I recently read this excellent post on the blog Living Anthropologically about what draws people to anthropology and what keeps them there. The author made the following observation: “Anthropology requires a basic respect for people and working with them, not just studying them. Looking for answers means being humble and open to this process.”
This statement captures something I’ve always thought about myself: I’m a “people person.” I even wrote it in the personal statements that got me into grad school. However, I had never really sat back and thought about what it actually meant. I’ve described myself as a misanthrope yet, paradoxically, I recognise that I’m curious about people and that I want to know what makes us “human.” This curiosity is why I chose to study anthropology, and it’s subsequently shaped my own worldview.
But there’s a catch to allowing an interest in other people to inform one’s understanding of oneself. It means always asking questions — uncomfortable, unexpected questions — and not always understanding or accepting the answers. It means closing your mind; eventually these processes, these ways of analysing patterns and behaviours just become second nature. It means offering meaningful critiques. It means conflict, because no one — often least of all, yourself — knows how to deal with the implications of pointing out that the way things are is not the way they should or could be.
Some people call this social consciousness or social awareness. I am not quite sure those are the right terms for it, and I believe they both carry their own connotations that do not fully encompass what I am rather poorly trying to get at. There are different ways to be “conscious” of what goes on around you. Environmentally aware, politically aware, economically aware. Being involved in human rights issues around the globe and taking a stance. To all of those, I say — well, that’s good for you, that’s important, but it’s not addressing the root of the issue. It’s not asking the most important questions — ones that I personally believe anthropologists in particular have a duty to ask, and ones which they have asked — that re-examine systems and production of knowledge.
I’ve always been an opinionated person. I have strong opinions about popular culture, about politics, about any number of serious and not-so-serious topics. I never thought this aspect of my personality was a bad thing. It’s what drove me to political activism, to joining human rights groups in college, to getting an internship on Capitol Hill, to having endless arguments with others. I’m not good in arguments. I lose my cool and I express myself very articulately in the heat of the moment. Mostly, I’ve always felt the enemy is apathy. It’s the complete opposite of what I always believed was who and what I am — someone who “cares”; someone who wants to change myself, others, the world.
Needless to say, I’ve changed a lot, especially in the past few years. I couldn’t in all honestly look at that last sentence and say that yes, that is who and what I am now. I look back at my college activities with fondness but knowing that I was naive, that I didn’t push myself enough or ask the right questions. I remember the frustration I felt while doing publicity for or co-hosting events with the human rights group I was very active in. I was frustrated that no one cared about what I cared about, that everything was so absolutely fucked, that I couldn’t do anything about it. If you had asked me then, I would have said it’s the burden of knowledge, the burden of compassion. Milan Kundera wrote about it thus:
“There is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.”
I am not that same person who once dreamt of educating the public and joining 50 different human rights groups in order to save the world. Part of it is mental exhaustion, part of it is an awareness that these aims work in opposition to what I actually believe about myself, about my role in the world, about how we relate to each other. If human rights led me to anthropology, then anthropology certainly pull the rug out from under my feet regarding human rights (even the term leaves a feeling of dread and skepticism). I’ve learned a new and better kind of “awareness” now.
What it boils down to is that it’s difficult to turn your worldview inside out. I wish I could look at a tasteless joke and laugh. I wish I didn’t take offense jokes that I know aren’t “meant” to be sexist. I wish I didn’t look at every word and want to deconstruct it. On that note, I wish I didn’t know how to deconstruct anything! I wish so many things, because the knowledge is heavy, and what’s even heavier is knowing that I’ve only understood or been exposed to a small part of it.
But once you’re open to it, once you’re there, you can’t turn it off. You can’t go back to absorbing the blows of the system, of not questioning your own place and position of privilege or lack thereof within it. You can’t reconstruct the frameworks you’ve worked so hard to dismantle.