A Meditation on Vulnerability

This blog post is a follow up to this week’s episode on “The Power of Vulnerability”, aired 6/11/14 A friend of mine and I have been having an on and off discussion about the need for people to be able to be more vulnerable and raw with one another in contemporary United States. And I know we aren’t the only ones. And the conversation isn’t new. My inspiration for this post comes from a discussion a friend and I had about consumption, our recent episode on The Power of Vulnerability, a quote from Harvey Milk a friend shared about going after the things that really matter to you in life – particularly to take chances with people you like or love and let them know, and third from a wonderful TED talk on vulnerability by Brené Brown.

I suppose my larger question here is that is there some sort of existential imperative to be vulnerable and raw with one another built into the human species? Like nearly all anthropologists, I take the position that culture acts as a filter through which we experience and interact with the world. Because it is porous and social it does not dictate everything, just in the same way that we never reflect exactly the influences we are privy to, even though cultural influence may set the terms of what we can know at any one time. We change our influences, just as they change us. Thus culture and the world external to our bodies always act upon us, shaping us in multiple ways. However, taking Michael Jackson’s existential approach to anthropology, we never give back or reflect exactly the forces external to us. That is, our individuality is part of being human too. The existential position is that the struggle of life is often experienced and lived at the interface between internal desires and needs and external forces, imperatives, and environments. We are a continual assemblage of inner and outer forces, much like a cybernetic system. What I am interested in here is cultural examples of ‘letting go’, acting in ways that normally seem culturally inappropriate, wrong, backwards, etc; but the trick is that in these specific contexts such actions are not only morally appropriate, but perhaps socially mandated. Why do different cultural groups have these types of events? Two examples from across the world come readily to mind – funerary rituals among Giriama in Kenya and Carnivale in many countries.

The first example points towards what I’m getting at. In this case, reported by anthropologist Janet McIntosh, during the funeral of a well-respected male community member, women associated with him – through kinship or other forms of affinity will ‘act out’ of turn culturally. In brief, during the funeral of a male head of household, it is common for the women, who traditionally act very chaste, in essence keeping sexuality out of public discourse, to act and speak in very sexually pronounced ways, through dances, poems or songs often pointed at the deceased male. During funerals, male and female roles are upended – women chant ribald lyrics, dance suggestively, make sexual jokes at the expense of the deceased, but also making fun of the social system of men and women, calling out the gender inequality, etc – you get the idea. These kinds of actions are traditionally proscribed to men, and seen as out of place for women. But, this isn’t some moment of social chaos; these actions by women during funerary ritual are culturally mandated. They are supposed to happen here. The question McIntosh poses here to great effect is that are these funeral ‘acting out’s’ just women engaging their cultural tradition or do such actions pose a legitimate threat to the social order?  This is the only public time this type of behavior happens. So do these upended social roles in this specific ritual context constitute just a tradition that ultimately keeps power hierarchies in place or is this a potential threat to these hierarchies, revealing hidden desires for change? Socially conscious readers in the United States or other Western-thinking areas might ask the question like this: are feelings of sexual and gender repression seething under the surface  and do such rituals serve to ‘let off some steam’ and vent anger at ’the system’? Or are these actions just part of tradition that don’t necessarily threaten social order? Do these two layers – tradition and threat – operate  simultaneously?

What might a focus on the existential need to ‘let go’ tell us? What might it mean, particularly since we see it cross-culturally? What is it about ‘letting off some steam’, temporarily upending social rules, or simply and intentionally changing one’s perspective? Theories abound over power – for example whether or not, since such events are culturally mandated, they actually just serve to reinforce existing hierarchies, or who has power in what ways over what is actually (socially) happening at such events? Are people actually actively rebelling against ‘regular’ social norms, and do they actually feel like they are doing something countercultural, or different? Is this upending actually a threat to the prescribed social order? Think about examples of this in your own cultural context. How does rebellion work? Is it about letting of steam, asserting one’s individuality, challenging the system? Does it actually have any social effect or just individual? Think about Carnivale. What is happening with upended social roles here?

OK, but neither of these examples are exactly about vulnerability. Or are they? As a person born and living in the United States discussions with colleagues and various online posts about the need for us to be able to express our vulnerabilities point me towards a similar existential imperative that I think the Giriama and Carnivale examples do as well. But is our need to be vulnerable and raw with one another just a US or “Western” need? (for more on this, check out our Podcast episode “The Power of Vulnerability”) Is vulnerability what is suppressed by overarching cultural myths of the ‘rugged individual’ or ‘everyone has a fair shot to become wealthy’  in the United States or do we see this same sentiment elsewhere too? Is vulnerability the same thing here? Is there a ‘rawness’ of the human condition that might be expressed through an emotional openness? My inclinations, bolstered by various write ups and conversations on the topic talk about vulnerability as opening oneself up to both emotional shaming and deep connection, to letting others know how one feels about them, are that while we cannot talk about vulnerability the same way cross-culturally, we can recognize a human capacity for an emotional going-beyond-culture. Drawing upon Nigel Rapport’s notion of human nature as a capacity for going beyond, or transcending categories, a focus on vulnerability points towards the human capacity to move beyond the cultural categories we proscribe for ourselves and others. Recall the existential position that life is often experienced at the intersection of self and other, mutually defined through interaction – and empathy happens when we learn to put ourselves in the emotionally shared space of the other (with a little help from mirror neurons it seems). There is a mystery in the plurality of the human condition, writes Hannah Arendt. There are an infinite ways to be human. Though not all are recognized. Culture is a creative filter, a translation, a guide, and a roadblock to human experience. Does vulnerability sit outside of culture? No, but I think the above examples help challenge our thinking on how certain parts of being human – in this case vulnerability – can both be seen as threatening to the social order we have created for ourselves and as simply shoring up existing social hierarchies.

– Adam

comments, questions, rebuttals, all welcome below!