Margaret Mead

Thursday, April 18, 1957

About this Event

A clarification that the “Men” in the title refers to Mankind. A brief reference to the speaker’s last trip back to the Pacific where she had previously studied a group of people 25 years ago. Observations and changes 25 years later. The conclusion that “if people are going to have to make a really radical change it is better to have everything support the change.” International relations. The kind of symbols that we have for international relations and our relations to each other. Questions that people in other parts of the world may be asking about Canada, and Canada’s changing role in the world which is changing so rapidly. The possibility that it might be a very good idea for us to scrap most of the ways in which we are thinking about other nations and of one’s own nation. Some remarks on Canada and Canadians. Ways in which we try to understand Canada, for example, by a kind of cross-referencing between the United Kingdom and the United States. The vote of thanks in Canada and what that characterizes. The under-statement and over-statement position. The various images that we use about different countries. Playing upon the differences between the United States and Canada. The use of the word “family” in international relations. A discussion of familiar images and their associations. Looking at models. The Soviet Union model. The Free World model. The concept of nations waxing, waning, and being in a state of youth, adolescence and senescence. Ways of looking at Canada. Some changes Canada will be facing. More useful ways of thinking about nations.

How Fast Can Men Change? (New Patterns of International Relations)

MR. JUPP: It is a rare privilege today to have as our guest speaker Dr. Margaret Mead, Associate Curator of Ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History. She is widely known as an anthropologist, psychologist, writer, lecturer and teacher. Some of her books have been published in the mass-distribution paper-covered editions which are so popular today in sharp contrast to the limited, expensive editions of such works by earlier writers.

Dr. Mead has been associated with the American Museum of Natural History since 1926. She travelled through Europe in 1926 and 1927 but has since devoted herself mainly to the Pacific. The first years consisted of a study of the children of the Admiralty Islands of New Guinea, then came a break in 1930 with a study of an American Indian tribe. The following year Dr Mead returned to the Pacific. It is interesting that in 1953 Dr. Mead revisited the Admiralty Islands after 25 years' absence in order to study the changes that have taken place as a primitive society coped with the problems of becoming a modern community.

Apart from the American Museum of Natural History, Dr. Mead has been associated with Columbia University, Vassar College and New York University. In 1947, Dr. Mead taught at the first of the Harvard Seminars on American Civilization in Salzburg, Germany, and at the UNESCO Workshop on International Understanding at Sevres, France. She is currently a member of the Macy Conference on Group Processes and the World Health Organization study group on the Psychological Development of the Child, and is President of the World Federation for Mental Health.

I have picked more or less at random a few of the high spots in a great life of achievement, the value of which can best be indicated by the degrees received from Barnard College and Columbia University, and from the honorary degrees received from Wilson College, Douglas College, Rutgers University, Elmira College and Western College for Women. Moreover, in 1949 she was named outstanding woman of the year in the field of Science by the Associated Press. She is a member of a long list of learned societies.

Today Dr. Mead will speak to us on "How Fast Can Man Change?", with a sub-title, "New Patterns of International Relations".

DR. MEAD: Some very odd things have happened to the title of what I am going to talk about today--part of them environmental, part of them due to a long correspondence between Mr. Beamish and myself. When I would suggest a title, then he would suggest a topic, and they kept interweaving, but I realized that when "Man" changed to "Men" in the title, and it became Ladies' Day, that a certain number of people may think I am going to talk about men. There might even be the possibility that is the reason the ladies came. This wasn't my intention. The "Men" in "How Fast Can Men Change?" doesn't mean men, it means Mankind, and includes women. So I do hope it doesn't mean that anybody is severely disappointed.

The point about change itself I want to also deal with rather briefly because international relations is what Mr. Beamish says he really wants me to talk about (in the midst of all this), and simply refer briefly to my last trip= back to the Pacific where I had the opportunity to study a group of people who 25 years before had been savages within all the meaning of the act. People who wore an absolute minimum of clothing--the women wore two grass tails and the men a forked G string, and with their heads liberally decorated with bones of the dead and hair of the dead. They were not cannibals. In fact, instead of being cannibals, they only sold their victims to cannibals, and of course demonstrated their complete membership in the human race by the fact they were careful in making such ethical distinctions.

They had no political form that could hold more than two hundred people together. They had no knowledge of geography, no history, no writing. Their religion consisted of ghosts in the rafters. Each family had their own ghosts that punished them when they were bad and killed the members of neighbouring households if they interfered with their own particular household.

In the 25 years from 1928 to 1953, these people moved into the modern world under their own steam. In 1946 they went to work and redesigned their own culture and did it far better than any anthropologist or sociologist could have done. They took it apart and virtually abolished every bit they felt didn't work any more. They emancipated women and set up a democratic society. They also emancipated children. Here they made a mistake--they thought we thought children were people and they were copying us! So children over ten vote at present. Children under ten vote, but their votes aren't "counted" at meetings.

They made each individual responsible for his own household and for earning his own living. They inaugurated romantic love and people have to fall in love now, and not only fall in love, but show it. They have seen and noted American motion pictures and they have a very clear idea about how young people should demonstrate they are in love. From time to time they have meetings, pointing out to the people that they do not behave with any appropriate degree of demonstrative love in public.

They vote by division in parliamentary style, and they sufficiently grasp the idea of fair play so that if there are too many people on the majority side and too few on the minority side, two or three responsible and weighty characters will go and stand with the minority "so they won't feel too bad".

Now, I am not going to talk about these people at any length at all. I want to give just one little sample of how far they have moved from a people who 25 years before were totally incapable of understanding altruism or any type of wide loyalty whatever or understanding science in any shape or form.

After I had been there a few days, about a week this time, they came in with a whole list of revisions of child rearing practices which they had worked out that was going to evoke the proper kind of character structure for their new kind of political organization.

They said, "Would you look through these? We have done the best we could with them--but they may not be quite right. We would like you to look through them."

I said, "These are very good. There are just two or three places where they are not quite up to date in terms of the findings of the International Seminar on Mental Health and Infant Development held at Chichester, England in 1952, under the auspices of the World Health Organization of the United Nations and the World Federation for Mental Health."

And they could understand the sentence--all of it. It was possible to explain to them what we meant by "mental health", by the words, "World Health Organization", by the difference between a governmental and a voluntary organization. In 25 years they had come far enough to be able to be communicated with in terms of our most advanced international ideas. They knew the place of the Admiralty Islands in the territory of New Guinea, which is a Trust territory of Australia, they knew the relationship of their little Capital to Port Moresby, to Canberra, to London and to the United Nations.

They called what I was doing "United Nations work" because I explained that the United Nations was interested' in knowing how fast people could change, and the whole technical assistance program depended on how fast they, could change, and this they understood and worked with.

The findings from this particular study that I wanted to use as a background point was that we think we have been wrong in our notion that slow change is better than fast change, that on the whole if people are going to have to change very radically, then a very rapid, across-the-board change seems to be easier for them than piecemeal, fragmentary change in which you change half your ideas and leave the other half just the way they were before, or in which people change what they do at work but don't change what they do at home, in which husbands change but wives don't. Perhaps it never happens in Canada. But in the United States sometimes wives change and husbands don't, or we try to keep the old building in the old form and put a new kind of industry or a new kind of operation into it.

On the whole, if people are going to have to make a really radical change it is better to have everything support the change.

Now, we have known this for a long time in terms of immigrants who have left Europe and left peasant conditions, and come to cities on this continent. They were too poor to bring anything with them so they had to buy new furniture and they had to learn to handle a different kind of money and different kind of relations of every sort, and they bought a new sofa so when their children, in the fashion of children on the North American Continent, jumped onto the sofa they weren't jumping on a sofa sacred to the memory of any ancestors. They had left that sofa at home. That is one of the reasons the very rapid pattern change works better--each part supports the other part. You don't sit on the old sofa, eating from the old dishes, while you try to express a new idea. When people move from the country to the city it is just as well not to let them bring their pig with them. Every time they do we have trouble.

If, on the other hand, they could move into good housing that is appropriate for living in the city, so they will learn about plumbing and garbage and all the things they have so much difficulty with otherwise, we wouldn't have the kind of slums we have today and people could learn very quickly to live in the new conditions.

Now, one reason that this very rapid change seems to work so well is not only that each part supports each other part, and you are not dragged back by bits of the old, but also that it is the kind of change that is appropriate for adults that have already grown up to be human and can learn another form of humanity just as they can learn another language.

This is all I am going to do with this bit of the change point. I do want to talk today about the kind of symbols that we have for international relations and our relations to each other, particularly some of the questions that people in other parts of the world may be asking about Canada, and Canada's changing role in the world which is changing so rapidly, and the possibility that it might be a very good idea for us to scrap most of the ways in which we are thinking about other nations and, of course, incidentally, of one's own nation, and use some other models.

I realize it is very difficult for anyone to talk about Canada--perhaps most difficult for a Canadian and extremely difficult for someone from the United States of America. It is also very difficult for an anthropologist to talk about Canada because Canada's national patterns are so extraordinarily subtle and even if one knows quite a little about the United States, and quite a little about the United Kingdom, and has also had a chance to look at New Zealand and Australia and so get a little bit of triangulation into the picture, it still is very difficult always to put any salt on the tail of what is really Canadian, although it is completely recognizable.

I don't think any well-trained person would ever make a mistake. I find when I stand on a street in a Canadian city and look across the street, it couldn't be anywhere but Canada, but how can I prove it?

If you take any item in the picture--the front gate or the hedge or the shape of the windows, you could find those in other countries but there is something about the way things are put together that is Canadian. It is a subtle aspect of the pattern rather than any grossly recognizable thing.

Of course we work to some extent trying to understand Canada by a kind of cross-referencing between the United Kingdom and the United States. I suppose you do that when you decide that if you take your enormous acreage and your still small population, add them together and divide them, you turn yourselves into "a middle power", which is, I submit, being rather American, to be so quantitative.

Or if one is trying to look at the question . . . well, somebody suggested to me the other day that Canadians behaved just like Americans at home, but very differently in public. I have found that rather hard to cope with, too. I am not quite sure how one deals with that.

Then there is the question if you try to take a piece of behaviour like the vote of thanks which has disappeared in the United States, we can explain why that disappeared in the United States because in the United States the speaker is in the child's position anyway. In Britain the speaker is always acting like father, and the audience gets tired of his acting that way and the vote of thanks is the way of putting him back in his place afterward, so the really good English vote of thanks is a masterly way of putting the very best speaker into the lowest possible status at the end.

In the United States we have given this up entirely and the Chairman just says, "You will realize from the applause (whether there is any or not) how much the audience appreciates you". Everybody jumps up at once before the speaker has got off the platform. Having been parents all along they don't have to be restored to their proper position.

In Canada the vote of thanks is very puzzling. You still have it, and it still has that eloquent paternal note that characterizes it in Britain. There is no doubt all the votes of thanks that have been tendered to me have been parental, elevated and lofty, but at the same time they have been kind.

Where the proper vote of thanks in England either doesn't talk about the speaker at all, but something else that the vote-of-thankser is interested in, or puts them firmly and irrevocably down.

I had a very nice vote of thanks in Montreal yesterday, in which a pun was made on my name, and I was given all the characteristics of that ancient and honourable drink, mead. It was done charmingly and at the end I was fit to drink.

Another point is to try to do something with the understatement and over-statement position. About two weeks ago I was in Vancouver and was scanning the daily press for a useful future illustration. The good thing about anthropology is that you get it right, you can always get new illustrations right out of the morning paper.

I was to speak at the University of British Columbia that day. The auditorium was packed and there were people sort of hanging from the rafters. The sentence that I had got out of the press was: "Times are changing and mostly for the better. Today, to get even a score of people out to listen to a lecture one has to be a veritable human magnet".

I have no idea where the over-statement and where the under-statement is in that sentence. This is a problem that we face very often in dealing with Canadians' statements about themselves because they deal with their vastness in such a quiet tone of voice. The combination of the recognition of the size and importance and future of the country with appropriate modesty which will demonstrate that under no circumstances would a Canadian boast in the way that an American does--it seems difficult to define, especially under the present conditions of enormous progress in Canada. To treat the present Canadian progress in an appropriately dignified and modest and slightly pessimistic and a little skeptical tone of voice requires a great deal of skill which no one would say you don't have. But it is a little puzzling in the whole picture.

So anything that I say about the possibility of revising some of our images of each other must be put against the fact I have firmly said I don't think I really understand Canada very well. I don't even understand, for instance, where you stand in the great trilogy of the cult of "cope, fix, and put-up-with". The English leave everything as is and fix their characters. The Americans fix, leave their characters just the way they are and change things. The Australians put up with, leave both things the way they are and keep their temper. What the Canadians do in this I am not at all sure and it might be that somebody could add a fourth term or maybe have a romantic combination of the three, as yet unguessed at.

But the point I want to talk about seriously today is the images that we use about different countries. Everything one reads today about international affairs discusses over and over again the role of Canada, the varied important roles played by the Middle Powers . . . the place where Canada can do something that the United States can't or the United Kingdom can't or Australia can't, and we are all of us who pay any attention to international relations, very sensible of Canada's strategic position.

And the times when you can mention dollars--dollars are very bad when they are American--they are symbols of materialism, but a Canadian dollar isn't a symbol of materialism. It has more dignity, more decorum. There is a suggestion that the ethics connected with its acquisition are higher. So when it becomes valuable to talk about dollars, very often Canadian dollars are more appropriate and fortunately, we use the same word.

There are many, many situations in which the similarity between the United States and Canada and the differences can be skilfully played upon under appropriate circumstances. But the point I want to bring especially to your attention is that we are tending at present every time we want to talk about good international relations, we talk about family . . . the "Family of Nations" or "The Commonwealth Family", and--the "United Nations Family" for the United Nations Organization. That is probably the worst of the lot as a set of symbols. We have tended to try to use the family whenever we want to say we are not going to fight. Sometimes you get "The Brotherhood of Man", too, but usually it is the family.

When one uses the family, one is invoking mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, and as, in the case of the United States, an uncle, which is not always understood. There are many countries abroad that don't understand the meaning of the government as your "Uncle". They get awfully confused.

This is again complicated by a tendency in history to treat countries as having sex which is really not very sensible. So we have France as Marianne, to be defended. We used to have Mother Russia--nobody speaks of the U.S.S.R. as "Mother" and if we say "America" for the United States, it is feminine. If we say the "United States" it is neuter.

Of course we do this with institutions, too--universities especially--and universities that did not admit women were all feminine. They had a sister relationship to each other. The sister relationship of two totally male universities is supposed to glorify something but I think it didn't.

Furthermore, images like the Mother Country, or the Fatherland or images that are drawn from brothers mean something very different in different countries, and if you really start thinking what it is like to discuss the position of a country, even in terms of brothers, you find great differences, you find in Britain the eldest brother has a properly arrogant position over all the others.

I was once told by an English girl that she didn't believe I was the eldest. She said, "You are not arrogantly enough secure". She didn't realize that in the United States the position of eldest is the most vulnerable and the worst. It is the youngest that is the most arrogantly secure. In the United States the eldest have to take their little brothers with them everywhere they go and the old image of the elder and younger brother means quite different things.

The image of a mother has to include a Middle East concept--every time a girl is born the whole country should weep, but Paradise lies at the mother's feet after you have wept, is again a confusing sort of image to us, internationally.

Furthermore, the most serious point about using the family image is that it includes the idea of age, relative strength and relative age and getting old and dying. This is, I think, one of the dangerous ideas that are afoot in the world today.

In one of the lectures you had last year there was a discussion about whether France was through, which is something that is, of course, often discussed in France.

What is the present position of England? Is she getting older and older or should she turn into Sweden? What that has got to do with age I never get quite clear. But in England one does get the discussion and people say, it is just time we became Sweden.

But it is the general notion that nations wax and wane like people and die instead of treating nations as groups of living people who continue to live and who might shift their contribution to the world, but who don't have to be treated first like a bumptious youngster, then like an adolescent. I think Canada has probably been an adolescent. The United States has been adolescent for so long we are not quite sure what has happened. Then you get mature, and then you get senescent. Then you are supposed to fall out of the picture.

These are the terms in which we are thinking today when we look at the behaviour of a great country like France. Is it going to go up or down? And we have a general feeling that once having gone up there is nowhere to go but down, which is true of human beings if you don't believe in Reincarnation, and it isn't a very good model.

Instead we could take as our model of where each country is going to be in the world and most usefully in the world, not from this universal biological phenomena of the family, which each country has played such a different tune on, but from that great historic contribution of the English-speaking world, the Committee, which is one of the most important inventions in the world today,

and it was made in its present form in the British Isles, and think of each country as a committee member with a non-existent or rotating Chairman. In other words, each country in a sense would think of themselves as the Chairman, because they know their nationality is the ideal one for the Chairman and what could be done with the role of every other country, as if being the responsible Chairman of a Committee one said, Now this week I want Australia on the committee--they will be able to make that particular point. Next week one may want France or Turkey--each one contributing. The contributions would be made, not being brothers where you have to argue about who is older and who is younger and who can run faster, nobody being a father and nobody being a mother, and definitely nobody being a sister, and leaving out daughter countries, too ... I think we could live without them ... but by beginning to build up a picture that each country is a responsible member and can contribute to be a responsible member and a unique contributing member of an on-going group, of a committee which is operated for the good of the world.

If we look behind the Iron Curtain, not with the committee model but the Politbureau model, this is just what the Soviet Union does now with the different countries inside the Iron Curtain from a totalitarian point of view. When it suits their purposes an editorial comes out in a Chinese newspaper and is copied in Moscow. When it suits some other purpose they send a Chinese Minister to go and talk to the Poles. They have got so many countries inside their orbit that one powerful group plays games with these pawns. This, of course, is not the model we want for the Free World. We want instead a model of a group of countries, each of which has a unique and shifting role and sometimes you want one on the committee and sometimes you don't, and you sometimes want this combination and sometimes you want that combination, and in which we steadily consider, for instance, what the image of Canada, what the image of the United States will mean to other countries in a given situation. We ought to try to get rid of the particular tensions and contradictions and nonsense that goes with the image of a family, because actually, nobody wants to live public' life in terms of the family. We have used the figure of" speech just to mean love, although actually families are, the scene of a good many other emotions besides love, and the contrast between the old and the young.

Take for example the picture of what the father means: in France, who will maintain his leadership in the family over his grown sons until he dies, or what the father' means in Germany, when the minute a man has a house of his own, the father shifts in his whole relationship to him, or what it means in the United States where the father is a pal from birth. I am not quite sure what father now means in Canada, but it must be somewhere in between these different points.

Now, if one invokes the father image or the brother', image or the mother image in world affairs, one evokes along with the love for mothers, hatred for mothers, impatience with fathers, pictures of old gray-bearded people, pictures of young men teaching children to play baseball and doing the dishes--these are conflicting, non-communicating ideas. Instead we might build up in the mind of each country a picture of the ways in which they can contribute in a steadily on-going committee type of world.

It is a superficially unromantic, the word "committee". It would be easier perhaps for us to think of quite different contributions we have made to the world. Yet we have made . . . and when I say "we" I am talking particularly of the English-speaking tradition--it is part of the tradition of the United States, and a major tradition in Canada--this notion of people who are temporarily appointed to work together in combinations that somebody hopes will work with a chairman who is there to permit them to work together, whose only job is to facilitate the task. This is a major social invention, unknown to most of the world, and being steadily propagated today through our various international agencies.

There are of course some problems even with a committee, because the English-speaking world wants a weak chairman on the whole, because they trust their age mates more. The Latin world wants a strong chairman to protect them from each other, so if you have a group of Latin people on a committee and a group of English-speaking people on a committee, you begin to have some problems to resolve.

But it is an image that would permit Canada or the United States or any other country to stop thinking of themselves as something that is waxing and is some day going to wane, because with the picture that one is now past adolescence and becoming mature, goes the image of old age some day. We are hopefully moving into a world in which we won't need to look at countries this way. We won't need to look at each country as rising to some kind of enormous military grandeur and then sinking into obscurity, but instead of a kind of world where we can have, if not a perpetuity at least a very long period of lively contribution, and this, I should think, would at the moment be something that might be congenial to Canadians to think about. Otherwise, as you are just on the crest of a wave, you are faced with the picture, is the wave going to get bigger and bigger, and what is going to happen?

If one uses the old waxing and waning and youth, adolescence and senescence picture, then of course the United States today is an old, old country, we find, although we don't know it. But other countries seem to think so.

And it would be possible that Canada might also form a picture of what you were going to be, which would include an eventual old age, instead of a continuing, steady contribution in the world. And as long as we think of other countries--I am purposely leaving the whole question of what is going to be done with the Soviet Bloc out of this discussion, obviously we can't fit them very comfortably into this picture, and obviously we are always in danger of taking too many cues from them as the other team--if the Free World could build a new notion of the contribution that each country could make, so that we all saw ourselves in a sense as the Chairman, juggling the points. . . . We have got to have a Canadian as the Chairman of that Committee....... We had better bring an Australian in here--the fact that they are away out,,, there is going to disarm some people that are over here" ... and in which each country was seen in all its special attributes. I believe Canada would then be seen as sharing' on this continent with the United States, as one of they things that can be used positively or negatively, depending,, as having certain ties with Britain, but sometimes you can make a point so much more gracefully than the, United States because Canada can be seen at present as" a newly developing country, opening up new frontiers, having a different relationship to the world than old and crowded countries.

One would think also, of course, of the special characteristics of Canada, as one must of the United States, that is any other country who thinks about us has to think about whether or not we are solving our race question and how we are solving it because we stand always to, the rest of the world as a country which will or will not succeed in solving our racial complexity.

You in Canada stand to the world as a country with two language groups and the question of how you solve " your asymmetrical rivalries between two complementary groups, conceived as different, yet nevertheless similar,', is again going to make all sorts of possible echoes around: the world when we are dealing with other countries that have complexities of the same kind.

I sometimes wonder what you are going to do when in the future all Canadians speak several languages as you are going to have to do. Twenty-five years from now we ought to be able to teach any school child to learn any language in six weeks. Then we are going to have Chinese-speaking, Urdu-speaking, German-speaking, English-speaking Canadians. It is going to be complicated. The terms "English-speaking" and "French-speaking" have become part of the protocol of intercultural relations within Canada. When you add five other kinds of speaking to that it is going to be quite interesting.

If you can keep it that way and administer it, it will make other countries conscious of just where their particular problems fit in with Canada's particular problem.

Or, if one is going to take the fact of such enormous land and relatively smaller population, and with Britain with a big population and much less land and the United States, somewhere in the middle at any point one can play the population or the space, the old or the new, the expanding in one direction and being dreadfully conservative in another because when Canadians want to, you can play the role of conservers of the oldest things in the world, I believe quite gracefully, when that is necessary.

If all of these were added up in one's own mind as they are in the minds of a good Chairman who is sitting down, picking his committee, and of course never picking a committee where everybody will agree, but only picking a committee where they will keep on sitting and will somehow come to the next conclusion, this might be a more useful form of thinking about other nations than this old anthropomorphic system of treating the land as feminine and the army as its defenders, or of thinking of countries as either one's mother, or one's daughter, or one's step-children or one's mother-in-law, depending. It might throw new light on many of the problems that today we get confused about when we argue about such things as Colonialism or Imperialism or even the "Role of the Middle Powers".

THANKS OF THE MEETING were expressed by Mr. Royd Beamish.