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Margaret Mead discusses different cultures, anthropology, and society

BROADCAST: 1965 | DURATION: 00:27:15


Margaret Mead discusses different cultures, anthropology, and society. Margaret Mead discusses topics such as immigrants, American society, poverty, and population explosion.


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Studs Terkel So much happens these days. The "triple revolution," it's called; Cybernetics, human rights, weaponry. I guess as much may happen in a month as happened in a century, and I think we have to call upon, not politicians this time, but observers, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists. Dr. Margaret Mead, all three of these, we think of "Coming of Age in Samoa," and all the books that followed. "New Guinea [sic]," "Male and Female," Doctor, where do we begin? We're told that we have so much to offer underdeveloped countries. We speak of primitive societies in a very patronizing way, don't we?

Margaret Mead Well, some of us do. But in general, we call them developing or emerging nations today, which is not as patronizing, because it's recognizing not where they've been, but where they're going. And certainly people all over the world who've been exposed since, during and since World War II to the new possibilities that are offered by the whole scientific revolution, want what we have. They don't want their children to die. They want themselves to be able to live longer. They want all the new possibilities of the modern world. So when we say we, it's because we identify ourselves with the special products of our own type of civilization.

Studs Terkel Something we have, because there are a number of things we haven't got that they have, wouldn't you say?

Margaret Mead Well, but it doesn't make very much sense to say we don't have what they have. I mean, we don't have the simplicity of living at the dawn of the world, and we'll never -- It's like going back and trying to regain lost innocence. We would like to have some of the things of which they have an earlier form, just as they have an earlier form of technology, we now have a later form of technology that's far better. Now, we haven't yet later forms of human community that are as much better as our technological forms are. But nevertheless, to live in a society where you regard 180,000,000 people as fellow citizens and to hurt or kill one of them is regarded as doing something to your own, is a great improvement to living in a society where there are 180 people that you regard as human beings, and you regard the rest of the whole rest of every human being you've ever met as not

Studs Terkel And I wasn't being nostalgic looking back to the bad old days, but the fact is, since we live in a society that's so highly technological, isn't something being lost that need not be lost, that the societies you wrote about have?

Margaret Mead No, I don't think something is being lost. I think we're we're in a transition period of trying to find out how to make new kinds of human relations. For instance, if you take the movement from the country to the city, people when they left the country are leaving several things; they're leaving because there's no more work there because of technology, but they're also leaving the community that was so small that no one in a sense ever had a chance to change. If people -- You had a certain kind of family and everybody knew them and they knew what they could expect from them and the 10th little Jones child went to school and everybody knew what he was going to be. And people were held in a mold by the memory of everyone around them and given no chance to break out. This is what the city gives. The city gives you a chance to start over, to come in as a stranger and meet other strangers and build something new and we are -- We have to move into making the modern city something that keeps the advantages of strangers meeting strangers, but reestablishes the responsibility that existed in a smaller community.

Studs Terkel This is the challenge, strangers meeting strangers becoming familiar, but do they, I mean, you're here for the Jane Addams Diamond Jubilee. I think somewhere, Dr. Mead, you comment on the fact that immigrants when they came in the old days, 1910-12, there was a sense of aspiration. It was difficult, slums were terrible. But today there's something with the new immigrants, whether it be the Negro of the South, the Appalachian, or the DP. There's something missing the immigrant had. Is this?

Margaret Mead Is this something missing that the immigrant had? But also they're coming into a different society, in a society that is awakened in a different way. For instance, the immigrant only hope to have things for his children and we left the grandparents on the shelf. In many instances, we left the parents on the shelf. We said we'll educate the children and give them a chance, and we did. But at tremendous human cost. Breaking down the links between generations, building a very shallow population that couldn't go back to a mother tongue, that had never been sung to sleep in the lullaby of their own country and so couldn't give their babies lullabies at all. Well, today we have the opportunity with the new immigrants who, after all, speak English and so we don't have the same excuse for leaving them in, beshawled on the shelf. We can bring the grandparents and the parents into a new world together. And we don't need to break the ties between generations and make -- Give them as shallow a life as we did with the immigrant groups.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking of the early immigrants. There was something called a sense of aspiration, wasn't there something, and today I suppose we'd [get?] despair, wouldn't it? I'm thinking out loud now, I'm maybe paraphrasing what you saidm I hope I'm not distorting it.

Margaret Mead Well, the early immigrants that came here from Europe made a tremendous, enormous effort to better themselves economically in a new situation. And so that they were animated by what their children could have and their children could have it. This was real. They didn't have it. They came over here and lived under terrible conditions, worked ferociously hard, died early in the sweatshops and the mines and on the railroads of this country. But their children went ahead. The new immigrants are people who are being pushed further and further back in an affluent country and who come into the cities not in hope, but in desperation. And that is a different problem.

Studs Terkel I suppose then because it's a different problem, then the challenge is different, too. The challenge.

Margaret Mead The challenge is different, but we're a very rich country now, we're incredibly rich, and what we need now are new forms of consumption, but we need ways of distributing purchasing power so as to keep our tremendous productive plant moving at a proper technological speed so that we have every opportunity now, to exer-- If we exercise imagination and responsibility, we can build something we couldn't build in 1910.

Studs Terkel Are we doing it? This is the point. You know, I know that your works or Michael Harrington's speaking of "The Other America" speaks of an affluent society that is far from it in many quarters, does not recognize it. We recognized the slums at the time, talking now about a generation ago that they were there, they were visible, today they're sort of invisible thanks to highways and suburban living.

Margaret Mead Oh, but I think we're beginning to recognize them. I think 10 years ago we wouldn't have recognized them. Ten years ago we still thought everybody could get a job, teenagers are being paid too much, and that we were a society that was just moving towards more and more affluence. We were in that awful "two cars in every garage and two chickens in every pot" of 1928, that sort of period. Now we've come up fairly abruptly and sharply against the recognition that something has to be done, and it's being dramatized and is being brought home to people. The president is dramatizing it, this has to be dramatized over and over again, but we've got TV; 1910 we didn't have any TV, we only had a little bit of muckraking in national magazines.

Studs Terkel You think TV is doing the muckraking job of Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell?

Margaret Mead Well, I think it has, for instance in civil rights. I don't think we could have had the changes in civil rights without TV.

Studs Terkel So we come to the war on poverty, let's say, something specific. Is it being -- Doesn't this involve people of the community themselves? I know the phrase "poor representing poor" is a cliche now, and yet isn't this really?

Margaret Mead Well, "poor representing poor" is just plain nonsense, because the poor are not an organized group. If they were an organized group, they wouldn't be poor. I mean we talk about the poor representing the poor, we don't mean the trade unionists, they're organized, they're represented.

Studs Terkel Far from poor and far from liberal.

Margaret Mead Very often. Not always, but sometimes. What we really mean is, neighborhoods need to be represented. If we end at any program that is brought in from the outside and imposed, we'll fail. Were brought in with the very best intentions. And this again gets us back to what the settlement movement was, that is, the people who were trying to make the changes lived there. They lived next door, they understood the problems of the people around them, and it wasn't -- You didn't talk about the poor representing the poor, you talked about the people of the neighborhood being brought into the planning.

Studs Terkel Doesn't this raise a big point, then? The impersonality. When Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr and their friends lived on Halsted Street, they lived with human beings, individuals. Isn't there a difference today?

Margaret Mead Well, but there are a great many more people going to live as human beings with other human beings. You take the Peace Corps. You take VISTA. You take all the programs, you take Project Head Start this summer, with thousands of volunteers who are going to go and work with professional help, with I think it's now something like, it's up to 500,000 five-year-old children in this country. This is a great many people that are going to be working every day in the week side-by-side with a lot of little children.

Studs Terkel This leads to another point, I want to switch now, Dr. Mead, one I think you'd be interested in, I know you are, you know, for -- Until recently, 'til about two-- We were told about the younger generation being "the silent generation," now we know there's something quite -- This new generation that is involved with something quite different, isn't it? There are no prototypes for this one, or are there?

Margaret Mead Oh, well, I think that my own college generation was more like this one. Then this one is like the 1950s. You see, we had this long dismal decade with no leadership anywhere, at the top or at the bottom. And with youngsters simply retiring from any kind of responsibility and just trying to settle down and get married and have children, live in the suburbs. And now, beginning with the civil rights movement really, and with great impetus after 1960, we now have a generation where there's something worth doing, and when there's something worth doing, you have kids and want to do it.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking about this group, though, there's something special that, I'm thinking of the young of the '20s. To put it someone said, "They carried, they were marvelous young, they carried political banners. These carry ethical banners." Does that make sense to you?

Margaret Mead No, I don't really think so. I think -- I don't think we would have said we carried political banners that weren't ethical banners, that we were concerned with the same kinds of, kinds of things and then we had the long periods of the '30s with almost completely an emphasis on economics and economic determinism and legal solutions to things. Then we had the war, then we had this post-war slump with a combination of fear of the bomb and no idea what you could do about it, and too much affluence in this country. And now we have again concern with ethical problems, with political problems, with world problems, with aesthetic problems, all of the things that you get when you have a real period of turmoil.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking about this period of turmoil that we're in, Dr. Mead, it's seems all-encompassing, covers all the worlds you talked about, the world of art, the world of politics, the world of people and neighborhoods. So much has happened so quickly. You know the phrase, "triple revolution."

Margaret Mead I think it's -- You know, I don't like that "triple revolution," because it leaves out the population explosion, which is at least as important as the others. Let's

Studs Terkel Let's talk about that for a moment. The population explosion and the problems that this involves, you know.

Margaret Mead Well, it involves a tremendous larger number of people everywhere, whether it's children to be taught, or people to be re-educated, or just people on the streets, or audiences that are listening to things. Everything has been multiplied by 10, by 100, by 1,000, and changes our notions of what's happening in the world. But interestingly enough also, if you compare 1965 with, say, 1945, we have more sense of the importance of the individual than we had

Studs Terkel Do you think so, Dr. Mead?

Margaret Mead Yes, I do. I think now that, I mean you have more excitement again over the death of one person than you had, we've had really since the death of Edith Cavell in World War

Studs Terkel Let's talk about that a minute. More sense of responsibility in the issue of death of one person. Yet we've had Hiroshima, we've had Auschwitz, we've had -- We have Vietnam, we have whatever, you name it.

Margaret Mead No, not Vietnam, remember Vietnam is not Auschwitz or Hiroshima.

Studs Terkel I'm talking about individual, I'm talking about deaths.

Margaret Mead No, but the deaths, you see, in Korea there were very few deaths proportionately. We've been slowly, as we've got control of mass destruction, as we began to be -- Realized that unless we controlled mass destruction everybody would be destroyed. We've been moving slowly towards smaller and smaller conflicts and more and more distress at each death in them, and we now have a generation who've grown up to worry extremely when three or four people are killed, and a generation who have worried about each, and if you look at the releases on Vietnam, the extent to which a single person has again become important. And I think this is very, very

Studs Terkel Do we here seriously worry about the death of Vietnamese in a rice paddy, really worry about it?

Margaret Mead We don't worry about the deaths of Vietnamese as we worry about the deaths of Americans. And we didn't worry as much about when a Negro was killed in Selma as when a white man was killed in Selma. I mean, we're still limited in our imagination, but at least in World War II, we thought six American fliers were more important than 2,000,000 Poles. And I don't believe anybody, anybody in this country, would really be able to say that today.

Studs Terkel Dr. Mead, because this raises so many points, let's think of American life for the moment. The case has now become almost a cliche, Kitty Genovese, killed in the hallway, the 20 people walking, now we hear this so often, and yet isn't it quite natural, people living in a big city would not want to be involved because as they walk down or the subway we come to this, now, too.

Margaret Mead You see, I don't think this is, this is fair. I don't think it's fair as a description of the people of New York. I think people in New York will always help someone else if they fully understand the situation that they need help. You know, we had this episode on the subway the other day where a boy from Georgia pitched in. He came from Georgia. He knew what was happening. But in New York when you hear a scream, you don't know whether it's TV, or the movies, or people who make love like that, and you don't know what's happening and you learn not to intervene because you have no way of judging what it is, furthermore, you're told not to intervene by the police, you're told you mustn't pick someone up on the street who's fallen. So then we have a combination of legal restrictions on help and necessary defensive sensitivity so that we've built a world which is no longer safe, but we built it because we attempted to give people in cities too much anonymity and treat them too much as strangers.

Studs Terkel And it becomes something of illusion and reality now, doesn't it? You don't know whether it's a scream on TV, the screech of a car or the whine of a bullet. Now it's a question of what reality and illusion both becoming sort of

Margaret Mead Well, I don't believe that it's particularly illusion, you know, I mean, TV after all, we know what it is and we know it was put on in the studio somewhere it's a piece of fiction.

Studs Terkel We know it's a fake, yeah.

Margaret Mead No, fiction. [unintelligible] fiction. But if you hear it across the court, you don't know what you're dealing with. So people are going to live this close together with their windows open hearing all sorts of things. You cannot expect the kind of sensitivity that you expect in a small town where you know every child's cry and you know the minute you get a scream. Where a scream shouldn't be, you know what it is.

Studs Terkel Isn't this a paradox then, Dr. Mead? You think there's more involvement with individual life, at the same time urban Living makes us more anonymous.

Margaret Mead Well, now, this involvement with the fate of the individual I think is due partly to the mass media, that we are now able to personalize particular events as they were once personalized in the, you know, local gossip of a face-to-face community, that we're coming to live in a face-to-face world, and that never in the whole of human history has there been anything comparable to the shared grief over President Kennedy's death. The estimate was at the time of Churchill's death one out of every 10 persons in the world shared simultaneously in that ceremony, and nothing like this has ever happened since we lived in little tiny communities and news was brought by horseback.

Studs Terkel Of course, Churchill's death was more ceremony than grief. Kennedy's death, I mean, I'm just

Margaret Mead But they were both shared, one was a tribute to an old old man and the other was terrible grief for a young man. But they were shared.

Studs Terkel Do you think then, Dr. Mead, I'm asking you now as a psychologist and anthropologist, you think that the sharing of grief by millions on the death of one celebrated figure will make us more conscious of the sacredness of human life?

Margaret Mead Oh, I think so. I think it was very important. I think it did a great deal for being willing again to let children recognize that death occurred, that it was impossible with President Kennedy's death not for the -- Children of the country became involved, people in the country saw his own children mourning, and our separation of our children from any sense of reality about death, this was checked in favor of giving our children more relationship to the reality of human suffering again.

Studs Terkel It's having its effect, do you think? I'm just questioning, I'm wondering because we hear -- Indianapolis Speedway race a couple of years ago, not too long ago, stands fell, and a lot of people were hurt and screaming, people went back to look at the race that was going on, the races, you know, wholly, seemingly untouched by the agony around them.

Margaret Mead I don't think this is real. I think they don't know -- Many of them don't know agony when they see it. They don't know whether people are screaming theatrically or whether their screaming is real. And we've been collecting these instances and collecting these instances, but when you analyze each one, you find that somebody was operating under a misapprehension.

Studs Terkel So it's a question of misapprehension? Again, I brought up illusion or reality earlier because things we see on TV or in the movies or media that are with us very intimately, sometimes are confused with life, or life's confused with them, is that it? So we don't know whether to take it seriously or not? Is that what you mean?

Margaret Mead No, I mean that if you live among too many different kinds of people and with too little human experience, when someone falls down on the street you don't know whether they're drunk. You don't know whether they're having an epileptic fit because you never saw an epileptic fit. You don't know whether somebody is taking a movie. You don't have the experience to respond. But I don't think it means that people are less generous, less willing to respond.

Studs Terkel Is it because this, in a strange way, connects with me, to me, with your marvelous, you know, early book "Coming of Age in Samoa," the question of choices, is that too many things are happening to us? We have so many ways of looking in contrast, say, to a child growing up in Samoa, who knows what his position is, what his life is like, and grows up a more natural man, or am I misinterpreting

Margaret Mead Well, I don't think he grew up more naturally, he grew up more simply, they were less interesting, less complex, and less likely to produce anything than people in the world today.

Studs Terkel They were less likely to produce anything?

Margaret Mead Certainly they were less likely to produce anything. They weren't ambitious. They kept children back 'til the stupidest one had caught up. They were, they offered very little simple things and they gave people what they offered. Now if you have a society with enormous possibilities of aspiration, you obviously are going to have more of a gap between the aspiration and the reality. I mean, when we talk about the terrible poverty in this country, we're not talking about the poverty that exists in the rest of the world. People who really study poverty, as Oscar Lewis has, for instance, in Mexico, he looks at American poverty and just says it isn't there, that kind of poverty. But the poverty that we have is a kind of poverty of the spirit, because poverty in the midst of plenty is very different from poverty where other people share it because there is no food.

Studs Terkel Let's come to this poverty in the midst of plenty, forgetting about the pockets or some would say far from very big pockets of poverty, the affluent society, those who are middle-class, upper-middle-class, the poverty that is here, the move to the suburbs, the monolithic structure of it, isn't that it? People with the same economic, racial, social

Margaret Mead Well, I think of it as fragmented, you see, that people are living only with their own age, only with their own economic group, very sometimes only with their own occupational group, and they are losing track of the whole of society, that's cut off from older people and younger people and people of different kinds, other people of other races and people of other classes. And so we're producing people that aren't wholly human beings.

Studs Terkel So when you speak of an integrated community, it is not so much for the sake of a black man as it is for the white, the white man or a white child,

Margaret Mead Well, it's just, it's for the sake of each. But I don't, I don't think we can deny the fact that that for the minority group member who is, he has been more damaged by nonparticipation and lack of hope than the white child who thought he lived in a nice democratic society and never found out that he didn't. This, the white child will gain and become more of a human being. But it's necessary, more necessary, for the culturally deprived even than it is for the others. I think it's a little sentimental to say each group will gain as much. Each group will gain as much in humanity, but the deprived will gain a lot of other things like self-respect and hope.

Studs Terkel This matter of self-respect and hope. I know we should speak of a sense of personal worth. It's very important, you get a sense of despair, we know there's a sense of despair in the slums, isn't that the kind of desp-- is there a sense of personal worth in the upper-middle-class suburb with a child. Is it personal worth, really?

Margaret Mead Oh, compared with what it is in the slums, surely. Or what it is in the deprived people anywhere in the world. I mean, they're treated as individuals, they have names and identities and rooms of their own and parents, two parents usually, who are devoted.

Studs Terkel Or two pairs of parents.

Margaret Mead Well, that's four instead of two. They still have a large number of people who care about who they are and are concerned with them. They may not have as much personal worth as we might like, their view of the world may be very narrow. They may have very little experience of the whole of humanity, but I think we can overdo this. And it almost becomes sentimentalization of middle-class life.

Studs Terkel Npw, I was thinking, Dr. Mead, the phrase we hear very often is that we are a "child-oriented" society. Do you subscribe to this? That the child dominates us? I suppose due to the fact that many of the commercials on TV aim toward the kid to get the parent to

Margaret Mead Well, the commercials on TV are aimed towards a kid because in this country, the parents have always looked to the children to understand the present and the future. If they were immigrants, they looked at -- To the children to understand the present. And now in that such rapid change we all have to look to the children to understand the future. The children know more about the future than we do. The children were born here. The children are natives and the adults are immigrants now. And so if we have to turn towards the children, well, we're not doing it nearly enough. We're doing very little with it to incorporate the insights and the freshness of youth into anything we're doing. Or the controls of society are getting older and older just to the point when we need younger and younger people, and

Studs Terkel So you said the controls are getting older and older, Dr. Mead?

Margaret Mead Oh, it's harder, much harder to get young people into any kind of board or conference or a group of responsibility of any sort than it was 20 years ago.

Studs Terkel And yet the young are involved in their own way, say, whether it be the flood-fighting or Mississippi project, or

Margaret Mead Well, there are today a lot of lively students doing things. And if the only way we can be sure of involving them is to give them organizations, if they have organizations then they can work through them and demand representation as the young people in Snick do, for instance, well, then we have these activities going on.

Studs Terkel Somewhere you said, Dr. Mead, about old people, people 60 or over have so much to contribute. We come to this matter of early retirement, of the want ads "40 and over not wanted." And yet there's a great deal that that elder citizen, or not too senior citizen, has to contribute.

Margaret Mead An enormous amount, you see, because they have leisure. They're members of the modern world, they're not antediluvian people, after all. And they've changed more than any other people alive. They know more about change. And old people are very conservative in an unchanging society. If you have your children brought up by grandparents, you get great conservatism. But in a society where the grandparents have lived through the first appearance of movies and radar and radio and TV and all of these things, your grandparents become the model of change and they can give children a sense of depth, they can give them a sense of how much has happened and how much could

Studs Terkel And yet he's more or less superfluous, is he not, in our society?

Margaret Mead Well, we formed the habit of treating him as superfluous during the period of the immigrant. And now we have to go back and restore this.

Studs Terkel I know, Dr. Mead, you have an engagement to speak at the Diamond Jubilee banquet tonight of Hull House, you got to rest up in between press conferences. Perhaps just one more question is, what is -- You look upon the world -- You sort of optimistic about -- Your outlook, then, is one you feel that the solutions are here.

Margaret Mead Well, I think if we survive, and it still isn't certain we will, if the world survives, we have, and if we can solve the population explosion, which is the next big problem and I think that's possible, then we have plenty we never had before, we're going to have free energy that we never had before. We're going to have the possibility of an ordered world, and none of those were possible before.

Studs Terkel Providing some nut doesn't push a button.

Margaret Mead But it isn't a question of some nut pushing a button. I mean, we haven't got the world organized around nuts to buttons at the moment, provided we can keep in mind the fact that no one can possibly win a major war.

Studs Terkel With that in mind, that no one can win a major war, then the obvious, the alternative then is a world of abundance, which is here for the first

Margaret Mead The world of abundance is on the verge. It isn't here for most of the world yet, but it's possible.

Studs Terkel Dr. Mead. Dr. Margaret Mead, her guest, I should say, here at the Pick-Congress speaking on this day, May 13th, at the Hull House Diamond Jubilee. Thank you very much indeed.