Are We All the Same? Or Are We all Different?

Driven by the epistemological quest to decipher the ever complex human species, Anthropologists try to understand why we do the things the way we do, what unites us as species and, ultimately, what differentiates us as individuals. Much simpler said than done, Anthropologists thus tackle one of the most important paradoxical dualities concerning human beings; “we are all the same, yet we are all different”.

To those of you who read this and think, “we’re all human, we’re all the same, love and peace for everyone!”, well fortunately you are not wrong. Indeed it is true, we breathe, we eat, we sleep, and of course our days are numbered. This is an unarguable truth applicable to any human being on this planet, unless of course you are surfing the internet looking at memes, well then you might be classified as a new form of species that doesn’t need to sleep or to eat. Jokes aside however, there are many aspects of the human species and human culture that are true for everyone, and many have argued and searched for such universalities. In actuality however, as human beings capable of developing human culture, we have characterised and thus distinguished even the basics of such human universalities. For “to be human is not just to breathe; it is to control one’s breathing, by yoga like techniques, so far as to hear in inhalation and exhalation the literal voice of God pronouncing His own name – “hu Allah.” It is not just to talk, it is to utter the appropriate word and phrases in the appropriate social situations in the appropriate tone of voice and with the appropriate evasive indirection. It is not just to eat; it is to prefer certain foods cooked in certain ways and to follow a rigid table etiquette in consuming them. It is not even just to feel but to feel certain quite distinctively Javanese (and essentially untranslatable) emotions “patience,” “detachment,” ”resignation,” “respect.”

Traditionally, Anthropologists took the specificities end of the spectrum in the two opposing extremes of the debate between universalities and specificities. If talking about the study of the subjective “self” for example, while psychologists and the like argued that culture, metaphorically speaking, is simply layers of clothing that cover the identities of human beings, much like how cloth covers the human body, suggesting that the “natural self” exists beneath cultural expression (universal), Anthropologists argued that the relationship between culture and identity, and thus the subjective “self”, cannot be understood by such a metaphor, rather the culturally specific self is an indicator of contours of culture that shape the self in profound ways (specific). A more progressive and postmodernist approach to this debate which most Anthropologists support today, actually involves the combination of the two extremes. Applicable to the notions of identity and the subjective “self”, but also most importantly to the more general study of human culture, is the idea that individuals appropriate cultural symbols to assuage and manage the psychodynamically generated dilemmas we all face.

Simply put the consensus gentium approach other social scientists’ take, although is appropriate to fully understand the scope of human life (or at least try to), one must always consider specificities, as in Anthropology, because it encapsulates the social reality that humanity is as various in its essence as much as it is in its expression. Claiming that all societies have some form of religion is plausible as much as it is generalized, yet such empirical statements become empty and hollow if not meaningless as one begins to understand, through rigorous analysis, that religion in one society may mean tearing a pulsing heart from the bodies of human sacrifices as offerings, while in another it means to dance to the benevolent gods of rain.


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