This post was submitted by Alice B. Kehoe, professor of anthropology, emerita at Marquette University.
My housemate marched on Saturday. My next-door neighbor marched on Saturday. I didn’t march.
Of course I’m appalled at the prevalence of guns. Guns are for killing.
If I marched with the thousands in downtown Washington, DC on Saturday, would that prevent another Douglass High School massacre? Another Columbine? Another Sandy Hook? Don’t be stupid. Politifact reported on February 20 that a Harvard study estimated there are 265,000,000 guns in the United States.
My housemate and my neighbor marched to close the barn door after the horse ran away.
Do massive marches effect their goals?
Take the case of women’s suffrage. Public campaigns began in the 1840s, part of the liberal democracy movements of the Revolutions of ’48 in Europe and their American expressions, the Seneca Iroquois Constitution (which denied the vote to women), and the Seneca Falls, NY, Convention of (white) women organizing to demand the right to vote in the United States. After a hiatus during the Civil War, in 1869 national organizations to demand woman suffrage were established. The issue was active for three generations, gaining support in the early twentieth century in the Progressive Party (Theodore Roosevelt’s party). Then came World War I. Europe’s vaunted Century of Peace (not really, only within Western Europe) thunderously crashed. Civilization’s rational men sent millions of their sons into hellhole trenches, to die in senseless assaults. Women took the place of men on the home front, driving ambulances along the battle lines. Even the US, whose men entered the war late, felt the cataclysm. In dialectic response, women’s shackles were cut. Women cut their Rapunzel hair, they wore flimsy little dresses, they danced with abandon in nightclubs. They took the place of male secretaries in offices. With this dramatic cultural shift, Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment.
Just as the emancipation of slaves came out of the struggle of Southern plantation owners with Northern industrialists, not through abolitionist protests, woman suffrage was rooted in much larger societal changes, economic, environmental, ethnic, arts and popular culture. Our holistic anthropological point of view can’t accept simple single causal relations.
What do marches do? They make visible the imagined community. They pull at our guts, our responses from millions of years of evolution for face-to-face cooperation for survival. Lust for companions is akin to lust for sex. Marches and rallies make us hominins feel good. My housemate and my neighbor came back Saturday glowing.
Was it useless, those millions marching Saturday? For saving children from death, unhappily, yes. For shifting ethos toward shunning warriors brandishing lethal power? Ha! Just look at what’s showing in movie theaters. For persuading politicians to reject NRA support? Not for most.
Should we, as anthropologists, refuse to join our friends and neighbors and workmates in marching for gun control or Black Lives Matter or #MeToo? Ah, I’ve just pointed out that the marching ritual builds community. Something very basic to us humans is accomplished. Last Saturday, thousands of youths were initiated. The segment of our populace that will not touch guns was nourished with the nectar of belonging. Participating in rituals is in our genes.
But I stayed home Saturday. I went to my college graduation when a fellow anthro major reminded me of the importance of rituals of passage. I did rituals for my kids. Saturday, among the thousands marching in my city, no one noticed I stayed home. As an anthropologist, I am an observer of America. Saturday was one day I wasn’t a participant observer. Sometimes I am only a single, moral person.