Blog / Anthropological Journals
"The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites," — Eli Siegel
The Place of Contempt in the Failures of Anthropology
We anthropologists need to be courageous critics of ourselves. We need to study and understand the desire in ourselves to have contempt for those who are different from ourselves--our desire to be exclusive, feel superior. And those who are different include, unfortunately, the very people, in tribes or cities, whom we study.
The desire to have contempt for difference is so common that people don't even notice it. We take it as "natural."
In the family, for example, when people gossip about the neighbors (who belong to a different family) a juicy bit of gossip that evokes contempt is a prize: "They say she guzzles beer with her friend every afternoon" -- "They say they're first cousins and when the baby was born it wasn't quite right."
At departmental seminars, how well I remember the desire to "get something" on a speaker and "prove" him or her wrong on some point, and then feel superior to the victim (and that was the purpose in the first place). After all, having begun so successfully in the family, why give up such a rewarding practice? What does that do to a person when, conducting anthropological research in the field, one meets people of a culture that's very different? Can the desire to have contempt interfere with objectivity? with perception? with science?
I've written about this in papers (some reproduced on this site) where I describe why contempt was damaging to myself, why it interferes with scientific perception in anthropology as such, and why it is hurtful to every person.
This desire to make less, which Eli Siegel made clear and conscious in his definition of contempt--the "addition to self through the lessening of something else"--is very popular. I think it can be shown that it has hurt anthropology. Just open an ethnographic account and ask about whether the writer--along with scientific observations--also may lessen persons who are the subjects of the research. Is their difference felt to be signs of inferiority, is it repulsive? Very fine anthropologists, Laura Bohannan (in Return to Laughter), Napoleon Chagnon, and Clifford Geertz write in a way that shows they were troubled by a desire to see "their" people as less than themselves.
The desire to have contempt for the different, and even the new, has interfered with progress when established anthropologists "put down" rathen than welcomed legitimate advances in our field--provided by persons other than themselves, from whom they would have had to learn.
In everyday conversations, as well as in sharply-written reviews, the putting down of another scholar can often be observed. It has seemed so staple in our field that it's been complained of and even satirized in the AAA's Anthropology News. However, this unfortunate procedure has often seemed to be the only way of showing one's own power as an anthropologist--to prove how superior one is by obliterating some "competitor." The distinguished Clifford Geertz, who was pessimistic about any improvement in the way cultures could be described, wrote that, nevertheless, "what gets better is the precision with which we vex each other."
If it were only our fellow anthropologists whom we disparaged or lessened, the damage would be severe enough. But even more important, perhaps, is that the desire to have contempt for people different from ourselves has separated us from seeing how much alike we, and the people and cultures we study, really are. This has resulted in a major theoretical gap in the social sciences. It has essentially stopped progress in the terrifically necessary scientific purpose of understanding what is in common among all human selves--as it is present in people as such, people in every culture. The result is in what Professor Geertz wrote, as he evaluated the very basis of anthropology as a failure: “Cultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete. And, worse than that, the more deeply it goes the less complete it is." However, In my experience, this statement is not true. What the truth of this matter is, I have tried to show in this site.
Historically it has been the task of a cultural anthropologist to describe, and interpret, a culture different from one's own. And, to do it as deeply as possible. Professor Geertz, in his Interpretation of Culture (NY: Basic Books, 1973), presents cultural difference as more threatening, more incomprehensible than the facts justify. If he believes many anthropologists have failed to comprehend cutures, this is not a proof that cultures are impossible to comprehend. It may simply mean that better methods need to be used. While the pessimism in his view has its attractions, I do not see it as accurate.
To see sameness within difference is the first requisite of any science. (Consider the elements in the Periodic Table again: the Periodic Table is based on the fact that every atom has the same particles in common--protons, neutrons, and electrons.) What, then are the "atoms" of anthropology? It is the contention of these journal entries that the opposites--the aesthetic opposites--are those "atoms." When Eli Siegel wrote, "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves," he gave the means, the method for persons of different cultures to understand one another with the depth that scienctific accuracy and the crises of our time absolutely require. It is the most unfortunate fact in the history of our relatively new science that this principle, which meets anthropology''s best hope, has not been given the workout that its truth deserves. A workout under fair circumstances by the finest minds in our field, a workout I would be most happy to take part in because it has been my privilege to have been taking part in that workout--the study and testing of this principle fairly and comprehensively--since 1968. The one thing that has prevented that workout has been the conceit of individuals who, on meeting new knowlege in the field of their own expertise, preferred to dismiss it rather than to learn.
To dismiss, even hate a person, rather than learn from them:--This is how Darwin was met (including by Agassiz, the famed American professor at Harvard) and by many, many others. It was how Keats was met in that blistering review in Blackwood's where he was told essentially he was unqualified to write poetry and should stop. It was how Edward Jenner was met by "experts" when he discovered a completely safe smallpox vaccine--though the demand by the general population, who wanted to save the lives of their children and their own lives, quickly overpowered the medical egos--and people instituted widespread, successful vaccination against smallpox across England. And this ugly contempt was how Semmelweis was met by the medical community when he discovered the cause of childbed fever (puerperal fever) in sepsis, successfully preventing the death of many, many women by insisting on a sterilizing washing of doctors' hands. The hatred of this new knowledge by the established medical profession destroyed his career, and then life. ["The Semmelweis reflex or 'Semmelweis effect' is a metaphor for the reflex-like tendency to reject new evidence or new knowledge because it contradicts established norms, beliefs or paradigms." < http://semmelweis.org/about/dr-semmelweis-biography/ > ] Related stories about the way Walter Reed, who discovered the cause of yellow fever was met initially; and Pasteur; and Jonas Salk, could be cited: but man's desire to have contempt rather than to learn--man's desire to build oneself up falsely by disparaging true innovation that oneself had not thought of has been interference to useful, lifesaving progress throughout history.
If all this seems to mean that a desire for false distinction--that is, contempt--has interfered with the development of "the science of culture" as A.L. Kroeber called our science, that is, truly, what it means. This contempt in our field has interfered with the great usefulness that the Aesthetic Realism understanding of anthropological data could have had for decades--to help create a world of mutual understanding and the good will that is inseparable from it.
Let us do all we can to remedy this!
Mission Statement How can people of diverse cultures understand and respect one another?