Allen L. Wold: An Interview

The following is copyright 2008 Allen Wold and was first featured on The Writing of a Wisoker on the Loose in July 2010.

A Broader Menu

 Allen L.Wold

It is human nature, maybe even animal nature, to be apprehensive about people who are different from us. People have always lived in families, and clans — which are extended families — and tribes — which are extended clans. People have always, when they wanted something, asked another family member for it, “borrowed” it from another clan, or just taken it from another tribe. Over millions of years, we have learned that strangers among us probably want something, and probably intend to take it, by force if necessary. Just as we would.

In every society, a people’s name for themselves translates, roughly, as “the people,” or “human,” or “us.” Everybody else is, by definition, not us, not people, not human. That makes it easy for “us” to take what we want from “them,” since, after all, they’re barely human anyway. And it helps explain why we — whoever we are — knowing what we do about how dangerous we are, fear those others who are at least as dangerous, and who wouldn’t be here if they didn’t want to take our stuff. Whether our ancestors were indigenous or invaders (colonists) makes no difference. The other is to be feared.

But.

We are human. One thing that tends to differentiate humans from animals is, not language, not tool use, not self-recognition, not teaching, because all these traits are exhibited to some degree in animals. It’s that humans are able to override their most basic instincts. Every other animal (I don’t know of exceptions), when it is able, must breed. Humans can choose not to. The reasons are not important, it’s that we have the choice, which overrides one of our most basic biological drives. We commit suicide. We sacrifice ourselves for others when there is no genetic advantage to be gained. We diet, when every other species in the world always eats as much as possible whenever possible — because we can override that basic instinct, that biological drive.

Humans also have culture which, to a great extent, serves the same function as, and takes the place of instinct. Culture determines our behavior in the context of a species which is not bound by instinct. Instinct drives us to find mates — culture determines dating practices and marriage customs. The further a behavior is removed from instinct, the more likely it is to be determined by culture. It’s what dictates national styles of dress, of cuisine, of greeting, of language — even, in some cases, how loquacious we are.

But.

Being human also means that — if we give ourselves the chance — we are no more bound by our culture than we are by our instincts, although, it is true, going against our culture can be more difficult than going against our animal nature. Culture, after all, defines us as a people — a tribe, a clan, a family. Rejecting our culture means we reject our family, or our clan — or our nation — even our humanity.

But we do it all the time. We move to a different neighborhood, and learn how to get along. We visit other countries, and learn how to behave so that we aren’t ostracized, or driven out. We can and do adapt ourselves to the culture in which we find ourselves.

It is harder for us to adapt to people from outside our culture who come to visit us. We know that when we take a vacation in France, we are not really on a raiding party to pillage whatever we can carry away. But when strangers come among us — those uncultured semi-humans who are invading our territory — even if we are responsible for their being here in the first place — the old instincts kick in. The fear of the outsider.

Instinct is not thought. If we think about it, we know that the outsider is probably no more rapacious than we are. (Of course, if we are rapacious….) But most of the time, thought does not enter into it, when we respond to those who are different from us. Our apprehension is instinctive.

But, we are human, and if we are at all culturally experienced, we don’t have to let that apprehension, whether instinctual or cultural, dictate our behavior toward others. We can meet any person with the same respect we show members of our own family, our own clan, our own nation — the same respect which we feel is owed to ourselves. When we do that, we discover that differences become exciting and enriching, instead of frightening.

I like standing rib, mashed potatoes and gravy, with green peas. I get it maybe once or twice a year. The thought of having that, and only that, at every meal, every day, always the same, is appalling. How about a hamburger for a change? Or barbecued chicken? Or baked whitefish. Or tacos, pizza, spaghetti, curry, bacon and eggs, blueberry pie, sushi, green beans, watermelon, peanut butter, stir fry, pork chops — oh my. Oh my.

It’s the same with people, really, or it should be, despite our instincts, or our cultural tendencies. The wider the variety of the people we meet, and live with, and work with, and play with, the greater our enjoyment of life, the greater our appreciation of each of them. Or, we can exclude all strangers, and eat roast beef, mashed potatoes, and green peas — and nothing else — for the rest of our lives.

I prefer a broader menu.