Addition to Memory and Respect For Your Elders

Posted on May 22, 2009 by


What I wanted to say in this post about Memory and Respect for Your Elders was this:

I was thinking in particular about tribes in remote areas outside the globalized diaspora the globalized network of trade. We would call them “indigenous people.” [I imagine] They aren’t subject to cultural diffusion in the way we receive it here in a major city in one of the most powerful nations of the world. Other ways of living might be seen, but it’s not really a conceivable reality for them. They know what they know and live how they live, it works for them.

With their isolation from the global networks, smaller societies and cultures developed societal-wide reliance on elders for their individualized memories pertaining to episodes, stories, and ways of living. With that reliance, came respect. [I imagine] Elders were like the big and major hubs of relevant cultural information in a small system; they would have all that there is to know about the way of life, stories of sustenance, and procedures of cultural and physical survival.

However, their roles in a networked system, where all kinds of random information is dispersed freely, especially with communication technology, what these elders know becomes less valued, and societal “respect” for them diminishes. Diminishes not because of decline of morals, but because the context, which now enjoying more access to other networks and other perspectives, does not call for it.

An example from the Lacandon Maya in Southern Mexico.

…older Lacandon Maya still have a clear framework that ties species (including human beings) into an intricate web of meanings and purposes, guided by their creation stories. This, however, no longer applies for younger Lacandones, and as a consequence new institutions and guiding principles must be established. The difficulty is to detect the differences between “applied frameworks” and “known traditions.” All of the younger Lacandon informants knew the creation stories evoked by their elders, but these stories no longer guide their behavior. (137)

Above seems like the standard narrative for indigenous peoples: an increasing tendency towards new institutions and newer networks, which has the consequence of evaporating the importance of the skill and knowledge of the elder.

From the paper: “Cognitive Aspects of Intergenerational Change: MentalModels, Cultural Change, and Environmental Behavior among the Lacandon Maya of Southern Mexico” by Norbert Ross, Human Organization, Vol. 61, No. 2, 2002

But this phenomena where the elder people and their knowledge are losing their respect, isn’t just specific to indigenous people. Based on personal experience, the trend seems to extend to “Eastern” diasporic/immigrant cultures as well who tell their kids to “respect your elders”. My dad in particular is all about that shit, it’s a conflict, and it’s messy. Not that I don’t, but, damn, it’s like he can never admit or do any wrong.

From the Medical Anthropology classic The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down about a real-life Hmong girl with epilepsy and her family supporting her and butting heads with American doctors, this quote explains well what seems to happen to elders and preceding generations for Asian cultures.

She cast them as a grandfather, a father, an eighteen-year old on, a sixteen-year old daughter, and a twelve-year old daughter. “Okay,” she told them, “line up according to your status in your old country.” Ranking themselves by traditional notions of age and gender, they queued up in the order I’ve just mentioned with the grandfather standing proudly at the head of the line.

“Now they come to America said Dr. Lee. “Grandfather has no job. Father can only chop vegetables. Mother didn’t work in the old country, but here she gets a job in the garment factory. Oldest daughter works there too. Son drops out of high school because he can’t learn English. Youngest daughter learns the best English and ends up at U.C. Berkeley. Now you line up again. As the family reshuffled, I realized that its power structure had turned completely upside down, with the youngest girl now occupying the head of the line and the grandfather standing forlornly at the tail. (206)”

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