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Tue, Aug. 25th, 2009 10:43 am
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.

48CommentReplyFlag


(Anonymous)
Tue, Aug. 25th, 2009 09:24 am (UTC)
whoa there, from WC1

I think you've *finally* cracked it - amazing post, we can all go home etc - but was entertained in a "look at Nick's subconscious, mis-spelling 'chauvinism'" kind of way too. ;-p

This may amuse you: once, an intelligent but completely self-absorbed young British Asian became cross with me for suggesting her mother spoke English with 'an accent'. Each of us - the girl, her mother and myself - came from a different part of the middle-class, English-speaking world. My reply was: 'who among us does not speak English with an accent?'

It is deeply funny when people who seek to characterize themselves as outside the monolith unwittingly file reports from the inside.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Aug. 25th, 2009 10:31 am (UTC)
Re: whoa there, from WC1

Thank you WC1! I might have an idea who the journalist in question was!

I think one valid objection to my argument here -- and this will probably come up later in the comments -- is "But what happens if people in Japan or wherever want to adopt the same concept of progress as people in America? Nobody, after all, settles for diversity -- a noble place in the multicultural seed bank, an option for a rainy day -- when they could have success and be, if not number one, at least number two or three, or in the top ten?" Nobody, in other words, voluntarily chooses things like high infant mortality or (cliché alert!) genital mutilation just for the sake of preserving a diversity which benefits someone else.

And I think that's why Japan is such a fascinating case. Its diversity is real, but so is its success. Japan shows that diversity need not equate to failure in any way. You can do things differently from the West without in any way being the West's inferior. You can have "diversity modernity". And this is one reason I resist people who see Japan's difference as something pre-modern. Difference is by no means incompatible with modernity, even super-modernity. There is not one modernity, but many.


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loveishappiness
loveishappiness
O.H.
Tue, Aug. 25th, 2009 09:54 am (UTC)

"You have an accent but I don't".

This is something Americans do more than anyone else, therefore this article is mostly directed at the US, therefore you are being Anti-American!


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Aug. 25th, 2009 10:29 am (UTC)

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.

This is only the case if you take a very narrow view of anthropology. What about Lévi-Strauss, easily the world's most famous living anthropologist? His project is not so much about difference but about how the underlying structures of a wide range of different cultures are actually the same. And he specifically wrote Race et Histoire for UNESCO, so I don't think he's against the notion of human rights.

Also, I see something of a contradiction between your cynical take on "human rights" and your championing of the "exoticisation of the other".


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Aug. 25th, 2009 10:36 am (UTC)

Lévi-Strauss was not, though, judgmental. You can see similar underlying structures without condemning deviation from a particular cultural path.

I think exoticisation of the other might be a valuable alternative to the concept of universal human rights. You can quite easily invade a culture citing their violation of a charter of "universal human rights" you wrote yesterday. Much more difficult is to invade a culture you have put on an exotic pedestal and lavished with praise for their noble differences.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Aug. 25th, 2009 12:04 pm (UTC)

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.

Actually, for most of the 20th century this was the American claim for their own culture; that it had triumphed in a Darwinian struggle. "Explicit intention" was communism and its planning. Diversity allowed America to thrive, but proclaimed, by century's end, a clear winner. (This also happened to co-incide with the Calvinist idea of worldly success as the best indicator of one's salvation and membership of God's Elect.)

This century, things are a little different. America is slipping, and India and China are rising fast. I wonder if Americans will be less enthusiastic about Darwinian diversity in the era of "the rise of the rest"? Will they be more inclined to champion planning (in the form of market protectionism and -- gasp! -- things like socialised medicine) over the progress that comes through diversity, freedom and meritocratic struggle? In other words, were Americans only enthusiastic about that game while they were winning at it?

Edited at 2009-08-25 12:05 pm (UTC)


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Aug. 25th, 2009 12:13 pm (UTC)

When I was reading, I was curious how you viewed Darwinian diversity vis-a-vis Smith's invisible hand-of-the-market and this last comment seems to suggest that you view them in line. Is that accurate?

- Joshua


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Aug. 25th, 2009 01:32 pm (UTC)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ElQDMhj607o

Momus, do you have any more of this guy? You posted a video of him like a year ago in of your entries!!!


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Aug. 25th, 2009 01:43 pm (UTC)

All I know is in that original entry: Popo: the sound of moral goodness.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Aug. 25th, 2009 02:04 pm (UTC)
& Burke

Sounds like you would like this book (http://www.amazon.com/Closing-American-Allan-David-Bloom/dp/0671479903/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1251208839&sr=1-1).



I've also found disturbing all this recent noise about Iran's election from the 'left' being echoed on the 'right' ( or is that the other way around?). I'm not fooled -- they're trying to get the feminists & Obama kids on board for Iraq part 2! No thanks.


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milky_eyes
milky_eyes
milky_eyes
Tue, Aug. 25th, 2009 03:15 pm (UTC)

glad you distilled, and gave this subject another go.
the discussion this time around seems more tooled for 'discussion' and less for 'proving' the other wrong... maybe.

the challenge as you've outlined I believe... repeatedly,,, among other things... is acknowledging and accounting for the existence and there for coloring, ones one culture will have on your perceptions.
(Something western culture simpliy put, does badly.... but... simply put,,, no culture does well ...sorry I think all cultures error in the field..., the west has just been the loudest voice for a while now. )


anyways, challenging subject. I admire your attempts to open these discussions up.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Aug. 25th, 2009 04:09 pm (UTC)

"Trying to impose universal standards, no matter how nobly, risks imposing a monocultural universalism."

1. Surely it's a bad (or myopic) anthropologist who assumes that the only difference worth its salt remains in National Geographic. Does a classroom of pupils in Aberdeen not contain difference? Does a difference in taste mean nothing? Social class? Psychology? Aesthetics? Moral voice? No such thing as personality?

In short - has the 20th century been about nothing!?

2. I don't think that a good anthropologist sits comparing A with B. He will tell you that cultures seep and bleed into one another. There is no contrasting black/white unless we zoom out to an abnormal (surely erroneous) God-position.

3. The blocs that such a Bad Anthrologist would seek to preserve are themselves homogenisers e.g. Islam or Christianity. Diversifiers which encourage innovation (e.g. capitalism) would be an integral part of any universalism. Who knows what exciting NEW diversities are being buried – if only universalism would clear away the OLD homogenisers!

4. Preservation – in museums, for sure. Where we are talking about clothes, music etc individuals will maintain a view on it. Morals and ethics ARE fairly universal already (do you think that p*rn misogyny and religious patriarchy don't stem from the same psychological-linguistic roots)? Nothing we can dream of morally and ethically is not being tried and tested by someone somewhere. They won't need a 'culture' to prove themselves. Only hierarchy and the law insist that morals need stretch over social blocs. In other words, moral codes might be an example of the PRE-HOMOGENISED which a universalism could eventually seek to scatter away from fixed cultures down to the individual level ("each to his own"). Is that more diverse or less? I say more.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Aug. 25th, 2009 08:02 pm (UTC)
Twit Opera

The Taliban are altermodern and Amnesty International are meddling moralists.


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jdcasten
J.D. Casten
Tue, Aug. 25th, 2009 08:06 pm (UTC)
Biodiversity Conservation & Hypocrisy

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a fine document imo, but not quite “perfect”—note how it cites “All human beings,” “Everyone,” or “No one,” until Article 17, on marriage rights, where it is “Men and women” (only!):

http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/

You’d hope that going to war (“global policing”) over this document would take fairly egregious infractions, like genocide… there are psychopathic cultural tendencies too, to police—but military actions should be scrutinized even more closely than your local police (for probable cause, justified force, etc.)

When I asked Noam Chomsky about “inalienable” human rights (re: torture), he noted that “When human rights are called ‘inalienable’ it does not imply that there are no imaginable circumstances in which they might be violated. Life is too complex for that. Anyone who calls for violation of those rights must present a very strong case, and must also accept the principle of universality.”

I bring up Chomsky, because hypocrisy is a huge issue that he addresses; this is a crux for the teachings of Jesus too; and seems to be a moral that Momus gets at as well. John Rawls’ “Veil of Ignorance” (that we create laws not knowing where we’d turn up in society) seems tied to the “don’t be a hypocrite” doctrine as well: does the golden rule have exceptions (besides sadomasochism semantics)?

Too often the protected minorities are the rich and powerful. Hypocrisy arises when situations are not fair. But like conserving biodiversity, I think we can aim at “universal” goals for “diversity evolution”: need a diverse heritage and future equality remain at odds?


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jdcasten
J.D. Casten
Tue, Aug. 25th, 2009 08:11 pm (UTC)
Re: Biodiversity Conservation & Hypocrisy

Actually, "Article 16" of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the one on marriage.


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count_vronsky
count_vronsky
Tue, Aug. 25th, 2009 09:33 pm (UTC)


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count_vronsky
count_vronsky
Tue, Aug. 25th, 2009 11:14 pm (UTC)

You know, this is an excellent entry momus, and one that is very close to my heart. I am having trouble coming up with a cogent response to it at the moment, but I want to say something, because this essay has plucked all the right chords. so forgive me if this is scattershot and incoherent.

As much as I deplore monoculture, and I do - growing up in Sarawak in the '60s, Hong Kong in the '70s, small town America in the late '70s, Caymans in the '80s, I know that these places no longer exist, or exist frozen only in the amber of my memories, and are long since vanquished by modernism, global capitalism and stupid american popular culture. You'll notice that I left off my list the '90s, because this is when I think capitalist culture found its secret weapon in the underground music of Seattle and the big bass beats of gangster rap. Unable to mount a frontal attack because the crassness and emptiness at its center was too obvious, it cloaked itself in these "subversive", "rebellious" sounds and with them, took over the world. Capitalist monoculture cloaked as subversive rebellion. It's genius when you think about it. No wonder Cobain blew his dumb brains out.


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endoftheseason
endoftheseason
Wed, Aug. 26th, 2009 06:50 am (UTC)
The harm of coming into existence

Of course, all of this talk about "progress" and "diversity" seems in the end to make the argument of anti-natalist philosopher David Benatar's book (Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence) that much more on target. Here is a blurb about it, accompanied by a podcast interview with him:

http://news.book.co.za/blog/2009/03/05/podcast-and-review-ucts-david-benatar-says-better-never-to-have-been/

It would seem that there is no way to disagree with him unless one abandons the path of logic, rationality, and so forth.

You can't help but laugh.


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eclectiktronik
eclectiktronik
eclectiktronik
Wed, Aug. 26th, 2009 02:18 pm (UTC)

What about imperialism? Recent history is peppered with imperialist destruction of those who opted not to go the US-way , especially (but not limited to) South america, their 'backyard': Cuba (attempted invasion, 1963) , Chile (1973), Greneda (1983), El Salvador (1989), Nicaragua (US backed Somoza 40 years), venezuela (attempted US backed coup, 2002)......

The objective in all cases was to destroy burgeoning grass roots democractic and national liberation movements. Despìte the claims of 'soviet threat' peddled out to justify the attacks and invasions, In fact, almost all the above movements followed no 'model' from europe or the USA, and in doing so dared to challenge the rule of the elites who exported the countries' wealth to the US whilst taking a nice cut for themselves.

In fact, you can see the differences between the above countries and the former eastern block countries - none wanted to replicate the the stalinist /centralist model , such a mentality is at odds with the great popular movements underlying the drive to self determination. In fact, all around the world you saw different perspectives and 'roads to socialism', from Yugoslavia to china.

The US (and especially Kissinger) also played a major role in the oppression in Indonesia in the 60s and east timor in 1975. Even more recently, we've seen the ludicrous pretexts dreamed up to justify the iraq and Afghan invasions, and the proposed installation of US bases in Colombia. Next in line, going by the 'hints' dropped over the last few years, are Iran and North Korea. Everywhere you look, it seems like there is a move by US imperialism to wipe out any different systems, or transform them into economically dependent neo colonial states, to the benefit of 'global' corporations.

And there's perhaps a lesson for Uribe and the like: even if they play the US' game and become little more than satellite states, history is also full of cases, notably Panama and Iraq, where the US toppled the dictators they backed when it appeared they weren't subservient and thankful enough, much in the way of a mafia organization.

And let's not forget the neocolonial threat to many African developing countries, heavily dependent on western banking conglomerates, with significant proportions of their national product being allocated to payment of interest on accumulated foreign debts. Zimbabwe is one example of how the influence of international banking undermined the nation. South africa now has a new form of class system.

Any debate about the threat to diversity and difference around the world which does not take into consideration the ongoing central role of imperial and neocolonial forces is surely incomplete!


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