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Quickie: Deviancy and prescriptivism

March 11, 2012

Robert Thomas was an anthropologist and professor who grew up in a Cherokee-speaking home in Eastern Oklahoma partway between my grandparents’ and parents’ generations. I have been reading some of his work lately–there’s a decent bit available there through The Berkeley Electronic Press, which is making me want to look up more–and while (unsurprisingly) I don’t agree with everything he has to say, it’s been very thought-provoking. I’ve been meaning to work the basic ideas here into at least one further post, but since everything hasn’t come together in my head yet, here’s one quote that touches on one major cluster of philosophical differences.

From Robert K. Thomas. 1982. “Mental Health: American Indian Tribal Societies” The Selected Works of Robert K. Thomas. Available at:

Let me talk a little about deviancy. Most tribes can stand a lot of deviancy as long as it isn’t socially destructive. Tribal groups are not conformists. If you evidence strange behavior, that is not socially destructive, you will be allowed to be “strange”. There’s all kinds of supports for this seemingly permissive attitude. For instance, if someone doesn’t show up for a ceremony where he’s required to be, you might think “Perhaps he has had a dream that told him not to come.” But deviant behavior doesn’t call anyone in a tribe into question, because no tribal operates on an ideological basis. New Englanders in the 1700’s must have had an ideology about which people had grave doubts because they seem compelled to smash everybody who didn’t conform to that ideology. The same way seems true of Catholic officialdom in Spain in the 1500’s. Tribal groups are not ideological, they are not called into question by deviant behavior. Therefore, you can allow deviant behavior as long as it isn’t socially destructive.

In the American suburbs everybody “goes up the wall” if you don’t wear just the right kind of clothes, one of the motors of western civilization, as you know, is self-doubt. That’s the reason we go out and build careers and rocket ships and fortunes and empires. But tribal groups don’t have that kind of self-doubt. For one thing, no tribal is creating their own self. You just are; you are finished and complete and whole and there you are. This is especially true of relatively unacculturated, “old times” tribal groups.

This has implications in so many contexts, and “as long as it isn’t socially destructive” can also be phrased as “if it isn’t hurting anyone”. Especially in a kinship-based social system.

In that paper, he goes somewhat into some of the disruption attempts at assimilation have caused, including some kinds of cognitive dissonance from conflicting messages I have seen at work way too often. (Including among my own relatives.) IME, he is exaggerating some of the differences to make a point–and said he was doing so in another paper–but simply being expected to adhere to a framework of “avoid public assholery and interference with other people who aren’t hurting anybody” would count as (IMO a pragmatically good kind of) external social control.

Also important to understanding why “deviancy”, per se, has traditionally been less than a problem, from earlier in the paper:

Commonly, one hears talk about the role of
wife or the father. I remember when I first became aware of this feature of American culture, about 1948. I would read articles in magazines about how to be a wife. And my response was, “Whose”? Well, it doesn’t make any difference. One can be a wife without reference to a particular husband, except for confirming purposes. That’s a role. One is “into” such a role, and you “do” it. This type of interaction is characteristic of modern society. This is not the case in tribes. Relationships there are mutual and personal. A personal relationship is one which is unique, familiar, holistic, particular, emotive, and definitive. For instance, there’s nobody quite like your brother. He’s unique. You know your brother intimately. You treat him in a holistic manner; you don’t treat him partially. He isn’t like a waitress, where all you have to know in order to get food is that person’s role function. That’s a partial relationship. Your brother is a whole person. You know your brother in the particular. You communicate primarily emotively with your brother. Lastly, your brother’s relationship to you is definitive; he tells you who you are, you can’t ignore your brother. If he doesn’t like you, that hurts. When he does like you? That gives you a certain reward…

There’s Very little authority among North American Indian tribes mainly because authority is vested in tradition, not persons. You can get in very big trouble in North American Indian tribes if you try to tell your relatives what to do. They don’t like it.

IME, that last bit putting it mildly. 😀 (And yet, thanks to conflicting messages, cognitive dissonance, and their own problems overriding general training, some people still try. *sigh*)

Regarding roles, see also some earlier linguistic musings about how, in Cherokee, relationships can only be expressed in mutual terms: ‘It would be more faithful to the Cherokee meaning to say “father-to-me”, “teacher-to-me”, “hand-to-me”, “we-two-are-cousins-to-one-another” or “father-for-me”, “father-in-regard-to-me”.’ One of the things that has gotten me thinking a lot is some of Thomas’s other discussion of kinship vs. more instrumental approaches in organizing societies.

And, yeah, difference and “deviancy” are going to look a lot less threatening if (a) you’re not depending on the rigid prescriptive ideologies in the first place, and (b) “Your brother is a whole person. You know your brother in the particular.” It is a lot less socially acceptable to reject–much less behave abusively toward–your brother based on some characteristic you don’t like, than it is for your brother to be kind of weird in the first place in a way that doesn’t hurt anybody. This also applies to your neighbor or Sue who works at the grocery store.

This is another thing that bugs me about some people’s insistence on person-first language, to the point of some non-disabled people jumping on actual disabled people for not using it when talking about themselves. Besides indicating that maybe there is something incompatible between being disabled and being a person in a “protests too much” kind of way–I have seen real “person first” social approaches in action. And much like what often gets called “multiculturalism”, that ain’t it.

That descriptive approach based on the idea of dealing with a whole person, as opposed to prescriptive ideology-based cramming people into boxes, applies in all kinds of contexts. Or should. 😐

I sometimes also get pessimistic about other societies as a whole ever managing–to my way of thinking–a more humane and practical working horizontal collectivist approach (necessary for anarchism and/or participatory democracy–which don’t necessarily look that different–to actually work), when people have been taught to rely more heavily on prescriptive hierarchical ideologies for a very long time.

And tying in: 

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