The Depressing World of Anti-Intellectualism

I’ll admit, I’ve been a bit depressed as of late by the state of things in this country. In my field, I’m often asked for my opinion about topics of current affairs, or other generally complex subjects. But that hasn’t seemed to have made difference about how people view me, and other “intellectuals” in general.

I recently had a conversation with one such individual who had, in the past, asked for information on a few topics. But as soon as I gave them an answer they didn’t like, the “discussion” turned hostile.

“You think you’re so smart.”

I’ve heard that phrase, used as a way to try to shut me up, pretty much my entire life. I can recall hearing it specifically as young as third grade, and by a teacher. I didn’t have any tact as a child (still don’t have a lot, I just don’t have it in me to be less than usefully honest), but it stuck with me, that the teacher seemed to be threatened that I actually knew something more about whatever it was than she did. I don’t remember the exact subject, just that I was right and she sneered at me, “You think you’re smart, huh?”

Huh? Why wouldn’t someone want to know that they were wrong?

Of course, I now know that the phenomenon is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and it has been well documented. Those with a little bit of knowledge about a subject tend to think they know more about it than they do, and they are more confident about the accuracy of their knowledge than they really should be. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been as confident as a child in my own knowledge as I was, but when I know something, I know I know it. Simply put, no one has ever been able to gaslight me other than myself.

But back to my original question. Why wouldn’t someone want to know that they were wrong? To me, this gets at the heart of what’s happening across the country. Many who try to argue with me will accuse me of Appealing to Authority, or saying something is correct “because I’m smarter than you”, even though this is considered a logical fallacy and frowned on in the Sciences. I always try to bring evidence to bear in a discussion – a peer-reviewed journal article, verifiable data, ecetera. And that frustrates people “talking” to me, as they want to “win” the argument.

“You think you’re so smart, don’t you?”

Recently, I’ve finished reading an article published about research on how to help students tell apart fact from fiction, or more precisely a factual statement (regardless of the statement’s accuracy) from a statement of opinion. This work, conducted by Amy Mitchell, Jeffrey Gottfried, Michael Barthel and Nami Sumida, can be read here. The researchers found strong links to our ability to tell the difference between a factual statement (The sky is blue) and an opinion statement (A blue sky makes people happy) to our overall worldview. If the statement matches our already established ideas about how the world works (let’s go with political parties here), then we are more likely to think the statement is factual. And it becomes more and more difficult to be convinced that it not only isn’t a factual statement, but isn’t even an accurate “fact” the more strongly it matches that worldview. Because we’ve tied our personal identities into that worldview, or that political party, so if it’s wrong, then that means I’m stupid, which just can’t be, because stupid people are bad.

Whew, that was a steep rabbit hole.

That slide from discovering something you thought was true isn’t to “stupid people are bad” is called Reductio ad absurdum, or “reduction to absurdity”, and is considered another logical fallacy. But it explains a lot, to me, about why anyone would want to continue to think something incorrect was true long after they’ve been shown mountains of evidence to the contrary.

There’s a great scene in The Big Bang Theory between Sheldon and his mother, which goes something like: Mrs. Cooper: You watch your mouth, Shelly. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. Sheldon: But evolution is not opinion, it’s a fact. Mrs. Cooper: And that is your opinion!

Because you’ve wrapped your entire self-worth and value into your opinion being fact, you now can’t separate the two. So the person who pointed that out to you becomes the problem, which makes you double down and use another logical fallacy to continue to be “right” – attack me personally. Known as anAd hominemargument, it means that if you can make the other person out to be a “bad” person, their argument must also be wrong, right? Or telling me that while I might be right, I’m “saying it wrong”, which is better known as tone policing.

There’ve been a lot of logical fallacies in the media and in our own personal discourse in the last few years. Maybe I’ll write about that soon.

So, as I’ve said, I’ve been a bit depressed lately. Because I’m fed up with the Ad hominem attacks simply because I pointed out that your opinion isn’t fact. But I keep doing it anyway, because I honestly believe that you deserve to know.

-dlp

My Synesthete Journey

I am always excited, and a bit surprised, when I learn something new about myself. Especially as I’m nearing a half-century in age. And if I have the chance to learn something BIG about myself, I really sit up and pay attention.

So it was when I watched the TNT series The Librarians for the first time. (https://g.co/kgs/MFHF6m) One of the characters, Cassandra, is a synesthete. In the show, all five of her senses are “cross-wired” in her brain, meaning that she sees numbers as flavors, hears words as musical notes, and memories have texture.

I had never heard the word before, which is a rather noteworthy occurrence for me. I watched the first episode with some skepticism, and afterwords went directly to the Internet to determine if this word, and the episode’s description of the condition, were real. Because they had just described something I had experienced my whole life, without knowing that not everyone experienced it as well.

Synesthesia is a condition in which one sense (for example, hearing) is simultaneously perceived along with one or more additional senses, such as sight. Other forms of synesthesia join objects such as letters, shapes, numbers or people’s names with a sense such as smell, color or flavor. The word synesthesia comes from two Greek words, syn (together) and aisthesis (perception). So, synesthesia literally means “joined perception.” A great web site for more information on synesthesia is here: https://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/syne.html.

I was stunned after just a little bit of research. I had never thought that my ability to remember a phone number was particularly special. Useful, yes, and people had commented on it on occasion, but nothing significant. I would always just say, “I just remember the sound the number makes on the phone. Bee boop beep, beep beep beep beep (that’s 254-4444, if you’re wondering).

I had discovered I’m slightly colorblind just a few years before this (colorblind females are only 2-3% of the general gene pool). Which explained a lot about my childhood and my inclination to wear colors that others think are “weird” (I love blue and pink together, and green and yellow). But it also explains why I never thought much about why I’m always choosing differently than others, when I was made fun of for those choices pretty regularly in school. I’m definitely not as “cross-wired” as the fictional Cassandra, who basically used her synesthesia almost like a super-power in the show, but it gives me a way to examine my perceptions from an outsider’s perspective. I simply have a different relationship to my senses than most people do. What do you mean, you don’t think numbers have sound, that words have colors, and inanimate objects can tell you their true names if you listen right after talking to them? 🙂 Yes, all of my stuffed animals have names, and my cars. The feel of touching them “sounds” like a name….

This new understanding of what I experience has been an eye-opener for me to understanding myself and the world around me. I’m not “bad” at math, but word problems have always been frustrating, as they seem so “noisy” and filled with extraneous information. I would always say that they sound to me like “Two purple trains running on pancakes are about to crash into a McDonald’s. How many milkshakes will it take to build a new golf course?”

And yes, I’ve actually said this to students who complain about doing their math homework ;), because I then explain the way that I figured out to do these problems, which is to take the sentences apart and concentrate just on the information you need to solve the problem. I had never realized before that there actually wasn’t that much extraneous information, but my brain was connecting the train to the sound of driving through the drive-thru at McDonald’s for breakfast. Yikes. Maybe that’s why I really liked calculus, and still hate statistics. Too much information in stat problems, when clearly my brain is supplying even more. :/

Two of the main characteristics synesthetes experience really stuck out to me. One of them is that the experiences are involuntary – I don’t have to think about “what I see/perceive”, I just do, which is specifically why it hadn’t occurred to me before hearing the condition described that I was “seeing” anything different than anyone else.

The second characteristic is that the “crossed sense” is projected – I don’t see a color of the name in my “mind’s-eye” or hear the sound of numbers inside my head, but experience them outside, just like a normal physical sense. I see different colors of the written word on the page, I hear the sound of the numbers as if someone were playing the keys on a piano, and feel the shape of the numbers when I say them out loud. Though not all synesthetes perceive the same things, and not all synesthetes even have their senses linked to the same other senses. I seem to have more cross-wiring than most, but it makes me wonder if there isn’t more cross-perception out there than is widely accepted, with almost everyone having maybe at least one sense crossed with another. How would you know, if you had always experienced the world in a certain way, that it was not how everyone else experiences it?

I honestly find it even hard to describe to others today when they ask what I see or feel, such as what the number six sounds like (I’ve been asked this recently, and the answer that popped out of my mouth was that “six sounds round” which even I know sounds ridiculous, but there you are), or what color their name is. I have to see the letters of their name to tell them this, and that’s a different experience from hearing their name, which has a sound associated with it for me.

Artist Melissa McCracken has spoken about what she perceives when she hears music. It’s pretty amazing.

Vincent Van Gogh and Wassily Kandinsky are some other famous artists who painted the sounds that they heard.

Dr. David Eagleman of Baylor College of Medicine explains the science behind the experiences here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6vs-ez62DVc

I really like Dr. Eagleman’s explanation. It tells me something about why I prefer a keyboard that makes the tradition “clickety-clack” sounds when I type to a flat keyboard with no real keys. And that’s something that I just learned about myself in the last 5 minutes.

-dlp

Books may be grand, but book Authors are civilization’s salvation

I was recently asked to name a few of my favorite authors. I thought it would be an easy question to answer… and then I proceeded to over-think the question. What, exactly, does that mean, favorite author? Isn’t it the same as asking what one’s favorite books might be?

After pondering the question for a time, I decided that, no, one’s favorite authors are not the same as one’s favorite books, as there are books that I adore but don’t care for anything else the author has written, and there are authors whom I’ll read regardless of the genre or topic the new book they’ve written is in.

My beginning criteria for favorite authors quickly became those authors whom I’ve read 4+ books from. I made the definition more than a trilogy, as most authors nowadays will be almost forced by the publisher to write a trilogy for the sake of money, and just because I want to know how the story ends doesn’t mean I really liked the author or the writing. I’m also straying away from authors whom I’ve only read one “story arc” from, meaning that just because the series included seven books, that doesn’t mean they’ve made my favorite authors list. While this leaves out the wonderful Harry Potter series, as to date I have had no chance to read any of JK Rowling’s other books or stories, it does provide insight on what I might think makes a good author.

My favorite authors are those whose writing compels me to seek out more of their work, rather than just grabbing the next book in the series. The writing adds to my own soul, if I’m allowed to wax poetic, and I feel the world would be a poorer place without their ability.

And yes, I know I’ve given this question and possible answer WAY too much thought. 🙂

So, here’s my first five. This list is in chronological order of when I first read a book from that author, rather than by if I think they’re the “best”. I hope you find my reading journey from childhood interesting.

Maybe later I’ll write on my favorite book series. It’s also an interesting thought that I can think a particular series amazing/fantastic/must reread many times, and yet never really feel the urge to look up any of the author’s other works. Hmm.

Dana’s Favorite Authors:

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Laura Ingalls Wilder

I wanted to be Laura for most of my childhood. I had read all of the books in the “main series” by 4th grade, and in 5th grade I gave a presentation on the entire series. In 6th grade I read her biography, and in 8th grade my town librarian helped me to request copies of the articles she had written for the local newspaper in Springfield, MO. In high school I started reading the new books published based on her notes on the lives of her grandparents.

While some of her books discuss Native Americans and African Americans in ways we find unacceptable today, a closer reading of her work shows that she did not agree with everything being said around her, and neither did her parents. She even edited her first edition to correct language about Native Americans that she had not meant as offensive, but later found out it that was. I’ve always loved that about her, that even at nearly 70 she understood that she wasn’t the one who gets to say what’s offensive to oppressed groups. As I grow older, I only learn to appreciate her more.

Isaac Asimov

Image result for Azimov

I’ve read every single work by Asimov that’s been published and is accessible. I even, when I was about 12, started collecting old science fiction magazines that I found at used bookstores so I could read his early stuff. I’ll admit, though, that I’m not a huge fan of the Foundation series.

His short stories are some of the best I’ve ever read, however, and I’ve always emulated my own writing to his. Robbie will always make me cry, and if you don’t like the novelette The Bicentennial Man, then it’s my firm opinion that you don’t have a heart.

Jean Lorrah

Image result for Jean Lorrah

Jean and her writing were crucial to my own development as a writer when I was a teenager. Her Star Trek books are still my all-time favorite, and she’s the first author I had ever written to who responded. She’s the one that really set me down the path of fan fiction, that it was Okay to write about what you love, and her own “fanfics” of Star Trek are still some of my favorite stories ever. Her Savage Empire series is incredible.

Marion Zimmer Bradley

Image result for Marion Zimmer Bradley

I found Hawkmistress! in a used bookstore when I was about 14, and then preceded to harass my local library for more of her work. I zipped through the rest of the Darkover series, and then read Mists of Avalon. I then ate up all of her short stories, and was heartbroken when she became ill. The books printed in the Darkover series since her death are good, but they are clearly not the completed work of Bradley.

One of her essays on writing explained that she thought of Lew Alton as “her own voice”, and that was the first time anyone had told me that I could write in a “voice” that society said was a man’s.

Charlotte Brontë

Portrait by George Richmond (1850, chalk on paper)

I’ve re-read Jane Eyre about twice a year at least since my first year of college, and it never gets old. I’ve read her other three published books – Shirley, Villette, and The Professor. I’ve also read her short stories of the Green Dwarf, but I’ve never been able to access her poetry. I’ve read several biographies on her, and heck, I even re-read her letters added to the front of several of her books, honoring certain literary giants of her day. Her writing is beautiful, and her life was tragic. There hasn’t been a movie version yet that I’ve felt did the book justice, though the version with Samantha Morton and Ciarán Hinds comes close.

Just to point out, many of my favorites here have written what we call “fan fiction” today. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I’m also aware that most of my favorites are women, though that wasn’t by design. Maybe I’ll write another blog soon on that specifically. But for now, I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about these amazing writers. And a little bit about me.

-dlp

The Bitter Cup of Impeachment

The last two weeks, Dana has shouldered the “burden” of this blog, so I am making up for it with a long post on a pressing issue. Forgive me in advance for the length, but I think you’ll find the subject a fascinating one!

There’s been a lot of talk in the presses lately about the subject of impeachment. How could I, a presidential historian, resist writing on it?

To be clear: I am not going to comment on the Mueller Report, Donald Trump, the Justice Department, or Nancy Pelosi. If you want to know what’s going on in current events, may I suggest one of the national newspapers, which have for the most part done an excellent job of covering the ongoing debate. Here’s a short list of reliable sources with links:

Instead, I think it more interesting to reflect on the irony that just one year ago (March 2018) we passed the 150th anniversary of the first presidential impeachment in American History. What’s more, by retelling the story, we can observe the parallels of history.

History is always with us. Blink your eye, and 150 years go by, and we’re still talking about the same subjects, and asking the same questions.

The Story

Let me paint the scene.

It’s 1868. The Civil War has been over for three years. The Republican Party controls Congress, but not the Presidency. Andrew Johnson, a Tennessee Democrat, has been thrust into that office by the death of Abraham Lincoln in April 1865. He is a Southerner, but he is loyal to the Union. Beyond that, though, there’s not much daylight between him and the former Confederates. Johnson is a white supremacist, and he believes in states’ rights.

https://cdn.loc.gov/service/pnp/cwpbh/00100/00112v.jpg
Andrew Johnson, Seventeenth President of the United States
(Library of Congress)

Many Republicans in Congress expected Johnson to come down hard on the South not only for the war itself, but now for the death of Lincoln as well. Instead, Johnson surprised everyone by offering the South lenient terms of readmission to the Union. All that southerners had to do was take an oath of loyalty to the Union. High ranking members of the Confederate government could even apply personally to Johnson for a Presidential pardon.

While Johnson made it easy for southerners to come back into the Union, he completely ignored the former slaves. They were now at the mercy of their former masters, who began enacting harsh laws (called Black Codes) to force them back onto plantations.

Johnson did nothing to stop the Black Codes, so the Republicans in Congress passed a Civil Rights bill declaring all persons born in the United States citizens, and entitling them to protection under the law. In other words, former slaves could now sue their employers for harsh working conditions and unfair business practices.

Johnson vetoed the bill, citing states’ rights. Republicans, in response, overrode his veto. And now we had a ballgame!

For Republicans, there was an additional problem.

The Supreme Court wasn’t on their side! It had begun declaring laws passed during the Civil War unconstitutional, saying that many of them only applied during times of war. Republicans realized they would have a hard time keeping their Civil Rights Bill on the books, so in June 1866 they passed the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Now natural-born citizenship, and protection under the law were constitutional guarantees–written in stone. The Court couldn’t touch it.

Image result for Salmon Chase Supreme Court
The Supreme Court of the United States during Reconstruction
(Supreme Court Historical Society)

This brought on the second showdown between Congress and the President.

Johnson, of course, opposed the 14th Amendment. And–since an amendment requires 3/4 of the states’ approval for ratification–he counseled that the South refuse to ratify….which it did in unison.

Unlike a bill, though, the President’s approval is not necessary to amend the Constitution. Republicans therefore argued that Johnson was illegally involving himself in a Congressional matter, and many of them started calling for impeachment.

At the same time, they chose to punish the South for not ratifying the 14th Amendment. In March 1867, they passed the Reconstruction Acts (again over Johnson’s veto), which stripped the states of their sovereignty and placed them under martial law until they passed the 14th Amendment, and/or registered all black men to vote.

Image result for The Reconstruction Acts
The Southern districts under the Reconstruction Acts of 1867
(Study.com)

There was one more “hitch.”

The Reconstruction Acts required the President (as commander-in-chief) to name military governors of the southern “districts”–that’s what they were calling the states now. Johnson was supposed to work with his Secretary of War to make that happen. But the Secretary of War was Edwin Stanton, who had been appointed by Lincoln. Stanton supported the Republicans over Johnson, so Johnson fired him and put General Ulysses S. Grant in that office (Grant was non-partisan, and hated politics..just the sort of person Johnson was looking for).

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Secretary of War Edwin Stanton
(Library of Congress)
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General Ulysses S. Grant
(Library of Congress)

Thinking that Johnson might pull something like this, Republicans had passed another law over Johnson’s veto–the Tenure of Office Act. It said that because a President needed Senate approval to appoint a cabinet officer, a President also needed Senate approval to fire them!

Three strikes, and you’re out!

When Johnson fired Stanton he technically broke a federal law. Congress had him right where they wanted him, and began immediately drawing up articles of impeachment.

A Political Process, Not a Criminal Court

Congress was treading on uncharted ground. Impeachment had been used in the past, but only against a member of the Supreme Court–Justice Samuel Chase–and he wasn’t even removed from office. What was more, the whole scenario had occurred sixty years ago.

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Justice Samuel Chase
(National Portrait Gallery)

No living member of Congress had ever actually seen the process of impeachment in action, and never had it been used against a President of the United States!

What was more, there were many lawmakers who doubted that Johnson had really committed an impeachable offense. After all, the Tenure of Office Act was a new law that changed the power structure between President and Congress…something that normally would require a constitutional amendment, and that would probably be struck down by the Supreme Court.

All that the Republicans could rely on, then, was theory.

Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution states that a federal officeholder shall be impeached and removed from office for “Conviction of Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” But there’s a problem. No legal definition existed for “high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

The theory, then, is complicated. Because Congress makes the laws, it is up to Congress to define these infractions. And since Congress is elected, and its makeup changes over time, so too the definitions of these infractions can change. Furthermore, looking back to the framers of the Constitution, it appeared that they understood “high crimes” as abuses committed by federal office holders. Because Congress was a political body, and because the Presidency was the highest federal office in the land, then, impeachment and removal from office could be for strictly political reasons!

It didn’t matter if the Tenure of Office Act was questionable. Congress could impeach Johnson just because they didn’t like him!

And so they did! When the articles of impeachment came up for a vote in the House of Representatives, they passed by a vote of 126 to 47, with 17 abstaining. Impeachment, however, is only the process of indicting a person. Removal was up to the Senate.

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Print depicting the moment when the United States Senate was informed that the House of Representatives had impeached President Andrew Johnson
(Library of Congress)

But the Senate was less sure that Johnson should be removed!

Without a Vice President, if Johnson were removed, the Senate Pro Tempore would ascend to the highest office. And that person was Ohio Senator Benjamin Wade–a radical Republican whom many senators liked even less than they did Johnson! Furthermore, conservative Republicans raised issue, particularly, with Wade’s support for divorcing America’s paper money from the gold standard. Was it not better, they asked, to keep Johnson in office temporarily and simply deny him another term? After all, 1868 was an election year, and neither the Democrats nor the Republicans were going to nominate him.

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Senator Benjamin Wade
(National Portrait Gallery)

In the end, the Senate voted for Johnson’s removal by a vote of 35–19. However, Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution requires a 2/3 majority vote to remove an office holder. The Senate fell short of that number by exactly 1 vote!

In his 1956 Pulitzer Prize winning book Profiles in Courage, Senator John F. Kennedy immortalized Kansas Republican Senator Edmund G. Ross, whose decisive vote kept Johnson in office. Ross felt that removal would embarrass the country at a time when it needed to heal, and Kennedy interpreted it as an act of bravery, putting country above party.

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Senator Edmund G. Ross
(Library of Congress)

By the fall of 1868, the impeachment of Andrew Johnson had faded into history. That November, General Ulysses S. Grant was elected as the eighteenth President of the United States. Furthermore, the next year, the new President nominated Secretary of War Stanton to the Supreme Court, but Stanton died before he could take his seat. And as for Andrew Johnson, he was remembered fondly by southerners for his attempts to safeguard their liberties. In 1875, his home state of Tennessee returned him to the United States Senate. He arrived in Washington in time to participate in a special session of Congress, but he died later that year.

Legacy

Since the Johnson impeachment, only twice more has a President (Nixon in 1974, and Clinton in 1998) been threatened with impeachment and removal. In both instances, the process divided the country in ways that threatened the unity of the American people. The question was asked in both cases, is it wise to remove by force a president who was put in office by the democratic vote of the people? Is it not better to let the people be the final arbiter through the ballot box?

In the case of Nixon, the President settled the matter by resigning from office in August 1974. With Clinton, the people turned against the impeachers, and in the last two years of his term, the President’s approval ratings went up!

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Richard M. Nixon resigned of the office of the Presidency on August 9, 1974
(C-Span.org)

It would appear then, that although impeachment is always an option when power is abused, it is not a very expedient one. The American people prefer to be the power that rewards or punishes elected officials. Put another way, a citizen of Wyoming does not want a Senator from Massachusetts making the decision for them.

For more information on the Johnson Impeachment, the Nixon Watergate Scandal, or the Clinton Impeachment, see the following sources:

— m.a.n.

Make the time to explore your own backyard

Too many people, to my mind, get jealous when I talk about some of the “other” places I’ve visited and lived: Scotland, Mexico, Peru, Germany, and more. I’ve been very lucky to have the opportunity to explore a nice chunk of the planet.

But there’s always so much in your own backyard worth exploring. Just because it’s right next to you doesn’t mean it’s not amazing. You don’t have to go see something “other” to explore. No where else have I found that more true than Wyoming. Where, quite literally, every square mile is a historical or geological treasure. I love Wyoming. In the Southeast of Wyoming is Devils Tower, with Mount Rushmore only being a couple hours further. In the north, YELLOWSTONE. Amiright? In the Southwest, it’s the Oregon Trail, The Green River Formation, Fossil Butte, and the Red Desert. And there’s so much more.

The Green River
THE FOSSILS!

A great way to start exploring what’s right next to you is to google your state travel/tourism website. These websites are designed to explain to someone from out of state what’s so exciting about coming to visit. Sometimes, you might not even have heard what’s interesting about your local area, simply because there’s no one giving talks or designing web sites geared to locals. Wyoming has a fantastic site, at Travel Wyoming. Heck, the Continental Divide, or the Great Divide Basin of Wyoming, is something that’s in every science textbook. And in Wyoming, you cross it twice driving on I-80!

If it’s cultural sites that interest you, there’s so much to see. It’s always good to stop at the historical markers in your area, and they’ve even made it easy for you to find them with an app (there’s an app for everything). Just search for “historical markers” in your app store on your smartphone. Sometimes, just ask your neighbors for suggestions. Every area has a “special town” that’s decided to do things differently. Near me, there’s Heber City. It’s just across the boarder in Utah, but it includes the Zermatt Resort, modeled after a “Swiss Village”, which is pretty funny, as I lived in Switzerland for several years.

From Utah.com
Okay, not everything around me is super fascinating. But you get the idea.

Start driving. Take the bus. Carpool with friends. Walk. Try as hard as you can to make time in our incredibly busy lives to see something new. Someone asked me recently how I find time to do “all the things I do.” It always comes off as flippant, but my only answer is “You only live once.” If you don’t make the time now, there’s no do-over. No one will feel bad for you that you didn’t get the chance to experience the world we’re so lucky to be born into. Make the time.

-dlp

Adoption, foster families, and Fictive Kinship

As a professor of Anthropology, I teach students about marriage customs, the importance of kinship to the fabric of societies, and cultural norms surrounding the social obligations one has to the people around you.

Every culture does it differently, but all cultures have what’s called “Fictive Kinship.” From the root “fiction”, fictive kinships are forms of kinship or social ties that are based on neither consanguineal (blood ties) nor affinal (by marriage) ties. But they are hardly “fictional”.

I have a strong personal reason for studying this particular characteristic of kinship, as both of my children are adopted. Every society handles the “legality” of adoption differently. In the historical past, it was uncommon for complete strangers to become responsible for your blood children – family members, no matter how “remote”, were expected to take responsibility for you (think Pollyanna). But when the need for families to take children grew as orphanages of the 19th century fell out of favor (in the U.S. in particular, foster homes began to be preferred by the 1950s, and Foster Care agencies gained government funding by the 1960s – https://www.americanadoptions.com/adoption/do-orphanages-still-exist), more and more people began legally adopting children as their own.

Fostering has a long history of acceptance, however, as a way to grant a poor relation social status or teaching them a trade, more in the line of the idea of a “patronage”. In the 16th century, England passed laws allowing the children of parents who were sent to almshouses (effectively homeless shelters, but much, much worse than those of today) to be put into indentured servitude with a family or business until adulthood, usually 18. https://nfpaonline.org/page-1105741 This practice was then picked up by the young United States of America, and indentured service was still practiced for the children of the poor into the early 20th century.

It’s important to stop here and talk for a moment about how adoption has been used throughout history and in this country as a means of cultural genocide. It wasn’t that long ago that our own government had a formal policy of taking Native American children from their parents for the most ridiculous of reasons and giving the child to a white family to legally adopt, thus forcing Native peoples to “assimilate” into the larger European-based culture in the U.S.

Boarding schools were another way the government tried to force this assimilation, indoctrinating Native children into “white culture” by not allowing them to speak their native languages or learning about the tribal history and tradition (https://www.cpr.org/show-segment/when-native-american-children-are-adopted-by-white-families-it-isnt-always-a-happy-ending/). It’s a shameful legacy of the concept of the “Melting Pot”, affecting thousands of children and families.

In the “Western” cultural system of Lineal Kinship (https://umanitoba.ca/faculties/arts/anthropology/tutor/fundamentals/lincolat.html), where there is a strong understanding of the importance of “mothers” and “fathers”, and an almost culturally entrenched definition of who is or can be “Mom” and “Dad”, adoption was kept secret until just recently. Horror stories of the extremely rare occasions in which the law has taken children from adoptive families to re-place them with birth parents, coupled with a fear of not being perceived as the child’s “real parents”, plus the shame associated with the birth mother “giving away” her child and perhaps the adoptive mother’s own inability to have children, fueled this secrecy. With kinship being so fundamental to our human condition, is it any wonder that it’s so complicated?

The need for all that secrecy, and the shame involved, is still a perception that’s out there today, however, with the first season of Once Upon A Time outlining the fight between an adoptive mother and the birth mother who feels her child is being abused. “He’s my son!” adoptive mother exclaims. “No, he’s MINE!” birth mother yells back, somehow winning the argument with just those words. Can you tell that I’m still a little salty about that scene?

So what does “parenthood” actually mean? What does it mean to be a child’s “mother” or “father”? To be called “Mom” or “Dad”? I’ve actually had people ask me how I planned to create the “maternal bond” between me and my children, as I didn’t give birth to them, and they weren’t originally from any blood relatives, so…. I still am blown away by this question. It’s the idea that it might be “unnatural” to love a child as one’s own that you have no close blood connection to. I will never understand that idea.

I’ve also had many a person ask how my children will be able to create a “sibling bond” between them, as they again are of no close blood relation to each other. To this, I can easily respond with “Sweetie loves Little Dude”. She said from Day 1 that he’s “our baby”, and she even had say in what his name would eventually be. They are truly sister and brother.

I’ve also, though, had many people share with me their own stories of being adopted, or of informally “adopting” others as parents when the relationship between their own legal relations disintegrated. If you’ve ever fussed over what to get someone for a holiday present, that’s a bond that might just be socially binding, meaning that if you shirk your social obligations, there could very well be social consequences.

And there’s the difference between “fostering” and “adoption”: nonwithstanding the “legal” aspect, but when the relationship is recognized within the larger social order, when you have obligations to that person that are socially recognized, that’s a true relation. It might seem a bit “scientific” to boil down relationships this way, but when you hear your child call you “Mama”, the very reason that that’s so special is because you know all of the cultural meanings behind that word, and what it means for this child to call you that name. It means a lifetime of commitment, of worry, of beaming pride, of tears and joy.

-dlp