The April 21 number of the New Yorker features a long article by Jared Diamond entitled “Vengeance Is Ours: What Can Tribal Societies Tell Us About Our Need To Get Even”:http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/04/21/080421fa_fact_diamond. Anthropologists have a tendency — increasingly shrill and kneejerk these days — to be very critical of Jared Diamond. Mostly I think this is because he does what they wish they did: write popular, widely read books. I’m not as affected by this sour grapes syndrome as some, and in the case of this article I’ve already had my druthers because I helped fact check it (this consisted in talking for ten minutes on the phone with a New Yorker employee). However there are still some kvetchable things in the article that deserve a going over.
The basic idea of the article is simple. In it, Diamond contrasts a tribal fight in Nembi distict, Southern Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea (PNG), and the death of his father in-law’s mother (wife’s father’s mother, or WFM as we say in the kinship biz) in the holocaust. In PNG, Diamond’s friend Daniel undertook a long vendetta to avenge his uncle and was eventually successful. In the holocaust, the killer of Diamond’s WFM was arrested, detained for a year and then freed. Daniel was well-adjusted and emotionally reconciled to his uncle’s death — vengeance satisfied him. Diamond’s father in-law was haunted the rest of his life by the fact that justice was never delivered. The moral of the story, Diamond says, is that procedural justice under a state may not be as obviously superior to vengeance in tribal fighting as we might think. Its a typical anthropological technique: compare The West to The Rest, and open people’s minds by pointing out that They might know something We don’t, and that Our Ways may not be as hot as we imagined.
In its factual reporting, Diamond’s account of tribal fighting in PNG more or less rings true to me, and the things that don’t ring true are most likely simply variants between what is done in Nipa and what is done in west Enga, where I lived. I also appreciate Diamond’s spin on the topic — that tribal fighting is comprehensible and not mere barbarism, and that the people who do it are humans who live normal, albeit culturally distinct, lives.
That said, I do have some issued with what Diamond actually does with his data.
First, throughout this article, as in his other work, Diamond fails to think anthropologically even if the people he discusses are stereotypically anthropological subjects. Anthropologists insist that culture is a force which has its own unique power to shape people’s lives and cannot be reduced to an effect of an underlying, deeper cause. So when Diamond remarks that pigs are valuable to highlanders because they (the highlanders) are ‘protein starved’ an anthropologist is not satisfied. This has probably been true of different places in different times in the highlands (Nembi being a good candidate), and nutritional needs obviously effect human behavior, but so does culture.
Pigs are always valuable in culturally specific ways. When highlanders in PNG give pigs do they exchange live pigs or pork? Who gets the piglets from the live pigs, and who gets the pork when it is eaten? These questions are deeply tied up in issues of nutrition, but they are also culturally structured. Equally, Diamond writes that in Nipa fighters exhibit ‘unchecked’ aggression and then goes on to describe in detail the culturally specific ways in which they fight: rules regarding engagement (or nonengagement if you have relatives on the other side of the fight) and so forth. So in fact while the human desire may be universal (and that’s a big ‘may’), so is the fact that it is always shaped and channeled in culturally specific forms. The more you know about people’s lives, the less easy it is to explain them wholly in terms of protein, geography, genetics and what have you.
There is also a more serious problem with the article which is also the most obvious thing about it: it contrasts ‘tribal societies’ with ‘modern state societies’. On the surface, there is nothing wrong with contrasting Nipa in 1992 with Poland in 1944 — in fact its quite a fascinating exercise. But describing this as an example of a ‘state’ society versus a ‘tribal’ one is kinda loopy. But what makes us think that Nipa is a ‘tribal’ society since it had experienced decades of contact before the events described in the article? And Eastern Europe was a lot of things during World War II, but its not exactly clear to me that ‘state run’ quite fits the description of a warzone superimposed on an ethnic mosaic of Poles, Jews, Russians, and Germans.
Diamond hedges and says that state presence is weak in the highlands, and so we can see fighting in Nipa as an as-yet-barely-touched remnant of a pre-state way of life. I don’t think this ‘historic preservation’ approach to tribal fighting in PNG holds much water, however, and I think I can safely say that most experts agree with me on this. Consider, for instance, the following facts: These events started in 1992, under the Namaliu administration, during which PNG experienced its first major law and order crisis. The feud ended so that the two clans involved could oppose an ethnic Huli in elections. Diamond’s friend was actually hundreds of miles away on the north coast and had to be recalled to his home area in order to avenge his uncle. And of course, Diamond actually met his friend Daniel at an Oil extraction project which has profoundly changed life in Southern Highlands Province.
What Diamond’s article is really about is the transformation of clan politics and tribal fighting in the context of Papua New Guinea’s rise to independence as a nation. These transformations are no less complex for the fact that PNG’s police force and justice system don’t work like our own (or how we imagine our own work). But this doesn’t mean we can simply assume that there’s been no change at all. What Diamond’s article tells us is not ‘how people used to live 5,000 years ago before states developed, as preserved in Highlands PNG, compared to us, The Latest Word In Social Complexity’.
At root, the problem — and it is not a fatal flaw, just a problem — with Diamond’s article is that it teaches us that Other Ways Of Life Have Something To Offer Us, but the only way it can do so is by making Papua New Guineans appear more Other to us than they really are. What it tells us is that we modern Americans have something to learn from modern Papua New Guineans about our shared modern condition. But, ironically, this is a broad-mindedness that rests on the back of a deep divisiveness: we moderns only find their ways of life interesting if they are ‘primitive’. Anthropologists have argued for decades that this tendency to exoticize other people – ‘deny them coevalness’ is how some put it – is ultimately morally pernicious even if it leads to a shallow relativism which has a surface appeal.
And even if anthropology’s ethical hang-ups are not your own, the fact of the matter is that this sort of thing is just bad science. Treating contemporary violence in the PNG highlands as an example of ‘life without the state’ rather than ‘life with a particular kind of state’ would be like asking what Saddam Hussein’s rule can tell us about Assyrian domination of the fertile crescent. There’s nothing wrong with comparing the two cases, it is just that doing so in this way simply misses most of what could make the comparison interesting. Can PNG tell us about vengeance? Of course. But we will only get the message if we listen carefully, and are willing to realize that familiar models of ‘tribal’ versus ‘modern’ societies may not, however comforting and familiar they are to some, actually be telling us the whole story.