I recently wrote a short piece for a small panel in Honolulu. I realized that we talk a lot on SM about the relation of anthropology and ethics, and that I had never figured out my personal position on this. This paper is my first stab at a public presentation, and it can be “here”:http://alex.golub.name/res/storkist_logic2005.pdf. Honestly, I am not entirely happy with it, since I consider to be straightforwardly Weberian and too heated at times. But I thought I’d post it here since this is an ongoing topic at Savage Minds…
When Chris first emailed me about presenting on a panel about threats to the academy, the first potential threat he mentioned was “the right wing.” I immediately thought of “this cartoon”:http://alex.golub.name/res/storkist_logic.jpg from Tom Tomorrow’s strip “This Modern World.” “They know they don’t stand a chance against our relentless STORKIST LOGIC” announces one character. Please go ahead and “read it”:http://alex.golub.name/res/storkist_logic.jpg.
What idea does Tom mean when he writes about “really, really stupid ideas that infect the political mainstream?” An obvious first guess is Christianity. This is, after all, a religion whose origin story involves three supposedly wise men following a star to barn where a woman who’s never had sex before is about to give birth to someone who is his own father….
Honestly, what can one say about ‘fundamentalists’ who seek to emblazon the ten ‘commandments’ all over civic spaces, despite the fact that they cannot read them in the original language they were written in and follow only seven out of ten (points off for graven images, a false sabbath, and no rigorous monotheism)? You’re all teachers – think about that for a second. Seven out of ten. That’s a C minus — if you’re charitable.
But this is unfair. As Michael Warner (and Vincent Crapanzano, and Susan Harding) point out, fundamentalists do read Torah, just in a very particular way. And I can speak personally when I say that I include three Christian priests (ministers? I’m not sure what to call them) as role models whose profound selflessness and agape is indeed admirable. No, I think that the “really, really stupid idea” that Tom is pointing out is the storkist logic itself.
What, then, is storkist logic? By this term I mean a certain tendentiousness, a confusion of facts and values which flies in the face of logical scrutiny and empirical examination (I’m simplifying here but hey, I only have fifteen minutes). Now, there’s no accounting for taste (or faith) and there’s nothing wrong with having strongly held preferences or values – we all do and, as I’ll explain in a second, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. But the danger of storkist logic is that it cannot separate the realm of empirical from the realm of the moral – indeed, its danger is the way that it twists the former around so that it will support or disguise itself as the latter. This confusion of the two realms is what Tom Tomorrow is talking about when he talks about the ‘war on rationality’.
Obviously, the people exemplified by proponents of “intelligent delivery” threaten the liberal, secular and humanist values which are fundamental to democracy, and I think this is bad thing. I’m not uncritical of our political system (to put it lightly!) but at a general level I do agree with Churchill’s quip that it is “the worst form of government — except for all the others that have been tried.” Intelligent Delivery’s storkist logic also threatens the academy by jeopardizing the free and rational inquiry that is our specialty and which the general public considers simultaneously boring and indispensable.
But anthropology is in danger of being crushed by two forms of storkist logics – that of “Intelligent Delivery” as well as its own storkist logic. For anthropology is guilty of its own tendentious conflating of analysis and normative judgment in a way which is formally identical with the storkism of the right wing, even though in substance its valuation of diversity and tolerance is reversed. I am referring here to “NPR anthropology.”
NPR anthropologists have been mocked by Vine Deloria Jr. and other indigenous peoples from time immemorial for their naiveté and bleeding heart liberalism, but I believe I may be the first person to connect this attitude with a radio station – the National Public Radio whose syndicated color spots feature heartwarming stories of Jewish women donating kidneys to black men, and so forth. Equal parts unreconstructed populism and uncritical thirdworldism, NPR anthropology is a lifestyle filled with foreign movies, world music, and an aspiration to activism.
Now, as Weber (riffing off of Goethe) pointed out, its not unusual for certain kinds of people to have an ‘elective affinity’ for certain areas of inquiry, and it is only natural that this lend a certain ‘character’ to the discipline, but I disagree with those who would argue that anthropology has a ‘moral core.’ The idea, on this account, is that anthropology by itself teaches that ‘all cultures are of equal worth’ that ‘we should all try to get along’ and that ‘difference is a good thing.’ The problem with a ‘moral core’ argument is that it confuses the values that we hold dear as humans with an analysis, description, and explanation of humans as they exist in the medium of culture. And believe, as Shils’s akward translation of Weber put it, “the professor should not demand the right… to carry the marshall’s baton of the statesman or reformer in his backpack.”
Now obviously, valuing cultural difference will make fieldwork easier — but this is a methodological imperative, not a moral one. Similarly, there is a historical relationship between progressive politics and the Boasian research program, but that is different from there being an inherent political agenda to the disciplinary logic to anthropology – after all, anthropology and colonial oppression also have a historical relationship, but few today would argue that anthropology contains a disciplinary imperative to dispossess indigenous people of their land.
Nevertheless, my students complain regularly to me about professors who use the lectern as a bully pulpit to put forth their own viewpoints about recent political events. Equally, I have heard more than one person argue that teaching anthropology is itself a political act, and that it is the job of the anthropologist to convince their students that other ways of life are worthwhile. Often militaristic metaphors of ‘combating’ and ‘fighting’ bad beliefs are used. One colleague of mine recently suggested that fundamentalist Christian students studying adolescent homosexual initiation amongst the Etoro ought to be graded down if they considered anal sex with a twelve year old immoral.
Knowledge, as Foucault, once remarked, is for cutting, and while the anthropology might be particularly well suited to document the continuing history of colonialism in Hawai’i, kanaka maoli don’t need us to tell them it’s wrong, or our permission to stick the sharp end of our ethnography into whoever they wish. And when tourists past protesters on the steps of ‘Iolani palace, they are confronted with the visible manifestation of a demand for autonomy and self-determination which holds them answerable to the own values they derive not from our libraries, but from their own hearts. Similarly, I don’t think there’s anything inherent in describing and understanding Etoro initiation that leads me to judge it good or bad—I can do with values that I get from somewhere outside anthropology. And while I would grade down a student paper that spent its entire time denouncing homosexuality, I would do so not because anthropology teaches their judgment is incorrect, but because it’s not anthropology’s job to care one way or the other. We’re knowers, not judgers, and students who spend an entire paper judging simply aren’t following directions.
Anthropology relies on an internal disciplinary logic, of course, but I wouldn’t call that logic moral. Just because morals often rely on criteria, does not mean that all criteria are moral. Both the commandments “do not kill” and “all of the nails we manufacture in this factory should be three inches long” imply a judging of things in the world according to rules, but I think murder is immoral in a way that a two inch nail is not.
Ideally, academe is a place where scholars convince each other of their arguments through force of evidence and reasoning (including here rhetorical power) without regard to their interlocutor’s personal political beliefs. Indeed, the value of social science argumentation is that you can use it to convince people of points even if they have a different ethical commitment then you do —indeed, we value it exactly for its ‘disinterestedness’ in this regard. Obviously, social scientists are aware of the way their findings will be used in policy debates, and of course there is such a thing as lying with statistics. But my point is that, as Weber pointed out long ago, there is something ironic about the structure of commitment and objectivity in social science research. You may be passionately interested in ending racism, but if you value anthropology’s ability to lay bare the cultural structures that support it, the same values that lead you to anthropology demands that you set them aside once you arrive. If you don’t you’ll appear hopelessly partisan. Thus, anthropology doesn’t have a moral ‘core’, it is a space evacuated of morality but surrounded by it on all sides. Like a submarine full of sailors who love the water, anthropologists know that even a small puncture will cause their one small good spot of habitation to implode in a very nasty way.
Teaching anthropology as a moral science also has an air of condescension to it. For generations professors have been convinced that the plebs would be improved morally if they just read books that academics thought were good. Originally this was ‘the classics,’ but more recently Martha Nussbaum (who I deeply respect but in this case disagree with) has argued that reading Richard Wright is automatically morally improving. Anthropology’s sense of itself as a reformer’s science stems from a misplaced self-certainty which has a genealogy of elitism and classism.
Anthropology’s storkist logic also results in a lack of clarity about an anthropologist’s personal morality itself. Too often NPR anthropology results in a “laundry list morality” — a set of political commitments that have accumulated over time and which have little or no coherence except, perhaps, for a certain fortuitous alignment in the 1970s. A mere list without an underlying normative basis is no good in judging hard cases or in making sense of morally complex situations where there’s more than meets the eye – for instance, in the Amazon, where for years indigenous groups have worked with first world environmental groups to gain control of their land from the Brazilian government, only to lease it out to miners who turn it into a moonscape. What happens when indigenous autonomy is no longer aligned with environmental imperatives? Who is being taken advantage of when these leases are issued? The usual suspects are no longer available to play their roles of allies and enemies in the way a laundry-list approach might suggest. Because NPR anthropologists storkishly collapse their research perspective and their personal ethics together, they loose the clarity that comes from separating the two and bringing their moral intutions into the open where they might be clarified.
Finally, and ironically, NPR anthropology’s storkist logic undercuts its own aspirations to public influence. The public expects professors to be prudent, judicious, and impartial when educating their children and appearing in their newspapers. When anthropologists argue that their discipline is inherently critical or destabilizing they loose their public legitimacy as professional knowers of humanity and we invite themselves to be treated in exactly same way that they treat creationists whose ‘scientific’ arguments are transparently derived from their religious commitment — a sad end for a discipline obsessed with its ‘relevance.’
And indeed, anthropologists are increasingly being treated this way today. NPR anthropology’s storkist logic is being crushed from the other side by those who want to ‘speak truth to culture.’ I mean here the ‘Consilience Heads’ – enthusiasts for evolutionary psychology, E.O. Wilson’s sociobiology, Jared Diamond’s geographical determinism (which is undergoing yet another wave of popularity), and new forms of racial discourse emboldened by the dissection of the double helix. These people believe themselves to be even more free of storkist logic than anthropologists are. They read their morality directly off of nature and argue that dispassionate, scientific inquiry is the best way to learn more about our place in it. For them, the concept of culture and the ‘political correctness’ of anthropology (as well as a straw man they call ‘cultural studies’) practices a misguided and obfuscatory left-wing censorship against the forces of enlightenment. Alan Sokal’s hoaxing of Social Text in 1995 and his later book with Jean Bricmont is a good example of this trend.
Consider, for example, a recent paper by Greg Cochrane and his contributors. It found that there was a genetic link between Christianity, stupidity, and farming – excuse me, between ‘Jewish intelligence’ and ‘banking.’ Many people argued that the paper’s argument seemed to be better explained by the historico-cultural context that produced its authors than the data they cited in support of it. The scientistic backlash against this criticism was quite strong. “Why can’t this question be asked?” they demanded. I mean who knows, maybe black people are better athletes than white people – why not Or, to take another example, why can’t the President of Harvard — in the spirit of free inquiry – inquire into the biological differences that make men smarter then women? This sense of speaking truth to culture in the name of reason is best summarized by the list of do’s and dont’s posted on the widely-read website Gene Expression. The “do’s” include ‘respect for others, always wonder what-if [sic] you were wrong, challenge your intuition, and cite facts others can check’. The “don’ts” include ‘partisan hackery, political correctness, and social constructivism’. And of course, these are the people who receive attention in the press for speaking “in the name of science.”
I feel that anthropologists do their job best when they confuse the different hats that they wear least. The fact that humans live in the world means they can never be ‘objective’ in some sort of cosmic sense, and that is something most of us have gotten over. But this doesn’t mean that some very strong and valuable form of judicious neutrality is achievable in human relations. We needn’t restrict ourselves to the natural sciences when we look for models of this sort of behavior — think, for instance, of the values of prudence and phronesis that were central in antiquity. Getting clear on the separation of our research findings from the personal motives that got us into anthropology will strengthen our ethnography and clarify our ethics. It will allow us to understand how our ethical commitments and disciplinary logic articulate – for while I have argued that they are distinct, I would never argue that they are not intertwined.
Anthropology feeds data and models to our sense of right and wrong even as our values guide our selection of research topics. It provides the picture of the world, we provide the ethics to judge it. If we as humans value tolerance and we are told that Muslims are intolerant, we will treat Muslims in a certain way. But once we learn more about Islam and get clear on what we mean by ‘tolerance’, our attitudes towards Muslims will change – not because anthropology ‘teaches us to be tolerant’ but because we have deployed it to address a problem that is of interest to us.
As we struggle both to understand and judge events on our island and around the globe I feel that a judicious anthropology—one disabused of comforting notions of scientistic objectivity, but still self-confident in its analytic power— provides a rock upon which our own moral action may be based. But to go further—to tell others not merely how the world is, but to tell them how it ought to be —would give us a voice whose self-certainty and lack of humility would be opposed in form but identical in its poise with those who, as Tom Tommorow put it, wage a “war with rationality.”