What would Margaret Mead say?

What Would Margaret Mead say about…

(Note: during the last 4 years of Margaret Mead’s life, I was her student, dissertation advisee and mentee. We worked on a wide variety of topics and I absorbed some of her unique “way of seeing.” Now, when I am trying to solve a problem, I channel her voice and ask for her insight.  Recently she has been talking about a variety of current topics.)  

Randall: I’ve asked Dr. Mead to offer remarks on some of the issues of the day. As we approach the centennial of your landmark books, “Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies” and “Male and Female” what are your thoughts on Same Sex Marriage.

Mead: “Well it’s about time! We should allow people to love whomever they want to love.  And ritualize their love with a proper Rite-of-Passage.  Studies of human culture show us that the Arc of Human Possibilities is expansive and rich with possibilities. We are just expanding our slice of that Arc.

Of course we couldn’t make any progress on this until we got the wording right.  Same Sex Marriage brings to mind two men in bed and that was disturbing to a lot of people.   As soon as we started to talk about Marriage Equality the whole thing changed.  The right words matter.  Marriage Equality is all about fairness and equality. Rhetoric matters.

Randall: What about the people who say that in the Bible, marriage is between one man and one woman.

Mead: Fiddlesticks! Those are the same people who told us the sun goes around the earth.  That took 1,500 years to get right.  And that all disease is caused by bad spirits.  It took 1,800 years before we got that right. They thought heaven was just above the clouds, near the stars. It took until we flew in airplanes before we got that right.
What we know about human beings is that there is a great deal of diversity.  Human culture has a tremendous number of variations in the role and behavior of humans and many of these do not accord with our simple idea that we are just one of two possible bodies. That is just flat wrong.  Nature has lots of ways of making us.   We see this in the animal kingdom as well.   It is a wonder that we attribute so much wisdom to people who knew so little about science.

Randall: Are you disputing the veracity of the Bible.

Mead: Well, it’s a book. And it was written by men with a male centered view of the universe seen through the eyes of people living in a desert ecosystem. It works for their culture in its time and place. They had their wisdom that came down through the ages they codified according to the best wisdom of their age. But it is madness to insist that any book has all the truth that ever existed.  Any group of people who try to inflict their holy book on everyone else are just ethnocentric.  God didn’t lie to the Chinese or the Muslims.  We’d all be a lot smarter if we stopped trying to make everyone into ourselves.

Listen, the whole history of science is about getting our ego out of the middle of everything. We are not the center of the universe. Not even the center of our galaxy. And we certainly are not the center of human culture. We may not even be the center of what we call time. We have to stop making ourselves the center of everything we do.

Randall: How about Transgender Toilets.

Mead: There is so much variation in who we are. We are not little Adams and Eves. This is not a simple division of the world into two groups, no matter how convenient that seems to be.  People come on a tremendous spectrum of variation.  Not just in terms of personality and temperament, but biologically as well.  We have people who are extreme examples of maleness, like Bruce Jenner who won the Olympic decathlon, who in his deepest personality identify as a woman like Caitlyn Jenner with her line of cosmetics.

We have tried to force everyone into these two little pigeon holes and a lot of people don’t fit.  This is ritualized in the form of two bathrooms, two locker rooms and everyone should fit in one or the other.  It does not have to be this way. Many city restaurants have only one restroom and everyone uses the same one.  Many airports have a variety of bathrooms, Men, Women and “Family.” We made accommodations for people in wheelchairs and people who need grab rails. It doesn’t seem so difficult for us to accommodate people who are not aligned with their identity at birth. We Americans turn everything into “twos” and pit one against the other as if everything was football game…. A male analogy if ever there was one. And while we are fixing bathrooms, women need more stalls, men not as many. We have to get architects to stop making everything symmetrical. We are not symmetrical.

Randall: So are there kinds of identity yet to be revealed?

Mead: Well, the Marriage Equality topic opened a lot of doors and a lot of people came out of the closet.  Once that door was open, many more people realized they did not have to hide who they are and pretend to be someone they are not.  So a lot of old closets are being removed and we can expect more of the variations to be made public.  Human culture is rich with options.  In Sex and Temperament, I wrote about how three different cultures expressed their concept of the genders and their roles.  It was evident that our western models are not universal and this set into motion a realization that we are not stuck with these simplistic notions of how to be human.

We Americans lag behind the world in sexual freedom. We are prudes, carrying the Puritans sexual baggage around like it is grandmother’s heirloom. We can’t even have women breastfeed in the mall without the security people freaking out. We are all humans, we all have bodies and all of us got here in exactly the same way.  Same sex act made us all.  Yet we can’t talk about it or Americans turn the conversation lurid and prurient. We talk as if our bodies are sacred temples, almost angels, when we really are just smart hairless animals. And we are afraid of anything that exposes our animal nature. We need to embrace the changes that other societies have accepted centuries before.

Randall: Derek Freeman tried to discredit you about your book Coming of Age in Samoa. How do you respond?

Mead: The little coward! If he had any guts, he’d have challenged me when I was alive to respond. No, he waited until I was dead and then threw all of this nonsense around. Interviewing women 60 years later about what they remembered. They had all converted to Christianity and learned to feel guilty about their adolescence… What makes him think that an old lady is going to tell an old foreign man the truth about her sex life? Poppycock! Besides, what was he doing at age 26 that was worth anything? He was a vain man who tried to make himself famous by riding on my life story.  He picked on just one book. I did a lifetime of research; wrote dozens of books, studied many cultures that provided ideas that helped change our world and make it more tolerant.  Besides, his work was totally discredited. Read “The Trashing of Margaret Mead” by Paul Shankman who provided the full story of Freeman’s quest for fame at my expense.

Randall: Can I change the subject.

Randall: Trump.

Mead: A nightmare! The least-well-prepared man ever as President. He is nothing but a bloviating egomaniac who thinks he already knows everything.  Very dangerous. We need people who are smart enough to know what they don’t know and bring in the very best expert advisers. Trump is nothing but ego and money. Remember, women make men, men don’t make anything, that’s why men build bridges and skyscrapers. That Trump has been trying to prove how big he is…. Makes you wonder how small he really is. He has a reaction-formation to an inferiority complex. Most of his behavior is a direct result of sleep deprivation. He shows all the symptoms.

Randall: Armed guards in front of schools?

Mead: Insanity.  We have smart phones and stupid guns.  You get a license to drive a car but no license to buy a lethal weapon. We have more gun deaths than any other culture in the world. 18,000 dead this year from gun violence. 30 new gun deaths every day; highest suicide rate with guns in the world. 283 million guns in America. This is madness.  Our single minded focus on this cowboy culture where the lone individual is free to do whatever he wants has overwhelmed everything else. Open carry laws, guns in fast food stores, bringing guns to church… this will sink us. You can expect to see an event where some crazed person opens fire and some vigilante shoots the first and another shoots the second. No one will know who is whom and a lot of people will get shot.

The second amendment says “a well-regulated militia, being necessary…” We need a new law that requires every gun owner to join a well-regulated militia and then regulate the militia. We need a tax on ammunition like gasoline tax. There is nothing in the second amendment that says everyone has the right to own a bazooka. This is America’s fear of King George’s army gone amuck.

Randall: What about Social Media?

Mead: We have compressed human relationships into a finger swipe.  You can unfriend someone without seeing their face.  We find hook-up partners by swiping left and right.  This has made all of our relationships shallower but also making real face-to-face relationships much richer.  We are training our children not to recognize the emotions on people’s faces. They interact with people’s avatars; cartoon images that show no emotion.  We are training our children not to understand empathy or how to respond to other’s pain. There is no emotional intelligence in smart phones. As if a few emoticons can replace the complexity of the human face.  We fool ourselves to believe this gadget in our pocket can do everything. I see students who can’t take notes. They shoot pictures of PowerPoint slides as if the phone is their memory.  They remember nothing. We need to put our phones down and talk to each other.

Randall: Facebook… Twitter… YouTube…

Mead: Social media reduces everything to social media. Twitter makes everything into tweets.  Everyone writes like Variety Magazine headlines. No depth. Substituting sound bites for thought. The social media fool us into thinking we are having real conversations when we are really just performing for each other.  Old people post to Facebook to see how many thumbs-up they get as if “like” had resounding meaning. Getting a response only satisfies for a few seconds and we do it again, to get our follower-friends to click again.  Social media makes us into performers hoping for fifteen nanoseconds of fame. As if everyone’s lunch is worthy of comment.

Young people abandoned Facebook ages ago. Now that they are selling YOU to the highest bidder, they are finished.  It will be hollow. Instead young people Snapchat messages that leave no trail. No history. Future historians will regard this era as a time when nothing was left behind. When my parents courted, they sent each other letters-in-envelopes.  I can still open those letters and read their very private words. Their private world essentially is public.  But nothing in Snapchat lingers.  There is no history.  Like a public presentation that becomes infinitely private.

And the front facing phone has made us all think that what we are doing matters and must be shared.  More and more images with less and less meaning. For generations the photographer was invisible. Out of the picture. Now, the photographer is the subject and everything else is out of the picture.  “Selfies” turn us all into little performing egos; dancing for the camera hoping for a few “likes.”

On the other hand, social media has opened the opportunity for rich groups of supportive friends bonding together across national lines and time zones. We are more connected than ever before and more able to link up with like-minded people.  What we lost by moving our nuclear families to job sites and severing links with home and extended family now comes back to us in social media. We are creating communities of like-minded companions who may be anywhere, not just in a neighborhood.

Smart phones have brought everyone into one information community. The Kalahari Bushmen have smart phones and are linked to the world economy. Only a generation ago they were foraging for food. We have the best chance in history of thinking as a global family…. the best chance of communicating across all the old lines. Smart phones do not see national boundaries. Data bits don’t see bayonets. The whole idea of nation states is crumbling… Wars aren’t even national fights anymore, but cells of terrorists who could live almost anywhere. And our armies are now stealthy special operations commandos…

Randall: Privacy?

So much of what was private is now public and what was public is private. If you sit on a subway reading a book, everyone knows what you’re reading. Someone might say “I see you are reading that new novel. I liked it too.” There might be a conversation.  But if you are reading on your Kindle or iPad, no one knows what you are reading.  The opportunity of a chance encounter is lost. We’ve turned something public into private.

Meanwhile, what I buy at an online store is now public, the data is shared everywhere.  I am bombarded with offers based on my private purchase.  All kinds of people can monitor my activities.  What was private is now public. Every time you act, people are looking over your computer shoulder seeing what you are doing and piling on.  Nothing is private anymore.

Randall: Are we better informed or less?

We have so much access to what we know we like, but miss what we might have stumbled upon. We read what we want to read and miss everything else. The phone screen has such narrow bandwidth. An old fashioned newspaper presents 16 columns of text over two pages – lots of bandwidth – there is room to stumble upon things your eye happens to see. On our smart phone, we see what we want and none of what we never considered.  People listen to their stream of audio from Pandora or Spotify and hear the music they know they like. Old time radio played things you never heard before.  Things you might like. We all get less random input and more of what we already know. So ultimately we are less well informed.

This is true with political punditry. We get a steady diet of what we like and seldom listen to a challenging thought. No wonder we are more polarized.  Everyone is listening to their favorite chorus. No one is listening to the other voices.

We are on the verge of a whole new world culture. Our technology allows us to sit around a social tribal bonfire and discuss the issues of the day.

We have to embrace social media and use it to reach out to other people from around the world. We are like a vast network of virtual pen pals. The opportunity is here to learn about other people and cultures. We need to utilize every outlet available to us. We have the potential to be a unified human species.  Now, if we can hold on to our personal cultures while joining together in a world culture – we may thrive.  We all need to listen to each other more and yell at each other less.

Randall: Thank you Dr. Mead.


Alex Randall

Department of Communication

University of the Virgin Islands

St Thomas VI 00802



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