Who’s In and Who’s Out of Institutions (and the immigrants between)


The British social anthropologist Mary Douglas had this to say about institutions:

Inside a religious body you get sects and hierarchies, inside an information network you get bazaars and cathedrals, it is the same, call them what you like. They survive by pointing the finger of blame at each other.

That about sums it up, doesn’t it?

Douglas is most famous for her theory of dirt: She claimed that human groups form solidarity by what we consider disgusting. For example, if your group considers eating sheep’s eyes disgusting, you’re unlikely to become very intimate with the group next door that considers sheep’s eyes a delicacy.

Douglas claims that human groups, or “institutions,” allow those inside the institution to point fingers at those outside the institution. As we stand inside and point fingers, we develop group cohesion: there’s an inside and an outside.

But, it doesn’t stop there.

Douglas thought that first we off-load responsibility for our actions onto an institution, then we begin to allow the institution to think for us. As a matter of fact, Douglas believed that our institutions operate exactly opposite from the way we generally think they do: we think institutions make small, rote decisions for us; but, actually, we allow institutions to do the big thinking for us, and we stick to the small stuff (–you know, such as consuming too many calories and avoiding exercise. Stuff like that.)

Because . . . it’s not easy bearing personal responsibility for the things that institutions such as government do. Yet, if we intend to lead an examined life, we must look in the mirror and ask ourselves what benefits we get from those things we off-load onto institutions.

Let’s think about government . . . oh, say, the United States government: bad immigration policy; institutionalized racism; millions of working poor; gun “freedom” that kills thousands per year, and poorly regulated industry, to name a few problems. Now, ask yourself, What benefits do I get by being in that group?

It’s disturbing.

It’s disturbing because Dr. Douglas is not saying, human beings form institutions and then wag their fingers at outsiders when they aren’t thinking about it or when we get lazy or when we fail to change wrongs. She isn’t saying those other people do that. She’s saying that’s what ALL institutions do. It’s disturbing because a basic fact of human nature is that we form groups, then we lose any ability to act morally concerning those things we have given away to an institution. Then we benefit from the immoral actions.

Now, you can say, “Oh, well, she’s just a crazy leftist feminist postmodernist, so, you know how THEY are!”

Or we can say, “hmm, that’s interesting! How can we use that human propensity both to better understand institutions that we don’t like, and those we do?

How can we use that idea to create institutions that encourage the sort of human action that we see as positive, rather than the sort that we see as negative?

I know you’re already way ahead of me on this . . . ideally, Unitarian Universalist congregations are places where people are not only encouraged, but required to question assumptions. Places where we encourage finger-pointing at systemic injustices, not at the people who may or may not be perpetrating the injustices, for whatever reasons . . .

If we look at Mary Douglas’s ideas from this perspective, they aren’t quite as crazy. Or quite as ivory tower!

Take, for example, immigration.

Consider for a moment that, as nations go, Mexico is not a a poor one. As nations go, the average Mexican is somewhere in the mid-range of income and social well-being for human beings on the planet. It isn’t that Mexico is poor, by international standards, but rather that the income disparity between Mexicans and North Americans is large–as a matter of fact, the disparity is the largest of any two bordering nations on earth.

That goes a long way toward explaining why people might consider crossing a border. To me, anyway, it’s hard to point my finger at a group of people trying to do that.

How have we–and let’s listen to Mary Douglas and include all of us–how have WE—the institution called the USA–responded to the immigration issue? Rather than facilitating the flow of people back and forth across the border, we have tried to stop the flow–we are still following that policy.

Now, I’m old enough to remember when the border was porous. People came here for summer work, then went back to Mexico–they went back home–for the winter. People can’t do that anymore. Because we have spent billions of dollars to stop them. They’re stuck here.

What would you do, if you found yourself stuck in a foreign country, no way out?

First you would go to the embassy, right?

Then you would start calling on your support network . . . family and friends.

Then you would get out your credit cards . . . see if throwing money around might help . . .

What if your loved ones were across the border?

How long would it take before you just took off walking . . . ?

I have a challenge for you: listen to Mary Douglas and get outside your comfort zone. Call yourself on one of your prejudices . . . . Call your own bluff on one of the “institutions” where you sit comfortably and point fingers from . . .

Maybe it’s the institution called race. Maybe it’s the institution called social class. Perhaps it’s the institution called education. Perhaps you wag your finger at close-minded people.


Try reminding yourself this week that, as psychologist Steven Pinker puts it,

“Our minds are organs (like the lungs), not pipelines to the truth.”

Our minds are organs, not pipelines to the truth.

Try it. Actually realize that your brain is an evolved organ and has its limitations. And your brain is NOT an institution.

This week, call yourself on one of your prejudices. Call yourself on one of the things you get away with because of an institution you belong to. Step outside your comfort zone. Actually listen to someone who your prejudice tells you can’t have ANYTHING valuable to say.

Instead of pointing a finger and even wagging it a little, sit back and listen.

Try it.

Swing Vote in the Bitter Election: Reflections on Orlando
You should start a meme, they said...
A Plea for a Philosophical Plank in Party Platforms
On Outrage and Douchebags
About David Breeden

The Rev. Dr. David Breeden is Senior Minister at First Unitarian Society in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He became a minister after a career as a university professor, teaching creative writing and literature. He has written several books on theological topics and translates the writings of philosophers of classical antiquity. More information is available at www.wayofoneness.com.