Nothing Is Just

Last night, I had the last session of class for this semester. Since students have already finished their finals (a take-home essay test), their brains are pretty much not accepting new information during the last class, so I use the last period to get some feedback about my course (and hopefully sneak in some “words to grow on” in my responses). We were discussing a film we had watched the week before, and I mentioned that there was one scene that really bothered me.

The film, Slavery: A Global Investigation, details instances of modern slavery around the world. The segments I show describe slavery in the cocoa plantations of Cote d’Ivoire, and in the housekeeping staff of World Bank employees in Washington, DC. In the cocoa segment, there is a scene which includes 19 young men and boys recently freed and staying with the Malian ambassador while arrangements are made for them to return home. Some of the boys and men are covered with scars, the result of the slaveholder’s efforts to “soften” them until they accepted their fate. “How would they beat you?” the filmmakers ask. One of the men, an unnofficial spokesperson for the group, demonstrates, pulling the shirt off of one of his comrades and forcing him to the ground. The camera cuts to a close-up of the “victim”, his face in the dirt. Whack! Cut to the first man, a belt held high over his head, and then whack! And again, whack! The scene is staged so that it appears that he really is beating the other young man with his belt. After seeing the segment 5 times, I still cringe a little, and my students gasp at the first strike. It is not until the 6th whack! that the camera pulls back and we see that he is beating the ground, although of course a part of us must have known that was the case.

I told my class that I felt this was unethical, a filmmaker’s ploy to pull the heartstrings of the Western viewer. It is an incredibly effective scene, but I can’t help thinking, “how effective?” How effective was it for the 19 young men, recently saved from bondage, when the filmmaker said, “Show me. Show me how he beat you.” When, for my students’ edification, this young ex-slave forced his fellow ex-slave to the ground and began pulling off his belt? There’s an element of “guilt porn” in it — show our viewers how you suffered so they can feel guilty and yet absolved by their concern.

So I’m explaining this and one of my students says, “I never knew there were ethics in filmmaking, I thought it was just making movies.” If anthropology had to choose a single message as its central lesson, this is what I would choose: Nothing is Just. Filmmaking isn’t “just” making movies. Marriage isn’t “just” a marker of committment. Family isn’t “just” the people you are related to. Giving gifts isn’t “just” a form of exchange. Earlier in the semester, we had read an essay on American football, and the student who had chosen to present it had disagreed with some of the author’s conclusions. “Football is just a sport,” he said. But it’s not — it’s a means of enculturation (why are so many parents happy to see their kids go out for football?), it’s a way of expressing and containing aggression, it’s a symbol (and also a referent) of American masculinity, it’s a ritual of American social solidarity (never short of war are more Americans focused on the same thing than on Super Bowl Sunday — which is, if you think of it, a kind of war in itself).

I could see the “aha moment” coming, so I pressed my case. Of course there’s an ethics of filmmaking. There’s an ethics of everything. Journalists have a code of ethics. Anthropologists have a code of ethics. Heck, even librarians have a code of ethics. (Here I must admit I got sidetracked on the greatness of librarians, even to the point of urging my students to go talk to their librarians next time they were in the library and tell them “thank you” for all they’ve done for the rest of us.) Although formalized ethical codes can be problematic, they at least point to an underlying concern with how to act ethically in a given field of practice. And they indicate the always-present possibility of abuse — every field of practice gives its practitioners some kind of power, and all power is subject to abuse.

Which is why no field is “just” itself — but it’s also why no field is “just”. That is, no field of practice inherently produces justice or can wholly forestall the possibility of injustice. The condition that we might feel is “just” is the outcome of a whole raft of choices — and subject to differing opinions as to its “just-ness”. As a teacher of introductory anthropology, this is by far the hardest thing to teach — that what we feel and experience as the best way of doing things (when we think of it at all, when it’s not “just” living) is as culturally constructed, as historically contingent, and ultimately as deep-down weird as the Sambian ritual of oral insemination of young boys to make them into men. As I pointed out last night, the Sambians must look at us and shake their heads and think how disgusting it is that none of us cares enough about our sons to make men out of them through ritual oral insemination (yes, Virginia, we are talking about blowjobs here). When Catholic missionaries show up and ask the natives to eat their Lord and drink his blood, it is eminently reasonable to say, “No thank you, we’re civilized here and do not do such things. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a meal to prepare for my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather’s spirit.”

I guess you could say it was a “teachable moment”.