Monday, December 13, 2010

My Nightmare: Anthropology as Moral indignation

As we were getting ready for bed my wife mentioned the article in the New York Times. “What is this with the Anthropology Association ditching the word ‘science’?,” she said. I hadn’t seen the Times that day, and immediately hunted up the article. Sure enough, the article by Nicholas Wade said the executive board of the AAA had stripped the word “science” from its long-term plan. The “science faction” in the Association was alarmed, blaming it on “the advocates for native peoples or human rights,” the moralists who want to change the world through anthropology. I knew it! The moralizers have taken over, the guys who want to abandon anthropology, the article said, because it was linked to colonialism.

The news was so upsetting that I couldn’t sleep. I had nightmares all night. I dreamed anthropology had been taken over by the “Moral Indignation” faction, driving the “science faction” to the margins, reducing it to only two panels at the AAA meetings. The whole scene left me confused and conflicted about what I had been doing. I had always thought I did “science” because I sought to ground my descriptions of the world by logically demonstrating my claims empirically. Trained in the dark age of the 1960s, I thought anthropology was “the science of history.” The moralists were now dissing my scientific pretensions -- and now they were in control of the AAA. At the same time, admittedly, I have been filling my blog with my own moral outrage, so in a way I am one of them. I can be as self-righteous as the best of them. And in my dreams I told them so: “Look at all the things I wrote about the neocons after 2000,” I told them. “I'm as good at moral outrage as the best of you; I’m on a par with Edward Said.” Anyway, I admitted it: I love to be self-righteous. And I have the evidence to prove it.

But there was a difference: I regarded my moral indignation as a diversion. What I have taken seriously has been my “science,” my grounded descriptions of a world that is tangled, conflicted, and changeable. But I never thought my self-righteous critiques were my most important contributions to my profession. Now the moralists are saying that I have it all wrong: my attempts to logically demonstrate descriptions of the world as I have found it cannot compare with the importance of my professional outrage.

I began to wonder what these moralizers might do to my discipline. My colleague John R Bowen has lately been producing brilliant reports on what he calls “an anthropology of public reasoning.” What will they do to that? Should his title instead have been, “A moral critique of public reasoning”? But it turns out that John is out of date too, because he grounded his reports on personal interviews with real people, even identifying them by their real names. Anyway, if he was going to write about the French, why couldn’t it be about the contemptible pretensions of “being French”? Or “French hubris.?”

I was uncomfortable with the moralizers for another reason: I am not used to being so au currant. When was my work ever so main-stream? It feels strange to be ahead of the curve for once. In my sleep I of course made the obvious decision: I now would emphasize my self-righteous critiques of the world; but once in a while I might write some “science” for diversion.

It was a hard night. When I finally woke up I googled the actual report of the AAA and found out what had really happened. The President of the Association, Virginia Dominguez, explained that the board had “replaced the term “science” in the preface of the planning document by a more specific (and inclusive) list of research domains” in order to accommodate those who don’t think they are doing science. Somehow, with the sun up, the world seemed better, more sane. The Morally Indignant faction hasn’t actually taken over the AAA yet. Things aren’t as bad as I feared. It was only a nightmare.

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