Crafting Gentleness

Thursday, March 01, 2007

There's cultural relativism and cultural relativism ...

Someone posted the following on one of the lists I am on. It's a pretty common attitude to find among anthropologists, folklorists, ethnomusicologists and suchlike ...

"Our job is to document, study, and put in context cultural phenomena, not to judge it. We may as persons have opinions about appropriateness of certain phenomena, and as sensitive individuals we may forgo studying materials that we find personally offensive, but that is as far as it goes. Everything human is there for a reason and if we understand it, then we can come to terms with it."

I'm not quite sure who the 'we' is in this statement. I would like to raise my hand to say that I respectfully disagree as far as my own work is concerned. Too many people getting blown to bits and beaten up and denigrated and displaced from their homes and abused and too many academics are contributing to expansionary dynamics of violence, coercion, domination, and oppression by their positions of value-neutrality, their purported objective distanciation, or their silence on matters that call for them to speak out. Functionalism like this ('everything human is there for a reason') is for me a position that I cannot hold in good conscience.

'Absence of judgement' is for me still a judgement call, and one that concedes the initiative to the rhetoricians, policy makers, and the financially advantaged, with long historical precedent. I live in the assumption that there are less misrepresentative, less partial, less disrespectful ways to make sense of what happens.

I think as professional thinkers and academics, with the financial luxuries and political privileges that entails, there is an onus on the likes of us to work as hard as we can to craft more respectful attitudes, more politicallly appropriate positions, more personally accountable understandings, to make our crafting visible, and to invite others to engage in similar work. If we don't, then I don't think we're helping much, and probably unhelping. We are sitting in the cauldron of discourse-generation, workers in institutions that frequently produce industrial quantities of unhelpful thinking for the purpose of institutional maintenance and personal career kudos. We can often unhelp when we are trying to help - best intentions can be tricky and cruel companions, but a commitment to more helpful ways of making sense of experience and relationship is possible, although it is crucial that we work out for ourselves what we address the 'helpful for what?' question as we go.

Cultural relativism works, for me, merely as a position of critique, whereby people who assume privileged, unassailable positions of 'Truth' are reminded that there are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies. Where cultural relativism fails for me, where it feeds unhelpful dynamics, as I understand them, is when it gives us permission to cleanse our hands of the political responsibilities of our own participation in social change and social life, when it allows us to persist in the dangerous beliefs that anything is natural, inevitable, or necessary, or 'just the way it is' (theories of 'functionalism' frequently fall into this trap), when it tricks us into thinking that we are merely scientists and that scientists mainly describe, sometimes explain a little, but surely don't get involved. Things don't have to be the way they are, and we always-already make a difference in relation to that. How we (human beings) do that is a matter for each of us to work out, as I see it.

I'm all for more careful understanding of what's going on, but I think it's important to signal that there are a few of us out there that consider our jobs in anthropology, folklore, ethnomusicology to be quite different from the one outlined above.


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