Render unto culture that which is cultural? Are there elements of human behavior that simply have no acceptable explanation other than we conclude they are simply "cultural?" I have puzzled over this for a long time. For example, among the Tuareg, a group of nomadic camel-owning people that inhabited the central and western Sahara, all adult males wore veils. Women, children, and slaves did not wear veils (even though this was ostensibly a Muslim society). The veils were a thin piece of cloth, woven and dyed in the Sudan, that was wound around the neck and face in such a way as to hood he eyes and completely cover the nose and mouth. Men wore these veils both during the day and at night. When eating a man would put his hand under the veil carefully covering his mouth. He would never be seen without his veil, even by his closest friends and allies. No other people are known to have practiced this custom. There appears to be to explanation for it. The people thought to be the ancestors of the Tuareg did not practice it. As no others wore veils it apparently was not for the practical reason of keeping sand out of the eyes and mouth. Apparently the Tuareg themselves had no explanation for it. So in the absence of any other explanation we conclude it was simply an aspect of their culture. I have never been very happy with this explanation, and yet, I know of no other, and now way to ever discover an explanation. Obviously one thinks that somewhere in the distant past someone, probably a chief or leader of some sort decided they should do this and they have followed suit ever after.
Similary, in the Eastern Highlands of New Guinea, during a girl's puberty ceremony, at one point a man inevitably pulls on a finger of her right hand attempting to make it crack. I witnessed many of these ceremonies and this is always done. If you ask them why they do it they respond simply, "fesin b'long tumbuna" (the ancestors did it). But they do offer an explanation of sorts: they say it helps the girls grow faster. This is not really very helpful so, again, we conclude it is merely cultural.
This is what has been called an example of "radical cultral relativism," whose chief proponent has been Richard Schweder: "There are cases where canons of rationality, validity, truth, and efficiency are simply beside the point -- irrelevant!...there's something more to thinking than reason and evidence--culture, the arbitrary, the symbolic, the expressive, the semiotic--that many of our ideas and practices are beyond logic and experience." (quoted in Langness, The Study of Culture, 2005:285)
This point of view certainly raises questions about our attempts to explain everything historically, functionally, and in terms of simple cause and effect. It would seem to render our attempts to understand everything potentially futile, other than just surrendering to "fesin b'long tumbuna."
Barack Obama had a massive turnout in Boise this morning. As many as 15,000 estimated in the stadium and still more outside without seating. This, I think, is a good sign, but does Obama have enough time between now and tuesday to catch Hillary? Let us hope so. There certainly is an Obama bandwagon with MoveOn, the LA Times, a couple of huge unions, some of the Kennedys, Oprah, and many, many more joining in just the past few weeks and days. Go Obama! But will he be able to live up to his expectations that seem to be growing by leaps, if not bounds? What can we do but hope? I, like apparently millions of others, want desperately to believe.
"It is a very serious thing for a political creed or a political party when they are compelled in spite of themselves to hail national misfortunes as a means of advancing their cause."
Sir Winston Churchill