haidtcelebrate

Anthropological responsibilities on “Why we celebrate a killing”

I am not too disturbed by the celebrations after the assault on bin Laden. Given the way this has been ginned up as a war-on-terror; given the individualization of us-versus-them, and even of me-versus-him practiced by President Bush; and given the upsurge in xenophobic nationalism, it’s surprising there has not been more celebrating and cigar-smoking (see blog-post Anthropology, Barack Obama, Osama bin Laden). As Maureen Dowd writes, the celebrations were brief, and quickly followed by navel-gazing.

What is disturbing is all the people who call themselves social scientists trotting out to claim such celebrations express “natural urges,” whether as bedrock human instincts or as shaped by human evolution. I discussed this in a news post on more anthropology needed, but it seems to keep coming. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt in Why We Celebrate a Killing goes even further, talking about “all that was good, healthy and even altruistic about last week’s celebrations.” Haidt brings in evolutionary biology, primates, Emile Durkheim, and “tribal times,” all to justify “the communal joy of last week.” (In February, Haidt was featured in a John Tierney column, and on NPR, for discovering the “liberal bias” of social psychologists and describing it as a “tribal-moral community.”)

How strange that reaction to the bin Laden celebrations gets framed as natural instincts and cultural shaping, yet another version of the nature-nurture debate. This is an old theme in anthropology. To the degree we are able, anthropology has two responsibilities. First, to keep focusing attention on contemporary political economy. Second, to go beyond the idea of “instincts shaped by culture.”

History, Politics, Economics–The Real Reasons Why We Celebrate a Killing

It may seem strange to find anthropologists in the role of trying to bring our attention back to contemporary history, politics, and economics. But really–should people be talking here about natural selection, evolved instincts, primatology, Emile Durkheim, and “tribal times”? Since the psychologists seem to readily cover all this ground, most journalists probably hardly feel the need to talk to an anthropologist. Anthropological experts could rip apart Jonathan Haidt’s points–the idea that non-human primates have “old selfish programming” is particularly ludicrous–but it is hardly worth the effort. Instead, we need clarity about why these celebrations took place.

Even if there was some Durkheimian “collective effervescence,” this was not, as Haidt would have it, expressing a good-patriotism versus a bad-nationalism. According to Haidt:

The psychologist Linda Skitka studied the psychological traits that predicted which people displayed American flags in the weeks after 9/11. She found that the urge to display the flag “reflected patriotism and a desire to show solidarity with fellow citizens, rather than a desire to express out-group hostility.”

However, this is a completely inappropriate comparison. Displaying flags after being attacked is not the same as waving flags to celebrate an attack. And Haidt also completely ignores what happened to this patriotism soon after 9/11: it got twisted into a “with us or against us” mentality, then used to justify invading Iraq.

I’ve written about a similar situation, when Culture Doesn’t Matter. It is odd how anthropologists must emphasize political-economic particularities rather than a deep cultural shaping. Anthropologists need to speak loudly against core misappropriations, which may mean denying references to non-human primates or culture, and to deny scholarly sleight-of-hand that inappropriately applies one study to very different conditions.

After all these years, the reigning principle of social science is still the idea of a set of natural human instincts shaped by culture. After a post-Boas period when the idea of culture seemed to be winning, there has been a serious retrenchment. In 2007 Tim Ingold warned about the trouble with ‘evolutionary biology’ just as Thomas Hylland Eriksen had enjoined in Engaging Anthropology (2005). It now appears many parts of the academy may as well be operating in a pre-Boas period of simply instinct, with little cultural shaping admitted. This was fully evident for the people trotted out as social scientists commenting on the bin Laden celebrations.

In some ways, it was better when human instincts were seen as base, full of selfishness and greed. Then culture could be invoked to explain how people shaped instincts in more positive directions. Now, when people think they can explain altruism through natural selection–Haidt calls it “natural selection acting at two different levels simultaneously”–they dispense with culture altogether. The standard anthropological line of culture shaping instincts–altruism or selfishness–seems to now lock anthropology into a losing position. Anthropology needs to more clearly pronounce “Against Human Nature” (Ingold 2006), and to deny any instincts exist outside the current of history. The 2010 Fuentes forum on Human Nature is helpful, and see the content section Human Nature and Anthropology.

Any so-called instinctive reaction cannot occur outside or apart from a history of interaction. Long before a human toddler is even capable of anything like “fight or flight,” the human infant has observed hours of movement. Infants develop in close proximity to caregivers who physically shape infant hands into fists, put one foot in front of the other, actively guiding a way of standing, moving, or throwing a punch. There is simply no way to analyze instinct apart from engagement and sociality.

These are difficult times, from writing metaphorically about Anthropology Ambushed to analyzing a real ambush. Anthropology must promote its distinctive approach, both because the pundits need more real anthropology, and because we risk ceding even more ground to noxious misinterpretations of human existence.

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