Richard J. Severson
Claude Levi-Strauss, the great mid-20th century anthropologist, developed a binary oppositional theory about how the human mind works. I find it helpful in trying to understand the many cultural conflicts festering in America today. For instance, there appears to be very little common ground between gun control advocates and 2nd Amendment enthusiasts. The same goes for abortion rights proponents and anti-abortionists; also, originalist interpreters of the constitution versus activist interpreters. Even democrats and republicans seem to reside on completely different planets.
What if the human mind doesn’t actually work in a way that is amenable to finding common ground via good faith negotiations? What if, instead, the mind is naturally drawn to deep-seated binary oppositions that must be ameliorated on a symbolic or mythic plane instead of a rational one? Perhaps the commonly held belief that reasonable people can overcome their differences and learn to compromise on important issues is simply wrong-headed. (It is, at best, a rare feat, as the querulous behavior of Talking Heads on cable television networks illustrates on a daily basis.)
What’s wrong with Americans? Why are they/we so unwilling to compromise with those who sit on the other side of the political aisle? Well, maybe the way forward in human conflict resolution has never been a straightforward negotiation, or a reasonable argument. Maybe slipping into binary mythic worldviews that are antithetical to one another is part and parcel of our mental makeup, not just another instance of Americans-gone-off-the-rails-again.
According to Levi-Strauss, binary conflicts shape the subconscious structures of our minds. It makes sense when you consider what the achievement of consciousness meant for early humans. Imagine the internal struggles it must have caused when they became acutely aware of their own mortal predicament. The binary opposition between life and death has challenged the equanimity of human consciousness from its earliest awakenings. Levi-Strauss argued that Coyote and Raven trickster characters in Native American mythologies represented a symbolic transcendence of the binary struggle between life and death. Tricksters are neither herbivores (symbolizing life-enhancing attributes) nor carnivores (symbolizing life-negating attributes); instead, they are scavengers who stand halfway between the two symbolic types. It is the contradictory nature of the trickster, including a penchant for mischief-making juvenile antics, that symbolizes its power to ameliorate the contradiction (binary opposition) that resides at the very heart of life.
Gift-giving is probably the most common way that our distant ancestors overcame binary oppositions. The giving and receiving of gifts created a mutual system of moral obligations. If I accept a gift from you, that means I have obligated myself to reciprocate in the future. This bonding ceremony—the giving of a high-born daughter in marriage to a potentially hostile neighbor is an archetypical example—helped to overcome the us-versus-them xenophobia that people from different tribes naturally felt toward one another. Most binary oppositions (us vs. them, for instance, or dream vs. reality) are cognates of the more primordial life and death paradox.
The legacy of gift-giving as a salve for the fear and trembling of mortal existence is still alive and well in the human psyche. The way we speak of friendship and laughter, for instance, indicates this ancient birthright. “Laughter (or friendship) is a gift,” we often say. What does that mean? Just this, I think: The ability to laugh at ourselves is a symbolic “gift” that helps us to forget the unbearable tensions of our mortal predicament. Friendship is a similar kind of gift, making life much more bearable and worth living. It has been the great challenge of our cognitive evolution to find symbolic reasons to live despite life’s inevitable outcome.
Are there any ancient symbolic stirrings in the binary oppositions that define our own culture wars and political gridlock? Or are we doomed to hope for phantom compromises that never seem to materialize? I think the hug shared by President Bush and Senator Daschle shortly after the tragedy of 9/11 might serve as an example. The hug between the two leaders—one a republican, the other a democrat—took place after the President addressed a joint session of congress on the 20th of September, 2001. The terrorist attacks were viewed as an act of war, and first responders as surrogate soldiers. It was a defining moment for the country, raw and authentic, like the three assassinations of the 1960s. The collapse of those iconic Manhattan towers was a devastating reminder of our mortal plight. It made the bickering between our political parties seem petty and irrelevant. Then the hug happened, and it unified an angry, heartbroken nation.
Symbolic gestures are significant in the realm of mythic binary oppositions. They are capable of creating an opening for a new synthesis that reaches beyond stalemate. In this particular case, I think the potential for a new synthesis was betrayed by the same old politics of the midterm elections of 2002. Both parties politicized 9/11, and the hug became an embarrassment instead of a rallying cry.
It requires a gift-giving gesture to instigate a new synthesis of the old binary oppositions that haunt our souls. Rarely, does the impact of such an event last for generations to come. The lesson here is that we easily cycle back and forth between the world of symbols and myths, and the world of everyday life. They have very different rules and purposes, and it would be a mistake to assume that the ancient attraction to binary oppositions isn’t still operating beneath the surface of our normal affairs. After all, the paradox of life and death is a permanent feature of our mental makeup.