and strive for another kind of representation and another kind of reality.

These attitudes run so deep, and the version of history where the Greeks invented everything good and the Romans promoted it and stamped it out all over the ‘known world’ (a lie in itself, Rome knew perfectly well that India and China existed), is so exclusively presented as the truth, that it can be hard to even find out about the wonderful, colourful, wise, violent and dynamic cultures that have always existed as well. We are still using this myth to justify our quest for world domination long after the pink bits of the map have been painted other colours. We are still insisting that this model is morally superior and that therefore, so are ‘we’.

I liked David Olusaga’s episode of Civilisations: ‘First Contact’ for a taste of the multi-coloured world that has always existed, and this link is interesting and can lead you on to more information on this subject:

The human continuum


It’s very exciting to find out that the earliest cave art in Europe predates the arrival of our own species here by 20,000 years. It blows our theories of human uniqueness to pieces, once again. What it means is that Neanderthals, still a by-word for brutishness and ignorance, were capable of abstract thought, and of painting those ideas onto cave walls. This capacity for abstraction was, until recently, thought to be the preserve of our own species, Homo sapiens. It was considered to be part of a suite of changes to mind that happened 40-50,000 years ago, including language, art, an explosion in the types of specialised tools made and the materials used. It’s supposed that this advantage of modern consciousness was one of the deciding factors that allowed our species to colonise the whole globe and to eventually out-compete all other human species. It’s interesting that some of the 64,000-year-old art does not represent anything we can see in the ‘real world’, but is composed of the lines and dots that are common in cave paintings and may, it’s been suggested, be representations of entoptic phenomena – visual effects made by the eye or the brain and experienced during altered states of consciousness including intoxication and migraine. What does that mean in terms of our similarities of mind?

Of course, the story of our evolution is endlessly fascinating and endlessly changing. A small fossil, a footprint, a new date can change the whole picture. And this is often due to the scarcity of the evidence, the difficulty of finding it, and limitations to our technology. As archaeologists and anthropologists devise more and more ingenious ways of using new technologies to interrogate physical evidence such as tools or bones, we see in ever-greater detail the story unfold. The recent discovery of Graecopithecus freybergi, who lived in modern Greece 7.2 million years ago and seems to have been a direct human ancestor, shakes the family tree once again (I apologise for the melodramatic title of this linked article, but it seems a good source for general readers and more scientific information about the animal can be found online).

What all of this ever-changing evidence points to is an evolution composed mainly of a continuum of change, rather than one of dramatic revolutions in consciousness or technology as had previously been thought. This is perhaps an Enlightenment vision, a desire to wall ourselves off from the primitive and the non-cultural, which was very much a product of its time. The passion of the Enlightenment for dividing, cataloguing, collecting, and discriminating is entirely understandable. Roads were made of mud. People lived in harsh conditions and regularly died of plagues in their thousands. To draw a boundary between nature and culture was deeply comforting. In the Western world, this was the first time such progress had been made and it has formed the basis of our modern world. Revolutions are ‘good to think with’ (a phrase coined by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in relation to animals, which has often been used by interpreters of cave art), perhaps. Frameworks and models seem to be the way in which the human mind works, as I suggested in my post The story so far?, and are useful in constructing a reality in which we can function. But this mental construction is only a model and does not describe reality.

DSC02537If we interbred with our ancient relatives, as DNA evidence has revealed, and the offspring of those experiences were fertile, then how do we now draw a dividing line between species? If our ancestors had speech of some kind (I believe that they did, all the way back to Homo erectus at least a million years ago), practised body decoration and painted on cave walls, navigated open ocean, used all kinds of materials to make objects, performed some sort of funerary rituals, then how can we divide ourselves off as unique and special? The idea of hanging out with Denisovans around the camp fire, drumming, exchanging gifts, and getting off with one particularly handsome fella, is not now an impossible one. This level of difference makes modern concerns about race seem paltry. It speaks of a shared humanity which is much bigger than we ever suspected. I hope in time that we can learn to remember that the simplistic and definite models we carry around in our heads are very dim images of the reality of life. Don’t get too attached to any of these models – they will be revised as soon as new information comes along! Reality is actually complex beyond our capacity to calculate, interconnected in every way, always sliding and shifting. It’s beautiful that way and it allows us humans to sometimes switch off our questing minds, lie back and just marvel at the magical universe that we form part of.



The story so far?

portal stone1
Avebury Portal Stone, Tara Evans, 2015 (mixed media on canvas)

I’m inspired to write today by some new work by my fave thinker of the moment, David Graeber and his colleague David Wengrow (‘How to Change the Course of Human History’, Eurozine). Do read the article if you have time and inclination, you can find it here. It’s a fascinating re-examination of human ‘history’ (scare quotes since most of our past is ‘prehistory’, and the authors call for more archaeological evidence and less theory to be brought into the narrative of the human past), much richer and more complex than the simplified narrative of the past that I was taught at Oxford. Of course, the constant expansion of our knowledge about the past is a factor – when I was studying in the 2000s, no-one had yet discovered that we interbred with Neanderthals or Denisovans, for example. Scientific advances and the expansion of archaeological investigations into previously unexplored regions mean that our story of the past is always changing. That’s one of the reasons it’s an exciting topic, but also a cautionary lesson in how to present knowledge in any subject. Every single documentary about anything should be constantly repeating ‘as far as we know right now’ after every assertion, until we are driven crazy by it.

It’s much easier to break down the information we gain from looking at the universe into discrete chunks, and this may in fact be the way our minds work. It may be useless and even fatal in survival situations to see a big, rich, complex picture. Imposing simpler structures and discontinuous thinking onto the astoundingly complex ‘real world’ is perhaps the only way to begin to exercise some control over it. In the story of our past, this translates into the ‘evolution of culture’.

That story goes: from the time before our species, Homo sapiens, evolved (about 200,000 years ago), people lived in small mobile bands composed of extended family groups, and hunted and gathered. Although our species and previous species (Homo erectus and Neanderthals) had spread over much of the face of the Earth, often crossing open ocean to do so, it is often proposed that these people did not have fully evolved minds or language (but see here). This has generally been assumed to be the case because of an ‘explosion of culture’ observable in the archaeological record of Europe in particular, around 40,000 years ago. Cave paintings, statuettes, a huge variety of new and specialised tools appear, including needles, which allow people to make tailored clothing and expand into colder regions.

Life goes on for another 30,000 years or so until the climate settles down and the pattern of seasons that we are familiar with today makes the invention of farming possible. Farming makes people stop moving around, in order to guard their farms, crops and the surpluses of food which are the whole point of farming. Property and the assertion of ownership become important, and for the first time inherited status and wealth appear. This paves the way from 6000 years or so ago for the invention of ‘states’ – societies which build cities and have extreme variations of wealth and status and clear division of labour. The surpluses generated by states allow them to sponsor full-time craftspeople, architects, priests and administrators. The latter invent writing systems in order to keep track of trade and payments, and then realise that writing can also be used for other purposes – art, religion, history.

Then history starts and according to received Western wisdom, we get various  civilisations in Central and Western Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean for a while until – phew! the Greeks come along and everything really gets going. From there, aside from a little dent in progress for a thousand years or so after the Romans, we have a clear line of development to the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire. We know that there was something going on in China, something going on in the Americas – but these people were not the ‘winners’ in global history at this time and so they don’t deserve much space in the narrative.

It’s a nice simple story and it’s reassuring – we are making progress! Yay, go us! It conveniently bypasses all the complexity and inter-connectedness that make up real human life and real human ‘history’. It completely ignores the very real consequences of this ‘progress’ to people crushed and eradicated by it, to the environment and to the physical and mental health of even the ‘winners’ of history – those of us who live inside the modern states which lie at the end of the story. Graeber and Wengrow seek to put the complexity back in. Theirs is a political argument as much as an archaeological/anthropological one and in dissolving the categories in the ‘evolutionary’ version of our past they bring up some interesting examples such as some very rich burials from the Ice Age (Sunghir, for example) which speak of heirarchies of some kind long before farming proper, as well as the remarkable site of Göbekli Tepe, now becoming very well known.

Farming itself is not a sudden invention, and the authors assert that it often takes up to 3000 years to take firm hold in the regions into which it disseminates. Techniques of farming and settled life were not a new ‘invention’ – people did and still do come together and settle down for a season to exploit salmon runs, herd migrations or vegetable bounties such as acorns or grasses before separating again into more mobile bands for the rest of the year. As they travel, many mobile peoples modify their landscapes, opening up space for their preferred food plants to grow, spreading seeds along their paths, making clearings to attract game animals.

And those people who preferred not to become farmers, herders, city dwellers? They are not ‘primitive’ peoples, they have had just as much cultural evolution as the most ‘sophisticated’ tech-savvy, supermarket-dependent wage-slave in any city in the world. At the end of this programme on Radio 4 recently, it’s suggested that these peoples are the ones with the more robust ways of life, perhaps the peoples with the right idea about the good life – anthropologist Marshall Sahlins once called hunter-gatherers ‘the original affluent society’. But calling such people and their life ways ‘primitive’ allows us to exploit and destroy them and not feel too bad about it. Just like during that wonderful ‘civilising’ project, the British Empire, we are really doing them all a favour.

If we lose the richness and complexity of human life, we risk the dangers of any form of ‘monoculture’. We may all be swept away by the same disease, by the same financial crash, by the same war. We become weaker and paler, more domesticated and docile. We are no longer challenged by difference and we can self-justify whatever we want because no other evidence exists any longer. That, of course, is not the main reason why we should respect other people’s cultures and choices. No, we should do that because it the real hallmark of civility and progress away from barbarity.

Tying the knot


I had started writing this before the Daily Mail/Tom Daley controversy arose. I hope it contributes a little in opening eyes to the diversity of domestic arrangements that humans can have, and the common-sense realisation that must flow from that: that it is not possible that all the children of these differing forms of family are psychologically disturbed, and that it may be love and care which really makes the difference in producing healthy relationships and healthy children. Congratulations Tom and Dustin!

It should be obvious to all but the most ill-informed that the claim that same-sex marriage ‘destroys the sanctity of marriage’ is nonsense. Of course, the concept may run counter to the Christian (or several other major religions’) tradition of marriage, but Christians didn’t invent the institution, so, as long as you are not having Christian ceremony, you cannot be contravening any ‘sanctity’. We have written records of marriage going back to ancient Sumer over 5,000 years ago, predating Judeo-Christian traditions by millennia.

Marriage has been found in almost every society that we have records for. It’s a way of creating kin-type bonds between groups, often forms the ‘base unit’ household of which society is composed, and provides a route (legitimised offspring) to pass all kinds of inheritance along – names, property, rights, social standing and religious practices, for example. But although we can look at functionalist/structuralist ‘reasons’ for marriage and all the nice neat schematics of who can get married to who which have been derived from ethnographies*, we must remember that people get attracted each other, and that this is a powerful force, governing the real behaviour of people, which is often not a precise fit for these traditions as told to anthropologists. Quite apart from attraction, it may be that I live in a village where we are only supposed to marry our maternal uncles’ children. What if he has no children, or none of the corresponding gender? So let’s remember not to confuse models with reality.

Anyway, we can list various forms of marriage here that I know from ethnographies:

Heterosexual monogamous marriage – man and woman, pledging to live together and have sexual contact only with each other. Of course, there are huge exceptions to this – in many cultures it’s considered reasonable, even ‘natural’ for married men to have sexual contact outside of marriage. It’s rarer for women to enjoy this privilege, as ensuring the paternity of legitimised offspring is a very important part of this kind of marriage. Residency varies widely, from our ‘nuclear family’ model, to multi-generational households, and traditions in which the spouse goes to live with either the bride’s family or the groom’s.

Polygamy is the marriage of one person to more than one spouse. Polygyny, where a man marries more than one woman, is quite well known. One man usually marries several women sequentially, as circumstances and finances allow him to be able to support more wives and children. It’s common in cultures with a history of warfare, or where population levels need to be built up or maintained. Polyandry, the marriage of one woman to several men, is usually quite different. A woman may marry several men at once – for example, a widower and his sons, or a family of brothers. The head of the family is usually the widower or the oldest brother, and he is considered the ‘father’ of any offspring. This form of marriage is a way of keeping property together, for example, to avoid dividing farmland or grazing lands up amongst the siblings.

The Nuer of South Sudan could practice same-sex marriage – a woman could become a ‘husband’ if she had enough resources to pay ‘bridewealth’ (the compensation paid to the family of the bride for the loss of her work and fertility to her natal household), in which case she had paternal rights over her wife’s children, often fathered by her close kinsmen. Among the Lovedu of southern Africa, the Rain Queen took several wives. She could not marry a man, in fact. If a Lovedu woman’s brother had to borrow bridewealth from her in order to make a marriage, she could choose one of her brother’s daughters as a daughter-in-law; if the woman had no sons, she could marry the girl herself.

We can also have a spiritual marriage – for example, the ‘marriage’ of Catholic nuns to Christ; marriage to the dead – which is a legally established practice in China, Japan, Sudan, France, and even the United States, among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. This kind of marriage can legitimise the posthumous offspring of the dead or to placate the spirits of people who died before marriage.

Nayar people in Kerala, India could have a ‘symbolic’ marriage of a whole family group to a whole family group (or lineage). Brothers and sisters then continued to live in their family homestead and have sexual relationships with visiting lovers, the offspring of which were considered the children of the eldest brother. As with the marriage-less societies of China, biological paternity may be known to everyone, but it’s social paternity which counts for the inheritance of rights, names and property.

So we can see from these brief examples that marriage can and does take many forms. Societies and territories change, and along with that, so do modes of subsistence and residency. I will explore the coincidence of forms of kinship, inheritance and marriage with modes of subsistence in a later note. If we wipe out the lived experience of sexual attraction and relationships and focus only on the prescribed forms of marriage in any given society, we can see the functional, structuring role that marriage plays in almost every culture. As such it has to be a flexible institution which can be shaped to fit current actual living arrangements. There can be no contention that any particular method of cohabitation or raising families is ‘natural’, as there are so many versions of marriage, home and family in our species.

This is interesting to look at:

*the scientific description of peoples and cultures with their customs, habits, and mutual differences. An ethnography is a written composite of all the things an anthropologist in the field has been told by members of the observed group, and all the things they have observed themselves whilst spending time (often living with) the group.

Knowing thyself and others

Why anthropology should be incorporated
into the curriculum from primary school


Anthropology is a wide-ranging subject. If we include archaeology, which some do, in its remit, it can basically cover all human culture and society that’s ever been. It seems to me and to many anthropologists that all this information that’s been gathered in ever-increasing fine detail might be of use to everybody, ‘coz it’s very interesting stuff.

I’m not going to plunge into case histories and ethnographic examples in this post – I will do more detailed writing on this topic in the future – suffice it to say that I found that studying anthropology blew my preconceptions about our species utterly to fragments. And I think that whatever culture you were raised within, you will find the same.

The beauty of anthropology is the way that it hooks you in with the exotic, the gruesome, the ingenious and the just plain fascinating. Who can resist that cocktail? As you are marvelling at just how extremely weird people can be, it insists you think about what needs, environments and challenges all these behaviours and objects have been invented to cope with. Reflecting on these human universals, you are suddenly confronted with the weirdness of your own culture and its ways of solving these puzzles – how to eat? how to procreate? how to deal with social tensions? how to create meaning in our lives? Are any of the ways that we do those things here in modern Britain any less weird than the ways of people living in a longhouse in 1950s Borneo, when viewed as if one were an extra-terrestrial visitor?

So not only does it wear down the idea of ‘normal’; the study of almost any topic in anthropology will enable you to think critically about your own society, enabling you to make choices about what beliefs and practices you choose for you own life, and to confront ‘the other’ (which has often been used as the term for very different people, places and behaviours, but could just as easily refer to any human who does not inhabit your own skull), with curiosity and enthusiasm, rather than fear and trepidation.

Quite apart from this, there are amazing stories of human resourcefulness and creativity, how to live sustainably, how to live autonomously, how to turn disaster into culture. The stories told by our brothers and sisters (and gender non-binary siblings!) from all over the world and from throughout our species history, can help our efforts to understand each other, to break down barriers without losing diversity, to share information on how we cope with globalised capitalism and the escalation of violent conflict for profit, how we can best bring food, shelter, protection, and human rights to everyone.

So I think that modules in anthropology should be taught from the beginning of schooling. Critical thinking in itself is the single most valuable thing to teach any child. Instead of teaching our children to ask questions, we are teaching them ‘the answers’. Reveal just how narrow those answers are, expand the field of what those questions can be, by acknowledging that no element of our lives is to be simply accepted as the right or only way of doing things. Yes, it’s destabilising, probably more time-consuming than simply teaching answers, and we don’t know how children taught in that way would respond. I like to think it would give a lot of hope to the ones who feel crushed into categories that feel wrong for them, inspiration to artists, musicians, film-makers and dancers, fire up the imaginations of inventors and entrepreneurs, and help us to make our communities stronger and more satisfying places to live.

It’s not easy to find out about anthropology, which is the main criticism that anyone could have about any academic discipline. I hope to write a few basic essays on this blog in the future to help give a way in to the subject. Meanwhile, a few things to click on:

Doing identity


Inspired by this Aeon article on performing gender and my continuing thoughts about this Guilty Feminist podcast on taking up space today.

I’ve long been interested in how we perform identity and all the elements that go into making our bodies and physical selves a manifestation of our culture and beliefs. For the most part this is unconscious – gender, ethnicity, class, etc., are physically, mentally and emotionally trained into us from the first breath, or even before. What has been trained into our bodies can then be presented as ‘natural’ – after all, don’t men behave in certain ways, women in others? Aren’t French people different to English people? Sociology and philosophy can only study beings who have already gained these unconscious modes of physical being – there is no ‘control group’ of humans brought up free of culture. Therefore there is no ‘nature’ rationale for any society’s ‘norms’. However, I have often been struck by how children seem to display more similarities that adults do, because they have not been properly socialised yet (a friend once accused me of this – being inadequately socialised – a very proud moment for me).

So perhaps the best way to test if ‘normal’ is also ‘natural’ is to try to act against what we’ve learnt – individually, physically. I’ve been doing this most of my life and it’s interesting. Simple things serve as great experiments. Although I never ‘manspread’ when space is tight, if the bus or train is quite empty and my clothes allow, I will sit with legs apart, arms resting along the seatbacks, just taking up space in the way I see men do all the time. It garners a lot of surprised looks, but it makes me feel that I belong in the space and the space belongs to me. Just try it, and see how it feels. I like to always come forward and shake hands confidently with people when I first meet them. Again, this was something I copied from men, just to see how it felt. Not everyone likes it, but it’s me declaring firmly the way in which my body interacts socially. I don’t wait for someone else to start that physical dialogue, and it certainly seems to prevent more sexist body interactions, where men shake hands, but women get clasped by the arm or hand, or are given a kiss in greeting by a stranger.

I wear whatever I feel like, and reject all uniforms. And I don’t mean clothes you have to wear for your job, those are fair enough. I mean the clothes you must wear to belong to a group – man, woman, surfer, road protester, graphic designer, etc. People who are shouting their individuality from the rooftops but all look the same. Try swimming upstream here as well – wear a suit to your environmental group meeting, try full make-up and a blowdry on a hike! I’ve found that an office environment can be more accepting of diversity in dress than a Traveller’s camp.

And I have always insisted that I will walk where I like, when I like. I will not take up the cultural burden of fear that society tries to drum into the female body. When I was younger and lived in the city, this meant cultivating ‘fuck-off’ vibes. I drew on my anger about the fear culture and projected that outwards, striding along. I’m not physically brave, but walking through London at 3am, I felt that I was willing to risk anything in order to feel free, as free as a man might. Now I have lived in the country for many years and I love to wander alone through the wilderness. Nothing makes me feel more liberated and powerful than challenging those fears that my female body might be violated if I am alone, or where I ‘shouldn’t’ be. I have experienced just as much – or more – violation indoors, in domestic settings, where I should have been safe.

So have a little go at it, if you like. Wear heels if you normally don’t; if you’re male, cross your legs and keep your hands in your lap on the bus; try to imitate the rolling, bandy-legged gait of a ‘lad’; just see how it feels to be in another kind of body. Remember that all of these performances are open to you, and that you can flow between them as mood and situation demands. This is freedom, this is the ‘natural’ body.