Old anthropology, meet new social justice

This is a pretty rough idea, but: I was reading an essay by David Graeber (“Manners, Deference, and Private Property”), in which he uses some fairly old ideas from the anthropological literature, of “joking” and “avoidance”. “Joking relations” are a phenomenon whereby if you encounter someone who is related to you in a particular way, you are socially required to insult them – but whatever you do to them, they can do back to you. “Avoidance,” in contrast, is a kind of relation where you don’t interact physically at all with a  particular person, usually someone ranked higher than you – but they have considerably more leeway. Additionally, joking relations are frequently marked by very crude physicality and avoidance is marked by, basically, pretending you don’t have a body (keeping bodily functions private). These can be sensibly set up as opposite ends of a continuum, where there’s an absolutely egalitarian relationship on one end, characterized by insulting and sometimes violent (but playfully violent) behavior, and an absolutely hierarchical relationship on the other, characterized by taboos.

It occurred to me that for some people, part of the backlash against being asked to be hands-off (literally and metaphorically) with women might arise from the existence of this continuum. (Which is why I post this here, where nobody will see it, and not Tumblr, where I’m liable to get my head bitten off.)

That is: some American men are very playfully aggressive, crude, sexual, etc. with close friends, and some of them might feel like treating female friends roughly in the same way is treating them like equals, like close friends. Many of those women, though, might feel like it’s violent/coercive reinforcement of a pre-existing hierarchy of who gets to control their body, a hierarchy in which they’re lower, and ask the men to back off. But those same men might naturally feel like being asked to be hands-off is like being asked to convert an egalitarian joking friendship into a hierarchical avoidance relationship, which a) puts them at the bottom of a hierarchy and b) looks an awful lot like pedestalizing the women, which is of course also sexist.

I also see a resonance between popular resistance to middle-class manners and some resistance to ‘political correctness’. In both cases there are things that seem pretty obviously good rules (basic hygiene, not using racial slurs) and things that seem to be rules for the sake of signaling conformity (particular fragments of table manners, tiny and subtle variants on terminology for trans* or intersex people).

I don’t have any suggestions for what to do with this, of course. But now the idea is out there.


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