Anthropology’s Holy Trinity

Karl Marx did everyone a huge favor when he announced that all history was the history of class struggle because then it was simple to analyze anything and everything confidently and crisply. But in Anthropology a new holy explanatory trinity has emerged to replace the good old simple one: Race/Class/Gender. You can barely refer to the weather without taking into firm account the now-triply-coercive impact of these factors. There are some immediate things to note about how these relatively reasonable independent variables are influenced by the prevailing ethos of the academic institutions which have affirmed their necessary role in peering at any social behavior. The first and in a way most dramatic feature is that the trinity is essentially composed of factors which are viewed as centrally negative. The use of Race (which is scientifically a hopeless, preposterous and dumb concept which should be embargoed from serious discussion) implies not that race is a positive matter but rather a source of inequity, loss of face, and the origin of variegated segments of oppression.

Another negative vitamin of the RCG Trinity is its unthinking association with the industrial way of life or of industry. Most folks in most of nature’s constituency don’t think in terms of class, unless they’ve been to the London School of Economics or any more expensive US college. Instead, kinship is all. Family, Uncle Dirk, Cousin Frank in Wichita – that’s the organizing principle of human as well as chimp and even bat society. You may be a big-city alderman or the owner of a Chevrolet dealership but you’re always a son or daughter or dim-bulb cousin first. Class as a construct was useful in trying to figure out how to deal with the conniptions of Europe when farmers had to leave the land either because of the Enclosure Acts or bad potato prices and moved to cities where they were obligated through the need for breakfast to work hard, usually for people who got to wear velvet. But as a cosmic imprimatur of how human life gets lived, sorry, class is rather particular as a tool and of course that’s why the gaseous term “middle class” serves countless suave commentators as a method of avoiding any punctilious analysis of the matter, as compared for example with folks who have tetanus and those who don’t.

Now we arrive at Gender. Most human folks if not virtually all have not puzzled a whole lot about whether or why or how someone is Boy or Girl. Largely, they just are, like rocks and downstreaming water. There is nothing wrong of course with seeking the bases of behavior linked to maleness and femaleness. I’ve done it myself. However what is unsettling is to begin with the assumption that sex derives from an outcome rather than that it is a beginning and end state. End states can change and usually do but there is so much currently known about the natural substrate of even such seemingly optional processes as homosexuality that the burden of proof as to causation is on those who strictly speaking argue that the reason the body is as it is is because there is no body. One other feature of this Trinitarian homily is that boys are bad and that original sin has now been reserved For Males Only – they are all-bad all-the-time. Here we have a new form of imperial religiousity but the problem is lots of parents end up with boys and now what?

It is I fear just too easy but also necessary to use the Duke symbolo-rape case as Exhibits 1 through I,000,000 of the profound theological power of the Unholy Trinity. Decent middle-class Americans as well as high-grade Duke professors and administrators acted like the solons of Salem or the thinkers of Loudon in France Alduous Huxley described so many years ago who skillfully identified witches of the mind and then offed them, usually after causing them pain in their real bodies. The New York Times saw fit to announce on its front page that Boy Witches had been unearthed but only later revealed their exculpation on Page 16 once the acidulous farce was exposed for the Trinitarian fantasy it was.

But surely we have to sympathize with how relentlessly easy it was to genuflect before our new arriviste Trinity: Race – them boys was white as Wonder Bread; Class – these were students at a rich institution learning how to class-exploit; and Gender – were they ever boys who played sports and drank beer. As far as the media were concerned this was as good a copy and travel opportunity as one of the recurrent finds of religious images of Saints or whoever in out-of-the way towns in rural Italy or Pennsylvania or the suburbs of Hyderabad. An avalanche of Trinitarian certainty could not be staunched.


  • Lionel Tiger

    Lionel Tiger is Darwin Professor of Anthropology Emeritus at Rutgers and the author of many books, including "The Decline of Males."

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