Last week we put out a call for letters from our readers. Here’s our first installment. If you’re interested in submitting a letter to Savage Minds, please keep the following guidelines in mind: letters are to be no longer than 250 words and should address issues covered in Savage Minds and relevant to anthropology, broadly construed. Some months we will invite letters on specific themes. As with traditional letters to the editor, all letters must include the writer’s full name and anonymous letters will not be considered. For general guidelines about tone and content refer to our comments policy. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified before publication. Letters may be subject to minor editing for clarity. For the next installment, please send us your letters by December 15th, 2016. We will publish the next round by December 22nd. If you want to write about Levi Strauss’s take on Father Christmas, or perhaps Panopti-claus, we would not object. Otherwise it’s up to you. –SM Eds.
On the exceptionality of the election
Melissa Harris-Perry’s keynote “What just happened?” at the most recent AAA in Minneapolis was a captivating appeal to stop viewing the U.S. election results as exceptional, shocking, or out-of-order. To her, Donald Trump’s election reaffirms the United States’ century-old hatred towards minorities. Whatever white anthropologists consider extraordinary, posits for many Black Americans and Black Anthropologists the ongoing fight against an everyday reality of discrimination and violence – and she is right. Yet Harris-Perry’s advocacy for denying the exceptionality in this year’s election complicates strategic political protest. Protesters need the semantics of the exceptional to show that Trump breaches a new set of rules that were introduced by Americans electing their first Black (even if male) president. For many on the ground, Obama’s time in office hasn’t changed the world profoundly. Yet it introduced better policies for the disenfranchised, and the poor. This progress is now at risk of being overturned by a nationalist demagogue who clearly articulated his intentions of returning America to its old racist and sexist self. This return needs to be framed as the extraordinary for two reasons. Firstly, referring to the exceptionality of the situation helps advocates to mobilize protest. They use the exceptional to display their disavowal of Trump’s new order. Secondly, however, allowing anthropologists to use the exceptional as a refusal of the status-quo hopefully induces more ethnographically grounded research on the causes and effects of this regrettable political degeneration in the ‘land of the free’.
Melanie Janet Sindelar, Vienna University
The future is human
My heart was broken by the results, not because I didn’t understand the existing divides in this country, but because I was certain we would not overlook the threats to human rights and democracy so often touted by the now president-elect. As we begin to take stock of our surroundings we must now begin to plan – because never before in our recent history has it been so important to advocate for equality and human rights, especially as anthropologists. I hold that anthropology is essentially humanism at its core – studying our species with tolerance and scientific inquiry requires a respect and understanding that goes beyond politics, culture, and even time. And everything I do as an applied urban anthropologist is to this end – working to create better urban habitats for all people. Jane Jacobs, an urbanist and de facto anthropologist in her own right, gave us a warning about the future in her final book Dark Age Ahead – predicting either the total collapse or coming together of our species in a new “age of human capital”. I will be moving actively in a direction of anthropological advocacy for all of the reasons above. I believe as anthropologists we are uniquely positioned to speak up more publicly and to fight against racism, homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia, and general hatred. We cannot afford to be silent as humanists if we are to hope for the later outcome and as an anthropologist I cannot give up hope that the future is human, even now.
The borders of our political commitments
The views and behaviors that have most disturbed anthropologists during the recent election cycle should actually be familiar to many of us. Indeed, we often witness similar conduct from our interlocutors. At Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, where I work, I know men who treat women’s bodies as objects to be possessed and groped. I also navigate vicious homophobia, offering an alternative perspective without asserting my views too strongly from my position of power. To a degree unprecedented in recent history, this election has transported many of these behaviors and beliefs to our doorsteps. We can no longer leave overt misogyny, xenophobia, racism, ethnocentrism, or homo/transphobia behind in the field. They have become foundational, highly visible elements of political discourse that we are forced to confront. I advocate vigorous repudiation of the hatefulness and violence emerging around this election. Yet I wonder what signals I might be sending, both to my interlocutors in Kenya and to non-anthropologists here at home. Is it hypocritical to stand in solidarity with the oppressed in America, but accept entrenched patriarchy and discrimination there out of dedication to anthropological acceptance of the Other? Will women and LGBT individuals at Kakuma think I value them less than their American counterparts? We spend time among people with vastly different social and cultural norms from our own, without imposing our own values. However, the 2016 election presents an ethical crisis for anthropologists, and it should spur us to critically reexamine where the borders of our political commitments lie.
Rethinking the disciplinary obligations of anthropology
If there were a group of people for whom the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States was not a surprise, it surely were anthropologists who saw in this political ritual a final rehearsal of what had been in the making for many years. Accordingly, the consequences of what is to come should also be of little surprise whilst still requiring an attentive eye to the local realisations of contemporary practices. In this moment, I find two crucial relevancies to our discipline. Firstly, an admission that Euro-American anthropology has failed to productively and meaningfully engage its own surroundings. In the first few weeks after the election, it has already become accepted that Americans have little awareness of experiences that shape people’s lives in their own country. The notion of “shock” that traversed the media in describing the election result is an indicator of it. This does not fare well for anthropology, a discipline that aims to understand, show, and justify people’s reasoning and points to its own disciplinary blind-spots. Secondly, now more than ever, we need public anthropology. We cannot limit our responsibility to the gift of thought. In its American form, anthropology was conceived as public practice, and anthropologists have to be proactive in their other social roles, treating their academic status as a means toward the work of creating society. Above all, this moment presents an opportunity to re-think the content of our discipline as an obligation towards people who we imagine as our society.
The purpose of publishing on Savage Minds
I have contributed several of my essays to your website, but I still don’t know if that was meaningful in any ways, because I hardly received any feedback from my audience on your site (including you editors). I posted those essays not for some narcissistic reasons, but for productive conversations about the current state of US anthropology. I understand you editors moderate comments to weed out those with abusive tone. But if there are no “viable” comments after the moderating process, do you think that it’s your full time editors’ responsibility to lead some quick discussions about each contributed essay? What is your purpose of publishing those contributed essays? Is it to provide those authors with an online platform to get their work exposed to the public?