Violence, Where I Come From
On Being Born a Boy in America
"Teduray" or "Tiruray"
Violence, Where I Come From
We Americans live in a different world with different assumptions from that of the Teduray. We give the sort of graciousness they lived out in their lives a modicum of value and much lip service, but it is not central to our view of things and it is defeated by our actual practices at almost every turn. Nowhere is this more evident than in the matter of violence.
I opened my newspaper this morning and was struck by the articles which were featured. Here are just a few of them: In Bosnia, UN hostages are being held as shields against bombing . . . In Washington, D.C., guests in the Hyatt Regency Hotel are terrified because New York policemen went on a drunken rampage while at a conference there . . . In a village in Washington state, Native Americans have grave concerns about the influence on their adolescent boys of so many violent videos . . . In Japan, 50 years after the end of World War II, political parties cannot agree on whether or how they should express regret for their behavior-or even whether they had done anything wrong . . . Near the border between India and Myanmar, where Indian and Burmese army units are cooperating to trap some Indian rebels, 35 insurgents have been killed. The rebel leader says that these losses were not "too many." . . . In West Virginia, a man was convicted for locking his wife in the trunk of his compact car for 6 days, after beating her senseless in the bedroom of their home some six and a half months ago. She remains in a coma . . . In Norway, the 1000th anniversary celebration of the arrival of Christianity is marred by the burning of several historic churches by Satanists. A spokesman for the Norwegian Church says that "there must be something wrong in the community as a whole, when young people resort to this kind of expression."
And so, as Walter Cronkite used to say each evening, right after reporting Vietnam War body counts: "That's the way it is." That was the news on a fairly typical day in the world of the late 20th century.
In fact it was only part of how it is. That grim recital of acts of political and individual violence, of people caught up in terrible social conflict with each other and of large numbers of human beings in desperate poverty in a country of unparalleled wealth filled only part of the first pages of the newspaper.
It has been said that we are not only living in a disheartening century, but in "the worst so far." Since 1914, our world has experienced what have been-by any standards-the most destructive and violent conflicts in human history. We live in a world of furiously clashing powers, profound social strife, and endemic violence-some random but most of it institutionalized. A world in which it really does make sense for the man in Norway to have said, "there must be something wrong in the community as a whole, when ... people resort to this kind of expression." We have grown so accustomed to the horrors which fill our media that we often seem hardly to notice them. In fact, what is really new about such news? The world-or at least most of it-has been doing this sort of thing, without ceasing, for thousands of years.
Someone needs to ask a simple question: Is this any way to live? And, of course, many people do ask that question today. What seems sad to me is the immense number of us who answer, "But there is no other way!"
* * *
I have thought about this matter for the 30 years since I left Figel. Strong feelings come up for me around this issue. In my lifetime I have seen a terrible onslaught of violence: wars, one after another; riots and police brutality; political assassinations, terrorist attacks and ethnic massacres; daily news reports of murders and rapes, of women being battered and children abused. We could all write our own list.
Many scholars as well as ordinary folks say that violence is virtually universal on earth because-like competition-evolution and "the survival of the fittest" have hard-wired violence into human nature. Everybody gets angry, these people tell us, and we are all destined by our genes to act out our anger in violent ways. But, the forest Teduray clearly perceived that people did not have to do any such thing, and they were convinced that cooperation furthered the chances of survival far more than violent competition. Their view seems reasonable and persuasive to me. Why, then, were they almost alone in their disapproval of violence, while just about every other society in the world justifies violence and considers it inevitable?
I remember a conversation I had with a neighbor when I was working in Indonesia. I was chatting with a government official in the devoutly Muslim province of Aceh. The year was 1974, and his memory was fresh from when, as a member of a local Islamic youth organization during the great Indonesian massacres of 1965, he had joined in beheading over 10,000 of his fellow Acehnese on grounds that they were communists. 10,000 is a lot of heads! Up until then, the Communist Party had been legal in Indonesia, but terribly unpopular in Islamic Aceh. My neighbor said that he and his friends executed a large number of ideologically uncommitted mothers, simply because they had taken their infants to a well-baby clinic operated by a communist nurse. And he told me that they had cut the heads off hundreds of non-communist farmers, who had unwittingly joined a farmers' group led by the Communist Party. And they had decapitated thousands of ethnic Chinese Indonesians, whose religious attitudes were judged to be Communist, on grounds that they were not Muslim or even Christian. When there was a pause in this gory recital by a generally kind and pleasant man, I asked him the question which all this talk of cold-blooded killing had brought up in me: "How in the world did you give yourself permission to do that?"
He replied, very simply and with no regret, that all those people had about them the bau komunis, "a stench of communism," and, equally simply, that "Acehnese people do not like communists.
Most of the violence that we inflict on one another is like that; it is legitimated by our cultural understandings. We are encouraged to torture, kill, and bash fellow humans precisely by notions we have been taught about the world and how to live in it. We are carefully instructed in what is right and what is wrong-in what social ends are desirable and what means for reaching them are appropriate-by all the "stories" we tell ourselves: our proverbs, our patriotic and religious stories, our morally-laden anecdotes and our cherished remembrances. These all reflect and support what we approve as means and wish for as ends. Our value-soaked tales are often repeated by our families, friends, authorities and leaders and they transmit our society's mainstream ideas of reality from generation to generation.
Scholars call these narrative frameworks "myths." Most people who speak everyday English think of a myth as a story which is not true. But many of the myths and mythic structures of the world are far more alive than that. They have tremendous power over those who embrace them, precisely because they are believed to be true, not always "true" in the same way history is true, to be sure, but "true" in the way that they capture and express what are held to be fundamental assumptions about reality. The Teduray have lots of such myths and so do we. Among our American "verities" are all the myths we tell ourselves about scarcity in the world, about beauty in each other and about heroism. The whole notion of "the American Dream" is just such a myth.
American mainstream culture is not alone in mythologizing violence, but we do it with as much vigor as almost all the others. One of our great, overarching myth plots is what might be called the Myth of Good Violence. Its story-line can be stated very simply: Life is made up of "good guys" and "bad guys." The bad guys (which, of course, include some bad women) are fouling things up for the good guys by destroying order and stability. So they must be defeated, and this must necessarily be done through violence.
This scenario underlies most of the creation myths of the world's formal religious traditions. Typically, in these myths, the creation of the world involved acts of violence. Because violence is intrinsic to the very nature and life of the gods, it is one of the fundamental features of reality. Moreover, the creation myths portray the good guys as always having been up against bad guys who threaten chaos, so this conflict is simply how the world is; it is a fundamental structure of reality. The good guys must defeat chaos through violence; there is no other way.
Such myths describe a world where there is a crucial distinction between "good violence" by the good guys and "bad violence" by the villains. Unacceptable and out of control, "bad violence" is a terrible thing and everybody hates it. But legitimate "good violence" is what protects us; it is essential to the preservation of all that many of us hold dear. We characteristically despise "terrorists" who perpetrate bad violence but glorify generals who have excelled in waging our war. That is good violence and we regard as men of strength and wisdom.
This myth is not the only view of reality which is on the American scene; it is, for instance, countered with a very different myth, "the kingdom of God," which is understood by many Christians, if not by their institutional Churches, as egalitarian and non-violent. But these are the views of only a few; the myth of good violence is the most fundamental ethos of the great majority of people in the modern world. Accorded virtually sacred status by most nations, including the United States, the myth justifies our huge "defense" budget, our frequent military retaliation and our many instances of diplomatic revenge. The myth of good violence supports and permeates American popular culture, including our nationalism, patriotism, foreign policy, criminal justice system and just about all of our social mores and activities. It is a fundamental piece of our national "truth"; it informs the policies of both the American political left and political right; and it is embraced by almost all secular and religious groups.
The myth is so basic to us and our ways of thinking-and, for that matter, to just about every other nation of the world-that it appears to be "clearly the way things are." It renders naive and unrealistic all the other mythic narratives that attempt to change it. For example, with my priest's hat on I often speak to church groups about Jesus' teachings that there is no place for violence in the kingdom of God , and, almost without fail, someone who is a pillar of the parish will say, "Well, I know that is what Jesus taught, but in the real world we have to act realistically."
Most often the person who responds is a man. The idea that violence is not only good, but essential to being a "real man;" is-as I said earlier- a theme of our male socialization. We tend to equate "real masculinity" with the capacity to act violently, overcome, control and win. We even attribute violent coercive power, in our most popular formulations of Christianity, to our "Father God." Our government in Washington sends the armed forces to "fix problems" in the world, and the vast majority of us views the action as obviously, unarguably the way a "great power must act." When our criminal justice system executes men who, having grown up in poverty and hopelessness, took up "bad violence," the practice of capital punishment seems to an increasing number of Americans to be the only "realistic" way to deter such unacceptable behavior. In situation after situation, many of us Americans believe we must use "good violence" to get rid of "bad violence."
But just look at some of the results. Most of us in America are frightened by crime, and the statistics overwhelm us. In a recent report, the Children's Defense Fund informed us that, in the United States, a child dies from gunshot wounds every two hours. Between 1979 and 1991, the Fund noted, "almost 50,000 American children were killed by guns. More children died from firearms on the killing fields of America than American soldiers died on the killing fields of Vietnam." Put those statistics together with this one about handguns: in 1996, they killed 33 people in England; 36 in Sweden; 60 in Japan; 13 in Australia; 128 in Canada; and 13,220 in the United States. Guns are killing people everywhere in this country, but especially in the urban ghettos which have become virtually free-fire zones. And yet, though we fret and build guarded and gated suburban stockades to live in and to keep undesirables out, the gun lobby led by the National Rifle Association insists that the constitution gives us all a right to have guns and threatens the careers of politicians who oppose the public sale of semi-automatic, military assault weapons. It is easy to blame the gun lobby, but the ground of such convictions is much larger. The ground is mythic; it is the belief that there is such a thing as good violence and it is needed to save us from chaos.
The distinction between "good" and "bad" violence which is at the very center of our lives may actually be beginning to fold in on itself, and to blur the crucial distinction between the police and the army on the one side and "thugs" and "brutal, craven enemies" on the other. A counselor in a Los Angeles correctional facility recently said, "I'll tell you one thing I'm real sure about and that's the commonalties between gangs and cops...Take away the moral imperative and the legal aspect of who has the right to kill and who does not, and what you have left is the very same organization."
These examples show the myth of good violence in action. It is that myth which answers the question I had when listening to my Indonesian neighbor; the myth of good violence is precisely how we give ourselves permission to kill.
* * *
How fundamental this myth of good violence is in American life shows up in the pervasive ways we teach it to ourselves.
For generations our children have read comic books and watched comic heroes on television that, with a few notable exceptions, show an utterly virtuous good guy-usually, though not always, male-being pursued and nearly defeated by some utterly awful bad guy. In the end, however, the villain is vanquished by violence. The episode may be serious or extremely funny, but it is the same mythic formula. Evil is subdued and order restored through "good violence." The classic Westerns have the same underlying myth; good guys with white hats defeat bad guys with black hats. We typically cheer as TV and film heroes, some of them actually policemen, protect "the values of society" by the use of murder, seduction, theft and illegal entry. Prime-time television shows an average of 16 acts of violence daily and double that on Saturday, and we are told that the average child sees some 36,000 hours of television by the age of 18. A wonderland of even more violent video games is in the arcades of our cities and suburban malls.
The violence that Americans characteristically depend upon to solve their problems is not always physical. Everywhere we turn in our daily lives, we see our family, business, political, and military leaders routinely using psychological and emotional abuse-often quite unrecognized as even being violence-to achieve their goals where physical violence is not considered appropriate. But my point is exactly the same as with physical violence. It just never occurs to most of us to question our own use of "good" violence, even as we deplore all the "bad" violence that is around.
Perhaps, from the perspective of a Teduray-like spirituality, the most tragic general result of our cultural commitment to violence as the way to solve our problems is that kindness and caring are eclipsed as primary tools of social action. As a context or even an ingredient in the seeking of solutions to problems, compassion is regularly overruled by the myth of good violence. Efforts to reconcile and heal, rather than attack and inflict harm, are simply not thought "realistic" by most people, and therefore not of much "real" use.
* * *
Is the mythic scenario of good violence defeating bad violence the only one that makes any sense in "the real world," or do we have a world that is largely given shape by that myth? This is the question that cries out to be asked in the name of sanity and sense. Myths are powerful legitimations of what is taken as "real," and the myth of good violence pervades and shapes the thinking of many, many of us on this earth. But not everybody. Teduray would shake their heads and say, "Violence in any of its forms is no way to live." Nonviolence was their "reality" and was what "made sense" to them.
"I have expanded this material into a full-scale essay, entitled: "Why Are We Humans so Violent?"
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Stuart Schlegel on the Teduray
Sexuality Prejudice in America
Ever since my time in Figel with the forest Teduray, I have tried to learn how anti-gay prejudice demeans us all. I now see that homophobia is not just fear and oppression of gays and lesbians; it is based on a socially induced fear of closeness with other men-fear that we might be gay or be perceived as gay. And look at the cost. With that prejudice in place, the male role works against American men having authentic closeness with either gender: it enforces sexist power relationships with women, and it demands homophobic emotionally distant relationships with men-all lest we act "queer." The box we are put in by homophobia can seem total; the contrast to Teduray openness is breathtaking.
I have come to despise homophobia with the same fervor that I despise racism or anti-Semitism. Such nervous concern about being "a real man" and "a real woman," appears to be about sex, but it is actually about privilege and power; it is about male domination. Today I rejoice that I am no longer afraid to cry or to show vulnerability. And, once again, my time in Figel was transforming. The recognition deep in my consciousness that my accustomed reality was not the only one changed my world. The Teduray helped me realize that categories like "homosexuality" and "heterosexuality" (and all their nasty synonyms) don't reflect obvious, self-evident truths about the world and the people in it. They are value-laden, morally-loaded and power-serving labels which our cultural heritage has loaded with whatever sense of reality they carry.
I now know that those labels even have a history. Social and linguistic historians have shown that the two terms were not even invented as English categories until the 1860s, when they were both coined as names for what were then considered perversions. The word "heterosexual" began its life by referring to a person who enjoys sex with two partners of different gender at the same time. Or, in the vocabulary of some other doctors and moralists, the word described a person who had the desire, considered equally abnormal, to have sex using "unnatural" means of contraception. The present meaning of "heterosexual" did not enter common usage until the early 20th century.
Both different-gender and same-gender erotic attractions and activities have always existed among human beings; they obviously weren't brought into being by two new English words. But using such words to label and categorize affectionate or erotic feelings and actions between persons of the same sex as abnormal, sick and socially dangerous was very much a new thing. Such heavy handed ideas had long been present in certain religious ideologies, but it was only quite recently that this prejudice became part of general "knowledge."
Our American way of talking about sexuality-with its labeled categories such as "gay," "lesbian," "heterosexual," "bisexual"-doesn't describe some "really real reality," and it doesn't demonstrate that the Teduray were merely too "primitive" or too "unscientific" to have grasped the "obvious" facts. Like the Teduray belief that flying squirrel-like colugos were really birds and not animals, our sexual categories are just one way of looking at things. They are a piece of our sexual lore with which, in spite of our earnestly professed allegiance to equality and freedom, the mainstream of our culture organizes human sexuality into a dominance hierarchy. Categories like "heterosexual" and "homosexual" don't just describe the way the world is; they instill rules and roles which legitimate certain feelings and behaviors and which condemn others. And, being taken as aspects of "reality," they carry tremendous positive and negative power. Our notions-and our laws-about sexuality define who and what is right and wrong, good and bad, natural and unnatural, in a system where "real men" are in charge and where they jealously guard their dominion.
* * *
Furthermore, most Americans who are not conversant with contemporary anthropology take as "fact" that our difference in genitalia determines whether we are "true men" or "true women." Sexual body parts are what give us our gender; "everybody knows that!" This folk belief had not yet become problematic to me when I was in Figel, which is , of course, why I was bewildered when I was told that Ukà, the virtuosa zither player, had been born a boy with a penis but was really a woman. I just knew-how could it be that the Teduray didn't?-that if you were born a boy and had a penis you were a man. How could Ukà be really a woman?
And that wasn't all the "self-evident reality" in the area of sexuality which I eventually came to recognize as cultural and not "just the way the world is." I had grown up with the understanding that a penis and a vagina were essentially used for procreation, and that only within heterosexual marriage was it acceptable for them to be used for pleasure. Many young people in America today have been liberated from that particular bit of "knowledge" and may find it hard to believe that I, and everyone else I grew up with, just "knew" that sex was only proper in marriage, and then only really proper when you meant to produce children. Of course, I also "knew" that-what's proper be damned!-I would never be a "real man" if I couldn't talk some girl out of believing those eternal truths. My failure to do so wasn't happenstance. The girls I knew were quite clear about what "good girls" did and did not do.
For all my anthropological training and philosophical learning, I did not expect that the Teduray would conceive of the world as differently in these areas as they did. I heard people talk about sex and procreation and marriage and children again and again, and these issues came up in almost every legal session, and I still almost didn't hear-because I almost didn't listen carefully-how different the attitudes they were expressing were from those I had grown up with. I almost missed that Teduray tied procreation to marriage and tried to regulate extra-marital sex, not because they wanted to put brakes on sex per se, but because they were concerned with social stability and an enduring relationship for child-rearing. As I wrote in Wisdom, I believe I did miss that same-sex erotic play was of virtually no concern; I feel certain that was actually true. And I easily could have missed that love was not as tightly identified with sex as it is with most of us Americans; that because all gall bladders (by which the Teduray mean their feelings) were supposed to be respected and helped to realize their desires, caring and loving concern were the way everyone was supposed to relate to everyone. I could have just passed over what was right before me when sex was being described and lived out as a wonderful thing, and not just in marriage.
And yet all of those pieces of Teduray reality were crucial to my grasping that for Figel Teduray erotic delight was never the central issue; the primary concern about sexual activity was that it be a freely offered and caring connection, with nobody using anybody as an object. The Teduray had no double standard, because women were not property, to be owned, controlled or exchanged by men. What was good for men was good for women; Ideng-Emét mentioned several times to me that both could initiate sexual activity and both followed the same rules. And yet I could so easily have not "gotten" the import of what she was saying.
I nearly didn't see these aspects of Teduray life because I was wearing the opaque glasses of my own American socialization and conditioning. Hierarchy and domination, like violence, are areas in American life-indeed in much of the Western world-where an oppressive social order presents itself as simple reality. I had never before encountered an understanding of the world like the Teduray one, because I had never before encountered a society where people regarded each other as cooperative equals. I had known only ones where sexual and sexuality issues were intimately tied to matters of rank, dominance and the use of violence.
I don't wish to imply that all American men fear, hate and persecute everyone whose sexuality they dismiss as wrong. Many men, including many who have been deeply conditioned by the traditional male role, are wonderful, good people with compassionate hearts who will not be bound by the dehumanizing constraints of that role. Also, America is beginning to change and, certainly in the community I live in, more kindly ways of living with each other are drawing many women and men to understand their roles in more egalitarian ways and to inculcate very different values in their children. Social systems which define women as sexual objects for men to exploit, and which call certain men and women as "homosexual" and then unleash fear and humiliation on them, are being increasingly exposed as the inhumane regimes they are. Many of us are learning to ask, as my Teduray friend asked me: "Why do we do it? Why are we so cruel?"
We do it, of course-many of us-because of our cultural dance of status, domination, violence and, above all, fear. Sometimes being afraid makes good sense. Some fears keep us prudent and alive, and we would be in a risky place if we didn't have them. But in many aspects of our socialized roles, fear keeps us from giving and receiving love, and that deeply harms the quality of our lives.
Ever since my years in Figel, I have thought about what we could all have in our lives if we dismantled the culturally dominant system of male, heterosexual privilege which is so common in America, if we simply retired from service all those tired, divisive homophobic categories and attitudes and all those sexist practices which dehumanize us all. Every one of us could, like Teduray, have the sexual and loving relationships which fit our physical nature, our desires and our code of morality. More than that, we could all-throughout the whole spectrum of human sexuality-be liberated from the horror of being either brutalizing or brutalized. Then, the capacity in every one of us for affection, closeness, erotic pleasure, and committed, joyous and loving relationships, could be freed from those oppressive cultural shackles. Like Teduray, we could honor each other and be honored for who we are, not for who we are supposed to be. The freedom around matters of gender, sex and sexuality, around love and connection, around real community, would be life-giving and wonderful.
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On Being Born a Boy in America
Pondering the issues around equality and gender and sex among the Teduray, and trying to bring them to bear on the memories and experiences of my life in America was not easy and it certainly was not comfortable. So many of my ordinary assumptions were being challenged and shown up as habits made up only of convention. Sensing some very real limitations in my belief system, I felt drawn to fundamental changes in how I operated in the world. And this was scary. Real, honest-to-goodness change is probably harder to face and accept than it is to do.
As I understand my own family lore, my maternal great-grandfather was a German immigrant to America who struck it rich by manufacturing cigars in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The business made him wealthy beyond his wildest old-country dreams and a kind of patriarch of his neighborhood. I understand that he and his considerably extended family occupied a luxurious four-story house in the mostly German north side, in which the top floor was a dormitory for the servants. One of the tales that I heard from my kin who had lived there was that following dinner, when the nightly pie or other dessert was brought to the table, my great-grandfather would always eat the first-and sometimes the second-slice before any was served to anyone else, invariably intoning in German, "First come I, then come I again. Then come you!"
As I said, he prospered marvelously making a kind of cigar called "stogies"-until cigars went out of fashion in World War I and were effectively replaced by cigarettes as people's smoke of choice. His son, my grandfather, used to tell me that the old man would bellow, "No gentleman would smoke those verdammte Zigaretten!" And so he never even considered changing over to make cigarettes-or anything else-but just went on making stogies until the Great Depression came and his company went bankrupt. He was completely wiped out by changes he did not like and refused to accept. My grandfather, the oldest son and heir of that tremendously wealthy entrepreneur, was reduced to working as a night watchman in a Pittsburgh steel mill. He told me many times, "My father just didn't believe he had to change. He could not see that the world was changing around him, that what he was doing just wasn't working."
Change is hard to accept because it is hard to see. No matter who we are or where we live, the world looks to us pretty much the way we first learned it to be. What we take as reality has the appearance of utter solidity and truth. Even though, usually unbeknownst to us, other people see "reality" very differently.
* * *
Whatever our given sense of reality, the way that women and men view each other and how they relate to each other are completely intertwined. That is a truism, of course, but one that ceased being abstract and took on dramatic meaning for me in Figel. There I was learning day by day that how "everyone" in a society views the world-that is, everyone a person knows-is not just the simple truth. Everyone in a society may know what is "real" to that society, but such "reality" is clearly not the same everywhere on the planet; I was discovering that reality in Figel was significantly different from what I had grown up "knowing" from "everyone" in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
I meditated about this many an evening at the homemade desk in my little house in Figel-impressions and memories of the day's conversations and observations staring up at me from my notebooks and 3x5 cards-and, every time, my mind seemed to drift away from the personalities and events before me to fasten on stark contrasts with my own upbringing in a society where gender and sex were drenched with assumptions about male dominance. The system I learned then and the one I was studying and analyzing in Figel stood in such sharp contrast that sometimes my head would spin just thinking about them.
Today, women are telling their own side of what it is like to grow up in a male-run world; I can only speak of my own experience. But I believe it was quite typical of what most American boys encountered in heartland American cities in the 1930s and '40s. Memories of scenes from my earlier life were so striking to me in the forest, because I got no whiff there whatsoever of any Teduray person, young or old, even considering-let alone obsessing about-being a "real man" (or a "real woman"). And yet, that had been my constant preoccupation as a boy, being socialized in an essentially WASP neighborhood of Pittsburgh.
* * *
To begin with, I knew that I was introduced at birth to American preoccupation with gender. I don't recall the incident, but I have absolutely no doubt-after all, I have had two sons myself!-that the first question on everyone's mind, the second I was born, was whether I was a boy or a girl, as though that were a matter of enormous significance. As a toddler, I was carefully taught-in countless direct and indirect ways-that boys and girls cannot have the same interests or toys, because we have very different personalities and characteristics, and we have utterly different destinies in life. And I was taught in equally profuse ways that being male was far better than being female. It was, in fact, the best of all possible roles. Being male was the top of the heap, definitely the right place to be. Being female didn't even compare, because they were not at the top of that heap. Watching Teduray interact, that message began to seem to me like a patent lie, one of many that were not unmasked for me until I encountered the Teduray rainforest world. Realizing that there was another way sent shivers up my spine; and still does.
I remember thinking, perhaps for the first time, about how my family and my playmates conditioned me, as early as I could remember, that I must never be a "sissy"-which meant, of course, "acting like a girl"-by showing pain, fear, or vulnerability. However much I hurt, inside or out, I was taught from the earliest time I can recall that I must never be a "crybaby." Girls cry, I was told; boys do not. Instead, what I had to do-if I didn't want to be ridiculed, put down, and possibly even hurt by other boys-was "act like a real boy." That didn't just mean playing with trucks and guns; it meant putting down girls and, at least inwardly, isolating myself from them. And, it also meant putting down and feeling superior to any other boys who weren't "male enough"-that is, who cried or didn't themselves denigrate girls. Having watched young Figel children being raised to be Teduray, I could see that, years before, I had been systematically initiated into a role that was all set up to give me a visceral sense of superiority to women (and, in later life, to gays). I began to see, in short, that many of the seeds of American ranking, coercive power relations and competition were already being cultivated in me as a small boy.
My childhood seemed, from the vantage of Figel, to be a terribly cramped and constricting place to be, even for a young boy, and I reflected on how the penalties for wandering even slightly outside of it felt more frightening than I could face. I actually enjoyed friendship with several of my girl playmates, but I was being systematically disconnected from girls. When I witnessed how the Teduray thought and acted, I realized that, as part of the same youthful socialization process, I was being disconnected from aspects of my humanity that were not deemed acceptable in the American system. But, I had to submit or be called a "sissy," and that label meant losing all hope for closeness with the other "real guys" as well as risking severe scolding and ridicule from my parents and grandparents. My father even whipped me on several occasions, with stern admonitions about not being weak or sissified, when I played too often with girls or wasn't "tough enough" among my male friends. My family was, after all, as concerned as everyone else that I turn out "right," with rigidly controlled emotions and no "effeminate" sensitivity or weakness in the face of pain. I was being prepared-not only by the older boys, but by my whole society-to take my place as part of the male-dominant gender role system that was entrenched in mainstream American culture and to think and feel as a "real" man should think and feel.
The fear and isolation of my young years seemed palpable and present again when I watched my little neighbor Miliyana learning her language and her world, when I saw her playing with other Figel children. Unlike them, I always knew as a boy that I had to at least appear completely happy, flawless, effective and normal; there was no safe wiggle-room. A Jesuit friend of mine told me recently that our society has what he calls "The Five Rules of American Life." Simple to learn and remember, they reign supreme over most of us. First of all, you have to be perfect-that is, as I said, completely happy, flawless, effective and normal. Second, if you can't be perfect, you have to become perfect immediately. Third, if you can't get yourself perfect, you have to pretend you are perfect. Fourth, if you can't pretend you are perfect, you have to get out. And, fifth, if you can't pretend to be perfect and you won't get out of the group, then at least you must have the decency to feel totally ashamed around the rest of us. Those five rules are overwhelmingly oppressive, and I knew them well. They seem to me now to be rules of social and personal death, not rules of life. I can't remember just how early they were impressed upon my young consciousness, but by the time I was an adolescent I saw no alternative to them. Everyone seemed to be like that.
As I grew older, performance anxiety hung over my life like a dark cloud. In my adolescence, no kindred arranged a wife for me. I was strictly on my own with precious little information and virtually no support. I began to be obsessed about kissing and about doing it right. Before long, of course, my preoccupation with kissing turned into obsession about "getting laid," and how to do that properly. Sex with a woman-it seemed obvious to me from all that I had heard-would be the greatest and most exciting triumph of my young life. Touted by all my friends and by the media of the day as life's greatest ecstasy, it would, in addition, make me definitely one of the guys, even a "stud." But I mustn't do it wrong, and I mustn't fall behind the other guys in getting there. Sex was a deadly serious business in those days, which had nothing much to do with love or, for that matter, even playfulness. Sex was win or lose-success or failure-a competitive necessity and a performative challenge. Moreover, the rules of the game meant my yearned-for sex partner would be little more to me than an object of my needs. But, that was "the way it was," and, with little helpful information (and nothing yet to share and brag about with the guys), I felt condemned to figure it all out alone.
* * *
I feel pain and sorrow now as I remember and write about all this. I felt the sorrow deeply as I reflected in Figel on the contrasts between my experience and what I was witnessing there. For many years, the sexual aspects of my life had been anything but joyous; indeed, they had been frantic and chaotic beyond description. Not because I had a huge number of lovers-I didn't have anyone worthy of the name until I was married-but because the whole time I was in high school I wanted desperately to "prove my manhood." But the time was immediately post-World War II, and all I achieved with my dates was endless hours of kissing in the back of automobiles, where I sometimes felt as though my lips were going numb. My family had moved to Southern California in 1943, and the young women in my social class and neighborhood in the late '40s were divided, I was led to believe, into the "good girls" (who wouldn't) and the "bad girls" (who would). Lord knows I tried, but I never managed to find one of those bad girls.
Beneath the surface of this preoccupation with sex, some grim things were going on. Whatever desires I had been born with to be a giving and caring companion in love-to be close and truly intimate, to be gentle and tender, to care about the person I was with-had been pretty well conditioned out of me and replaced with the internalized strictures of-give me a drum roll, please!-"the male role." And, as I matured, life became no easier. I had learned that, in my male role, there was one single solution to all my screaming needs for intimacy, closeness, validation and connection. That was to have sex, and to find a woman to have "it" with, whom I could get "it" from, whenever I wanted. Then I would live happily ever after, as she faithfully provided me with food, emotional support and sexual service. After all, "That is what women are for." So said my training in the system, as I remember it.
It was all terribly narrow and unyielding. I eventually found Audrey, my wife of the last 40 years, and began at once treating her as an object. I was pathetically dependent upon her validation, which is what I thought down deep that marriage was all about-just as Audrey, with her female role training, seemed to feel that marriage was all about romance and being taken care of. I am amazed that we had as many wonderful times as we did, in spite of the God-awful ground rules we were functioning under. We raised two fine boys, and we enjoyed each other much of the time. But, I must say that, on the occasions when Audrey rebelled-when she told me by words, or implied by hints, that she might leave me because she was sick of the way I was treating her-I would panic. All sorts of terrible feelings would surface: frustration, fright, fear of abandonment. I would feel worthless. I would think I had proven, by my inferior performance as a husband and lover, that I was a failure and the very loser that, ever since those days on the playground, I had always been secretly afraid of being. I felt accused and attacked, and at the same time I felt guilty. Was that the ultimate payoff of the American male role as I had learned it? I could have social privilege and access to power, but only at the cost of virtual disconnection from other men and perpetual anxiety about my only committed and valued relationship. Living like that was often torture for Audrey and a nightmare for me. But, until I lived among the Teduray, I thought that was as good as things got. I had previously never known, seen or heard of-at least, I had never recognized-any other possibilities, any other ways of living and relating as a man.
At the time of my research experience at Figel, Audrey and I had a fearful amount of tension in our relationship, and had since the time we met. We both seemed to have abundant good will, but nevertheless treated each other in quietly inhumane ways. I now see clearly that, not just Audrey but both of us had been set-up by the culturally dominant American role system to be objects, not whole people, to each other. Sex was where the setup showed itself most clearly. I had been systematically taught to be a thing in need of a thing, buffeted about by a whole set of cultural understandings that were based on rank and domination, were supported by fear and violence, and were judged by performance.
I hated the whole business; Audrey hated it; and it seemed to leave us both mired in hopelessness. I know it certainly did me. And yet, I did it; I lived out those attitudes, in spite of myself and in spite of knowing somewhere in my heart that humans were surely born to live more kindly lives. I was too conditioned to the standard role and too afraid of being judged and shamed, even physically harmed, by other men if I didn't conform. And, of course, all those patterns seemed to be just the way things were, the nature of life. As Miliyana was internalizing her more benign social rules and expectations as her "reality," I too internalized my own world, for better or worse, as what was real and true. I felt isolated from other men, and I didn't have a clue how to love women, not even Audrey who had joined her life to mine. I believed for years that we were just trapped. I couldn't revolt, because the way the world was set up, I believed, other men who had taken the system into their souls would make me pay too fearsome a price. And, besides, to what different arrangement would I revolt; I knew no other?
Change of one's fundamental understandings is difficult for any human being even to contemplate, but my experience among the forest Teduray began to change things for me. Their way of life helped me to recognize and open up to other possibilities for myself. In later years, my time of watching and empathizing with them enabled me to understand something of the women's and men's liberation movements, and I finally began to break free from the conditioning of my youth and to offer other people, especially Audrey, a different kind of relationship.
That has, in fact, changed everything, and I credit the Teduray. For me, transformation began in Figel, as I was watching children grow and learn, thinking about people and what their "pots" meant to them, watching gall bladders made good and bad in myriad ways, and all the while trying to figure those people out. Trying to discern the social and cultural logic expressed through the way Teduray men interacted with women and other men, through everyone's clear joy about sex, through the apparent abandon with which marriages were broken by elopement, and through the care and healing by which they were reestablished by a concerned community.
* * *
Again and again, I found-somewhat to my initial surprise-that the Teduray world forced me to look at my own world. I could not discuss these matters with Mer or Aliman or even wise old Balaud; like the purpose of satellites in the sky, my experience was too foreign to them, too distant and surreal. Nor could I talk to Audrey in any depth about the changes I felt creeping into my soul; perhaps all those thoughts about how I was coming to see American role conditioning, gender ranking and male dominance as arbitrary cultural values were too close to her bone. So I reflected alone, increasingly uncomfortable and confused.
With every passing month, the unspoken and inchoate assumption that I had grown up with-that our own society is the best of all possible worlds and the glory of the world-seemed more and more in doubt, at least in the arena of human relations. We are certainly not the worst, when it comes to treatment of women: in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, women are forbidden to travel outside the country alone; in Iraq, a father is not criminally responsible if he murders an unwed pregnant daughter; in Afghanistan, followers of the Taliban movement ban women from working for hire or attending school. Relationships between men and women are hardly equal in much of Europe, and they are notoriously unequal in Latin America. So I would not want to give the impression that I put America in a class by itself. But when I put my own experience over against what I was seeing in Figel, I realized I could no longer hold the illusion that we were setting the planet a fine example with regard to the equality of men and women, much as I had long known I could not point with pride at our race relations.
To the Teduray in Figel, everything and everyone was equal: all humans, all spirits, all species. And so life was to be lived with a spirit of partnership, mutual assistance and interdependence. Both genders sought to possess what we think of as "feminine" traits, and all people were committed to caring about each other's gall bladders: they would help each other whenever possible, and try never to offend or hurt. Because of these values, so different from my experience, children were reared to take their place in a society marked by cooperation and graciousness in most of its interactions, a people given to kindliness and civility which were deeply rooted in their understanding of the good life.
I never had any illusions of the Teduray being perfect. From the first, I had seen that Teduray were human beings who, like us all, did not always live up to their ideals. They did things with some frequency that they knew very well they should not have done. Occasionally anger spilled over into insult, assault and even murder, people had sexual affairs and all too often eloped with other people's spouses; they knew all this to be wrong and to threaten bloodshed. They were not perfect "never-never-land" folks, too good to be true. But the normal, day-to-day quality of their life truly was characterized by generosity and caring for each other, to a degree that I found astonishing. Not being ranked into any sort of hierarchy and not struggling to outdo each other socially, politically or economically took away that adversarial sharp edge which competition seems inevitably to insert between people, and in its place established a beguiling sense of interdependence, empathy and mutual aid.
For the people of Figel, their understanding of the good life was entirely natural and mirrored the gracious and abundant world in which they lived. Life required cooperation. It couldn't be tackled alone. But that was "just-right," because it was how people were meant to live. Individuals, families, the neighborhood, the society, the cosmos itself-the whole plant, animal, human and spirit world-were, on the whole, marvelously connected and supportive. I was deeply touched, more than even now I know how to describe, and I began in those moments of solitary reflection to want such a life for myself. I saw clearly that if my values were to change, my life would have to change; and that was scary. After all, for 30-plus years all I had known was one approach to being a man and the consequences of bucking that approach. But, I started considering seriously, very seriously, whether paying some social costs to have what the Teduray had might not be well worth doing.
And so it was that, bit by bit, what began as a graduate school fieldwork requirement, a social science exercise, became for me something far more serious, risky and deeply personal, a matter not just of writing a dissertation but of thoroughly rethinking my whole existence.
I have expanded this material into a full-scale essay, entitled "On Being Born A Boy in America."
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"Teduray" or "Tiruray"
The Teduray people of Mindanao have for over a century been known to Westerners, and for much of that time to other Filipinos, as "the Tiruray." Wisdom From a Rainforest: the Spiritual Journey of an Anthropologist is the first of my books or other writings about them not to use the name Tiruray. What is going on here?
As I briefly mentioned in Wisdom, the Spanish were the first Westerners to write about the Teduray. Padre Guerrico Bennasar, S.J. was assigned to the Jesuit "reduction" (or mission) at Tamantaka, near Cotabato City, and he took as his particular charge the conversion of the Teduray. He wrote a little dictionary of Teduray words and a grammar, and he also published in a Teduray-Spanish diglot edition a book entitled Costumbres de los indios Tirurayes (The Customs of the Tiruray People), which consisted of observations on Teduray lifeways by Sigayan (José Tenorio), an early convert, dictated in Teduray and translated by Padre Bennasar into Spanish. These, and some references to the Teduray by the Tamantaka Jesuits in their reports, are the earliest Western references in print to the Teduray, and they all refer to them as "Tirurayes," which subsequently came into English usage in the American period as "Tiruray."
I suggested in Wisdom how I think Fr. Bennasar derived his spelling of their ethnic name:
Costumbres...was surely one of the first times the name of the Teduray people appeared in print, spelled as it must have sounded to a Spaniard, to whom a d sounded like an r and the closest sound to the Teduray e was the Spanish i.
It was only in the 1980s that some literate Teduray women and men quite understandably began pressing to be referred to by their correct name. Now, use of "Teduray" in place of the long familiar English name "Tiruray" has become commonplace in Filipino newspapers and other media. When my book Children of Tulus: Essays on the Tiruray People was published in 1994, I learned that I was behind the times in still using the older name and switched my usage immediately.
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