August 25th, 2009


Progress versus diversity

My report on Professor Alan Macfarlane's lecture on the Japanese legal system to a classroom of Cambridge undergraduates -- Keep distant the hell of accusation -- led to some lively debate and, ironically, not a little accusation, with some commenters finding Professor Macfarlane more apologist than anthropologist. The thread went to over a hundred comments and fragmented, in the usual LiveJournal way, into collapsed sub-threads which need to be laboriously expanded, but I wanted to resurrect... not the debate itself, which I think could run and run into ever-more-arid and specialised areas, like some sort of tedious legal dispute about tedious legal disputes, but an idea that came up late in the debate, one I formulated more clearly than I'd done before.

The idea is that political progressivism and anthropological objectivity are inevitably at odds, because the first champions universal standards and the second champions difference. Trying to impose universal standards, no matter how nobly, risks imposing a monocultural universalism; combined with power, it fits all-too-easily into exactly the kind of neo-imperial framework progressives have traditionally deplored. The idea of progress, as applied to human rights and law and custom and so on, is at odds with the fundamental premise of anthropology, which is to study existing systematic differences in a non-judgmental way. The idea of progress all-too-readily implies a single-track route towards "the good thing" (or "civilisation"), a track on which some trains are "ahead", others "behind". This progressive idea becomes a sort of chauvinism when the speaker -- no matter how liberal -- happens to believe his is the civilisation "ahead".

Liberalism plus globalisation equals a claim from some that liberalism is a new universalism, one that can be spread via global bodies like the UN, by business, or by war. This is why neo-imperialist hawks have, over the last 20 years, increasingly adopted the vocabulary of human rights, the rule of law, and so on. But anthropologists don't and can't think in this way. They don't and can't see a convergence -- bureaucratically or militarily enforced -- between different cultures as a desireable outcome. Their job is to describe difference, and the origins of difference. Anthropologists therefore annoy the naive proponents of a universal liberalism. Even if the substance of their findings isn't at issue, this framing is, for soft-left progressives, problematical, because it derails their one-track picture of "progress" -- a timeline heading towards "the good thing".

Okay, let's look for a moment at a flash-point for this conflict between the ideal of progress and the ideal of diversity: journalism. I'm wary of something I notice a lot: a tendency for foreign analysts of Japan to see convergence with the West. Japan is always, for these people, "catching up" with Western trends or ailments. They often bemoan this "catching up", but they take it as axiomatic that it's happening. And so we learn that:

* Japan's greater social equality is on the way out, being replaced by Western-type Gini levels.

* Japanese are losing their slim figures because of a diet of Western-style foods like hamburgers.

* Japanese women are at last responding to feminist ideas, and standing up for themselves.

* The harmonious Japanese are becoming as litigious as the Americans.

* Japan's supposedly safe streets are getting increasingly dangerous.

Now, some of these trends may be happening, but there are other reasons reporters tell us they're happening:

1. Because the structure of many, many journalistic articles is to give us a well-known stereotype and then dislodge it with some more recent, more relevant information. NB: You do this even if your new information is just as stereotyped, in its way, as the old.

2. Because the empirical mindset so highly valued in the Anglo-Saxon world believes that everything can be proved by specific cases, anecdotes and examples. However, specific cases -- especially those taken from newspapers -- are usually outliers; their "man bites dog" factor is exactly what got them into the newspapers in the first place. Anthropologists, however, need to pay attention to "dog bites man".

3. Because journalists and other observers, particularly activists, pay too much attention to incremental changes and not enough to solid underlying states.

4. Because soft-left liberals have been taught that everything is a "construct" and that "timeless essences" are merely the convenient creations of a power elite.

5. Because a certain Western chauvinism leads us to believe that all other cultures are "behind us on the same track", and "only now beginning to catch up".

Cultural journalism is still in the shadow of structuralism and deconstruction, a tradition going back to Barthes' 1957 book Mythologies. But journalists don't have Barthes' non-judgmentalism, especially when it comes to Japan. Their analyses are often selectively deconstructive. They deconstruct the myth of the monolithic identity of the culture studied, but don't similarly deconstruct the monolithic, mythical identity of their own culture. The equivalent, applied to gender studies, would be to question the whole concept of "woman" while taking entirely for granted the integrity and workability of the concept of "man". Applied to linguistics, it would be "You have an accent but I don't". It makes little sense to selectively deconstruct. If deconstruction is your game -- in other words, if you seek to undermine things you don't like by saying that they are "constructs" -- then you risk finding things you do like looking suddenly like constructs too, and becoming suddenly undermined.

I'm always suspicious when "facts" people tell me fit the cookie-cutter templates of Western mental reflexes, especially when they propose the West as "ahead". And I'm predisposed to listen more kindly to analysts who say "We have much to learn from [other culture x]" than to analysts who say "[other culture x] is catching up to us". Especially in the context of the West's recent history of neo-imperialism using the fig-leaf of "humanitarian intervention" and "security" and "universal human rights" (oh yes, and, incidentally, the control of the flow of oil and heroin).

So where do I stand on this slippery question of progress versus difference? On the side of difference, right? Well, not quite. I'd say I believe in difference-as-progress. That may sound like a cunning fudge, but it makes sense -- it's nature's way, after all (if we believe at all in Darwin and his "blind watchmaker"). I have little faith that progress will be achieved by explicit intention. I prefer that diversity do the work of progress by allowing many different systems to co-exist.

As in crop tech, it's monoculture which is likely to destroy progress: we discover a "green revolution" based on pesticides, it's considered to be the epitome of "progress", the genetic diversity of wheat and rice is damaged as farmers all over the world embrace this one "correct" solution and then BANG! we realise that pesticides aren't so great or so safe after all. We are not infallible, and what is taken to be progress -- and what "progress bullies" at a given time try to force everybody to adopt -- turns out, all too often, to be a later decade's idea of the delusional, the misguided, the disastrous. Because switches like this are constantly happening in human history, and because "the good thing" gets bigger, more totalising and more dangerous the more globalised we get, it's crucial to keep diversity in play; to allow polyculture to thrive, and alternatives -- even ones that look, from the present perspective, wrong -- to multiply.