You know those people who justify their lifestyle and/or ideology by saying “Well, in some cultures, this is considered normal”? Or the people who decontextualise arbitrary elements of various “exotic” cultures to illustrate what they perceive to be human universals? I see some of this in certain counter-cultural social circles such as neo-pagan groups, polyamorists, attachment parenting advocates and so forth. (Just so that we understand each other, here, I’m not putting any of these groups down or accusing their members of ignorance. In fact, I’m part of at least one of these counter-cultures).
The comments that I read in messages on various virtual forums or that I hear in various get-togethers often lead me to be the pesky anthropologist, raining on every body’s parade. For instance, whenever I hear polyamorists proudly claim that this lifestyle is normal and honourable because people around the world have been practicing polyamory since the beginning of time, I wince and then . . . rain on their parade. I feel that I have to mention to them that the term polyamory, just like the terms homosexual, bisexual and so forth, are historically and culturally situated and cannot be projected across time and space. Not in those words, of course.
On the other hand, I also get the “oh, but polyamory is different from polygamy” with the elaboration that the latter is disgusting and inherently degrading to women (because people often confuse “polygamy” with “polygyny”). Again, I have to intervene with my anthropological explanations.
Often, people are glad to be better informed. Other times, they are angry because I just went and messed with their scheme of things, which does tend to get people riled up. So I ask myself why I keep bothering.
Part of that self-questioning leads me to ask myself if I am much different from them. After all, anthropological study is what opened my eyes to alternate possibilities for my own life. My decision to adopt several elements of attachment parenting (i.e. nurse my son beyond the typical 6 months, co-sleep, carry him for many hours of the day when he was a baby) was largely based on reading ethnographies containing information on cross-cultural child-rearing practices.
However, unlike the above-mentioned generalisers (again, I’m not putting them down . . . some of them are my friends), I put the practices in which I am interested in context. If I adopted certain parenting practices that appealed to me in spite of them going against the mainstream North American grain, I did it with the understanding of why mainstream practices made sense to most of the people around me. This allowed me to be able to see where they were coming from in their arguments and to counter the arguments with my own. It also allowed me to be prepared for the somewhat marginal position that comes with adhering to alternate life choices.
Folk anthropologists, on the other hand, are often unable to make that link that is created by cultural relativity. They tend to take the facts out of context and become unable to back-up the practices that they are defending against the scrutiny of the cultural mainstream. They are therefore left with meaningless statements such as “In some cultures . . .” They also sometimes fail to see the cultural context that exists in their own society and that leads to people around them being so adamantly opposed to their way of life. Finally, they face emotional distress when faced with scorn or rejection, something for which they were not necessarily prepared because of the lack of awareness of cultural context.
So this musing answers my own question regarding why I bother. I bother informing people, even at the risk of being branded “the annoying anthropologist” (hey, it could be worse), because I fundamentally agree with some of their basic positions and want to equip them with better toolkits to defend their ways of life against the “moral majority”, if such a thing exists in Canada. I want them to be strong in the face of cross-examination. I want them to be able to offer content instead of fluff to those who would question their moral integrity.
Ideally, I do believe that cross-cultural knowledge should benefit everyone who is interested in it and that it should be accessible. However, it should also be presented in a way that is consistent with anthropology’s value of cultural relativity. Anthropologists who seek to inform the public about anthropological knowledge have fierce competition, though. Popular media, with their frequent lack of depth and integrity,have a nasty tendency to exoticise non-Western societies (yes, yes, I know this term is problematic). Even seemingly scientific documentaries often fool people into believing that they are being adequately informed about cross-cultural practices. It is this kind of exposure, the non-relativistic sort, that promotes a sort of folk, or pop, anthropology and I’m afraid this will lead to greater misunderstandings within and across cultures.