Ciphers are the foundation of society's chameleon nature

by phil on Wednesday Aug 16, 2006 8:23 PM

Studying anthropology is a way of telling you what it means to be human by looking at all the humans that have ever been recorded. It's inherently pluralistic. I mentioned earlier that fields of study can have an intent, just like mediums can have a message. Anthropology's central thesis is that by facing the variety of human existence head-on, one will get some kind of enlightenment.

What anthropology gave me is an impression of human variety. Look at head-hunting killing tribes. They believe that their purpose in life is to avenge their relatives by decapitating the opposing tribe, then miniaturizing those heads through a process of boiling and drying, all to create magical necklaces. The Ancient Greeks endorsed pederasty, which involves erotic relations between adolescent boys and adult men. Everywhere you look in anthropology, the impression you get is that "anything goes."

My feeling is that 50% of the people in a society are total ciphers. A cipher's identity, perspective, and participation are almost totally defined by context. For example, take the 1960s. That was all about the hippies and their love movements. But probably 50% of the American population just passively listened to the music of the time, wore those bell-bottoms, gave a thumbs-up to drugs, carried an anti-war sign at a rally just for fun, and watched the Vietnam war every now and then. They didn't have an opinion, and if they did, it was a reflexive response to fill in the silence and maintain their social equilibrium.

I know a girl who fits this picture of a cipher. I asked her, "what bands do you listen to?" She replied, "I like whatever is on my favorite radio stations." She has the latest stylish haircut and all the latest fashions, including those vogue elastic wrist-bands for causes, like cancer cures. She is a short girl, and to see her at a club is to witness the unfolding of this cipher. Her head is a little angled downward, and her eyes shift left-to-right. She then uses her fingers to pull her hair behind her ears, like a nervous tick. She is eyeing the crowd, and internally eyeing herself, making sure that she is in sync with the crowd.

I have another story of a girl... (I'm not trying to pick on girls). She was a freshman in college and dating a friend of mine. The two of them went to different colleges, a couple hours away from each other, making their relationship a long-distance one. But one night, when she was studying alone, two MBA students found their way inside her dorm, uninvited. They started cruising the halls, cracking jokes at each other. They saw her door partly cracked open, and they smiled and said hello. Eventually they were in her room, just chit-chatting. And then eventually they were in a threesome. When they left, the girl mentioned that she enjoyed the experience. And you know what, before that night, she was actually a virgin. My friend was totally bewildered and then broke up with her.

What if those guys never passed by her room? What if she remained a virgin until she married my friend? She would then be a symbol of a society that values prudence. But instead of shaping society's mores by her own values, the context made her. Her own Consciousness got subsumed by Context.

I love people-watching, and I love witnessing these ciphers. It gives me an odd comfort knowing that our society is not set in stone. The "silent majority" is actually just waiting for the vocal minority—the so-called "chattering classes"—to lead the way. Americans may be hugging to their conservative FOXNews right now, but I know it's all a transition. Variety is the norm, and what encapsulates us now, won't encapsulate us tomorrow.

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