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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  • Chris

    Thank you for this post!

    As a philosopher, I could not agree with you more about the confused, even dangerous way that Haidt speaks of the celebrations after bin Laden’s death. For one, as you note, moral decisions, and the principles they fall out of, are not free-floating, simple evolutionary mechanisms of stimulus and response. Our moral decision-making, while triggered and processed by capacities that evolved, are also highly influenced by our upbringing, moral communities, and environmental factors — in short, a history of human experience strung together into narratives (often many, competing narratives). The reductionism of Haidt’s thought is almost laughable.

    Second, those evolved capacities like altruism and selfishness, as Christine Korsgaard and Frans de Waal have argued (in different ways), are neither simple capacities, nor beyond the influence of both conscious and unconscious influence.

    So, when one of my students remarked, “I wanted to kill bin Laden myself…make him suffer,” he then said upon reflection, “but we don’t think of this as justice.” As the Supreme Court said in the 1976 Gregg v. Georgia capital punishment decision, human need for retribution might be natural, but we have learned to sublimate such instincts, to further social coordination and cooperation. Yes, even the sublimation might have an unconscious, evolutionary trigger, but that does not mean our conscious analysis, within a cultural history, is all-for-not.

    Even more, and perhaps most important, the idea of having moral principles, which we can share as a community, implies that our evolutionary capacities are only the beginning, not the end of moral decision-making. When we say that celebrate anyone’s death institutionalizes a disregard for life, which we believe to weaken our democratic process of governance, this is a reflected cultivation of a moral principle, done in the context of a history of shared reflection on the subject. If I am not mistaken, this is, in a word, what it means to practice, create a culture.


    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Chris,

      Thank you for this response–I really enjoyed the philosophical angle, and so pleased to see the connections and how you tackle this.

      After I wrote the piece, have been thinking more about Haidt and how he hit the big-time press in February for his declarations of liberal-bias among social psychologists. However, as far as I can tell this homogeneously “liberal” crowd has been basically promoting a conservative agenda. It’s a telling statement, and shows how foolish it is to derive (and deride) academic political ideology based on political party registration. There is a need for more dissent within academia, but not from the “conservative” side.

      I wrote about this a bit in a previous post titled “Anthro-Flop-ology,” about how we have sometimes given people like Jared Diamond and Noam Chomsky an academic pass because we approve their politics, but it can lead to serious problems.

      Thank you again,

  • antropoLOGIKA

    “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.”

    We truly need more real anthropology. . . and more PUBLIC anthropologists! Thanks for bringing these reflections forth, and for promoting the(underestimated) moral optimism of the field.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Thank you for the support–I really struggled with the last sentence, as it’s been difficult to keep the moral optimism going. As you know, the American Anthropological Association has been collecting anthropological responses to the bin Laden events.

    • Chris

      Absolutely, we need more public intellectuals in general! And yes, as both you and Jason mention, it isn’t as though we are thinkng, writing, talking, and teaching in a bubble; what we say and write and teach has an impact, and as such we should think more of the moral consequences of our conduct and work.

  • Hi Jason,

    Thanks for replying to my post on Jonathan Haidt, in which you argue that instincts are a “diversion from the real issues.”

    I’m not sure why the conversation has to be either/or. While political economy is a driving force, much of where research in social science is heading is toward understanding the interplay between instincts and institutions. Why wouldn’t anthropologists want to be part of that conversation?

    A longer friendly reply appears here:

    Best, Jonathan

  • Jason Antrosio

    Hi Jonathan,

    Many thanks for your response, both here and on your blog. I have posted a longer (and I hope friendly) reply to your blog. For clarification here, I am definitely not arguing for a kind of either-or, where the terms of the either-or are nature/nurture, instincts/institutions, genes/environment, biology/culture. Also I am definitely not arguing against anthropological engagement. Anthropological engagement is very necessary, precisely to question the terms of what you call the “new science.”

    Thank you again for writing and linking. I am sincerely grateful for your efforts to rescue Adam Smith from the caricatures, as you did in Saving Adam Smith: A Tale of Wealth, Transformation, and Virtue. Anthropology can learn from recapturing a fuller and richer vision of what Adam Smith was trying to do.

    Best regards,

  • rachimonai

    I had three main reactions in reading Professor Jonathan Haidt’s article, “Why We Celebrate a Killing”

    First, I found it reassuring that it offers us fresh evidence of the fact that foolish nonsense is no less the province of the cap-and-gown crowd than it is the “ordinary” layman. Second, I felt embarrassed for Haidt and imagined that it would not take him long to regret having written the article. Finally, I found striking–even for the New York Times– that editors had such poor judgement as to deem it worthy of publication.

    In my opinion, the article can’t be dismissed as “junk science”–though I believe that that is what lies behind it–because it doesn’t rise to the level of junk science. Rather, it’s simply junk thought, period, a transparent exercise in rationalization which is grotesque despite the professorial jargon with which the author tries to adorn it.

    The conclusions don’t follow from the absurd assertions which form their premises. The whole article is an excellent example of truly shoddy reasoning. It could be and should be picked apart point by point because virtually everything about the article is junk-yard reasoning.

    Apparently, Americans need an academic authority figure to explain to them why “We” (Americans) celebrate a killing. That, first and foremost struck me as odd. Who now, after eight years of misgovernment by administrations headed by George W. Bush, still looks on in wonder and incomprehension at the spectacle of Americans celebrating a killing? In fact, the world isn’t asking or wondering about such behavior. On the other hand, had there not been such conspicuous revelry, that would have merited some explanation and discussion.

    No less bizarre is the supposition that somehow Americans have to worry about the risk of their sinking to the level of their adversaries as where Haidt writes,

    “Although Americans are in full agreement that the demise of Osama bin Laden is a good thing, many are disturbed by the revelry. We should seek justice, not vengeance, they urge. Doesn’t this lower us to “their” level?”

    He conveniently skipped over any direct and supported argument which would demonstrate how morally and as a collectivity, that is, a defined mass public, the demonstrable moral behavior of the U.S. government–repeatedly given assent by the majority of the American people, and now including (whether acknowledged or not) outright systematic use of torture, the people referred to as “us” are other than hardly distinguishable from those referred to as “their”.

    There is no example I can think of which could or does draw any qualitative and meaningful distinction between the acts typical of those denounced as terrorists and condemnd as immoral and, on the other hand, the habits of U.S. armed forces or their paid proxies around the world.

    I don’t pretend to know the precise details of the events of the commando raid in which Osama Bin Laden was killed, but I do know that, in the event that he did not offer any resistance to the commandos–that is, if it happened that he was neither armed nor defended himself or was defended by others present with force, lethal or non-lethal, then his killing, according to both civil and military laws amounted to an execution-style “hit-job”.

    That, I contend, is what those beer-drinking effervescent American youth, hanging on lamp-posts and jumping up and down on garbage cans, would celebrate just the same even if they had been told that Bin Laden’s death came by way of a summary execution–were it the case that it happened that way.

    So, in what particular and reliable way are Americans not already “at their level”?

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  • Anthro Person

    I’m a PhD candidate in cultural anthropology, but I don’t speak for others in the discipline. My problem is less with the celebration of Bin Laden’s death than the lack of consideration for the other deaths in the aftermath of 9/11.

    I agree with many of the statements in this blog – to reduce the celebrations to biology is reductionist and doesn’t take in the complexities of human social behavior. But I also have to add Bin Laden’s death could not possibly have meant the same thing to everyone who celebrated it. To Muslims in the US maybe it represents hope of no longer being harassed for their religion, appearance or national backgrounds (if it applies). For people who had real losses due to 9/11 there might be a more personal sense of closure, or maybe not. For people who are simply upset that 9/11 happened in US soil, a sense of security might play into the picture. But we’ll never know that unless someone looks into the matter. To presume that the celebration was “one” celebration would be a mistake. Not everyone is affected equally by what happened, not even in the US.

    My real problem is not with the celebration of Bin Laden’s death. My problem is with the lack of grieving for all the innocent people who have been harmed in the 9/11 aftermath. As if it weren’t enough to have victims on that day, the subsequent military actions done in the name of the “war on terror” have harmed a great many more than the numbers in 9/11. Rather than celebrating Bin Laden’s death or worrying about others celebrating it, I am lamenting all those who had nothing to do with terrorism but ended up killed, tortured, maimed, imprisoned, etc. in the supposed hunt for one man.

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