Telling Voices: Understanding the other

Anthropologist Margaret Mead says colour, caste or creed do not make divisions in our oneness.

January 26, 2012 09:09 pm | Updated October 18, 2016 12:38 pm IST

Exactly 60 years ago, the world renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978) recorded her essay for the series, “This I Believe” and the talk, which was replayed on NPR radio in 2009, is available on the website. The anthropologist comes up with a telling belief of hers. She says she wishes her belief would be infectious enough to become everybody's belief: belief in understanding all human beings as being part of one whole. In other words she calls for understanding the other and not just trying to look for similarity in other cultures or to influence others into one's own way of life.

Says Mead, “I believe that to understand human beings it is necessary to think of them as part of the whole living world. Our essential humanity depends not only on the complex biological structure which has been developed through the ages from very simple beginnings, but also upon the great social inventions which have been made by human beings, perpetuated by human beings, and in turn give human beings their stature as builders, thinkers, statesmen, artists, seers and prophets.”

The reason why this conviction of hers has greater value is because, as she says, “Children used to play a game of pointing at someone, suddenly saying, ‘What are you?' Some people answered by saying, ‘I am a human being,' or by nationality or by religion. When this question was put to me by a new generation of children, I answered, ‘an anthropologist.' Anthropology is the study of whole ways of life to which one must be completely committed, all the time. So that when I speak of what I believe as a person, I cannot separate this from what I believe as an anthropologist.”

So when an anthropologist says colour, caste or creed do not make divisions in our oneness, it rings with truth. Mead elaborates, “I believe that each of these great inventions — language, the family, the use of tools, government, science, art and philosophy — has the quality of so combining the potentialities of every human temperament, that each can be learned and perpetuated by any group of human beings, regardless of race, and regardless of the type of civilisation within which their progenitors lived; so that a newborn infant from the most primitive tribe in New Guinea is as intrinsically capable of graduation from Harvard or writing a sonnet or inventing a new form of radar as an infant born on Beacon Hill. But I believe, also, that once a child has been reared in New Guinea or Boston or Leningrad or Tibet, he embodies the culture within which he is reared, and differs from those who are reared elsewhere so deeply, that only by understanding these differences can we reach an awareness which will give us a new control over our human destiny.”

It is amazing how most of the speakers in this series of “This I Believe” say the same thing albeit in different words. Mead too says no man is either totally good or totally evil. “...individuals are born with different combinations of innate potentialities, and it will depend upon how they are reared — to trust and love and experiment and create, or to fear and hate and conform — what kind of human beings they will become. I believe that we have not even begun to tap human potentialities, and that by continuing humble but persistent study of human behaviour, we can learn consciously to create civilisations within which an increasing proportion of human beings will realise more of what they have it in them to be.”

Mead ends by saying, “I believe that human life is given meaning through the relationship which the individual's conscious goals have to the civilisation, period and country within which one lives. Today, it means taking upon ourselves the task of creating one world in such a way that we both keep the future safe and leave the future free.”

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