The Red and the Blue

I was listening to a talk (a brilliant talk, by the way) by an anthropologist who was describing how men and women of different ages and statuses move in and across inhabited spaces (houses, porches, and courtyards) in a particular society of the Arabian Peninsula that both values hospitality to strangers and observes a high degree of gender segregation. These two cultural values collide in many everyday situations where unfamiliar men occupy public areas of the houses and women skitter about on more or less sheltered paths, participating in the life of the household but avoiding prolonged or direct social contact with the male visitors. In the sketches the anthropologist showed in her slides, the assembly of men on the public-facing porch was represented by a clump of red shapes, and the paths taken by the women between the protected areas, steering clear of main entrances and public spaces, were sketched in pale blue.

Like us all, anthropologists live in the universe of signs, so while listening to the talk I couldn’t help asking myself, “Why red and blue? Why did she choose red for male and blue for female?”

The choice made sense in terms of the differences written into that society’s norms of decorum. Grown men were expected to be gregarious and to have an outside social life. Senior women might attend gatherings on the porch but often took a functional hospitality-providing role. Junior women had their own gatherings in secluded areas where no men were present, and though they might greet a male visitor, they disappeared as soon as possible.

So red, as a hot color, went with dominance and attention-claiming, and blue, as a cool color, went with recessive and attention-avoiding behaviors. The coding was intuitive enough. But what if the colors were reversed? Might the suggestion then be that the women’s paths were somehow risky, like a stone patio a barefoot person would cross quickly on a hot day, and the men’s occupation of the central area was calm and self-assured? Worth a try.

I then went woolgathering (during one of those long expository questions academic audience members like to ask) and thought of our shorthand division into “red” and “blue” states, with some “purple” ones hesitating on the line. I seem to remember that the association red = Republican and blue = Democratic goes back to the 1968 election broadcasts, the first to be widely viewed in color, and that the choice of color polarities was supposedly an arbitrary choice that has stayed with us (classic path-dependency).

But surely it wasn’t really arbitrary. Put yourself in the designers’ shoes. If the choice had been made to paint Democratic states in red, that would have implied a partisan view on the part of the network: red as in Red China, Red Communism, the red flag, red-diaper babies and all the things that red-blooded (oops) Americans were supposed to be against. Thus the correlation of Democrats with blue must have been a forced choice, an avoidance of possibly libelous connotations. Not “blue” so much as “not-red.”

Someone coming onto the scene today and looking at the red/blue political map might give it a different interpretation, according to which Republicans are the hot, angry, energetic ones eager to tear things up, pack heat, use immigrants, minorities and liberals for target practice, and bomb the hell out of any podunk stan that dares to disagree with America; and the Democrats are the cool-headed ones trying to preserve what’s left of the status quo, the rule of law, diplomacy, civil rights, equality, and progress in the acceptance of difference. Redskins vs. blue bloods: a different story from 1968’s pattern but equally motivated by affect and association.

That reading of red/blue has the unfortunate effect of making the Republicans the exciting ones, the impatient ones, the explosive forces of change, and the Democrats the recalcitrant √©lite. And thus of miming Republican propaganda. It’s not so, of course: where it’s not just destructive and lawless, Republican policy is entirely aimed at keeping money and power in the same hands as in previous decades and creating more punitive means of enforcement of the standards of an imaginary “normal America.” (The brew is served at full strength in the Supreme Court.)

An America, that is, where the Red Clump lolls on the porch and the rest of us skitter in the shadows, trying not to be seen.