Meeting the Minotaur

E. A. Hammel

UC Berkeley

Anthropology Newsletter 35 (4): 48, 1994.

In an essay entitled, "The Yugoslav Labyrinth", (Hammel 1993a) I explored the history of that conflict, and in another essay (1993b) dealt in a more theoretical way with some of the migrational phenomena underlying it. Subsequently, reflecting on the other essays in the same AEER special issue (Kideckel and Halpern 1993), and especially after spirited discussions at the 1993 annual meetings of the Association (especially with Bette Denich and Marija Olujic), I have had to confront some consequences of the war that are closer to home than the Balkans. These lie at the heart of our professional involvement as ethnographers and cultural comparativists, bringing us face to face with a real Minotaur, the utility and political origins of cultural relativism.

One starting point for this philosophical confrontation is the ethnographic observation that it has been less than easy for anthropologists who have worked in the Balkans not to replicate the conflicts of that region in their own professional relationships. The native ethnographers of the region have often been themselves balkanized (viz. Halpern and Hammel 1969), but most non-Yugoslav and some, especially some of the younger, Yugoslav anthropologists whose professional experience was in the context of an ecumenical, anti-ethnic, Marxist state escaped that divisive process. As soon as the universalist facade of the Marxist state began to show its cracks within the Party itself, relations among many Yugoslav anthropologists began to polarize, soon to be followed, unhappily, by reflections of that polarization among their foreign colleagues. Or, to quote Wiener (AN 34, 9: 1) quoting Pogo, "We are them." If we believe in the legitimacy of alternative cultural expressions, why do we side with one or another of the parties in conflict? Is the utility of cultural relativism established by its political convenience?

Another starting point for this philosophical confrontation is Bob Hayden's perceptive observation that one of the principal victims of the Yugoslav civil war may be anthropology itself (Hayden 1993:66-67). Our adherence to the anti-racist principles enunciated by Boas and later by Mead, Kluckhohn, and others (in some degree as part of an Allied campaign against the racist theories of the Axis powers in World War II) may be on a collision course with the re-emergence of ethnicity (sometimes symbolized as religion) as the backbone of political and social organization in a world emerging from the debris of what one of our less distinguished leaders referred to as the Evil Empire.

The problem is thus, as Hayden notes, bigger than Yugoslavia. But it is also bigger than the convenient use of ethnic particularism as a replacement for universalistic rationality (in the Weberian sense). It raises some fundamental problems for us as anthropologists, especially in the important area of "human rights".

"Human rights" is a distinctly Western European cultural concept. The "rights of minorities", the "rights of women", and similar universalistic rights of definable social groups -- claims on general equality despite culturally identifiable differences -- are an outgrowth of long political development in the West. The idea that individuals are citizens enjoying equal access to social resources has its roots in the organization of the Greek city states, where it was restricted to a privileged minority (Manville 1990), and later in the idea of citizenship in the Roman Empire, where it doubtless served a useful political purpose in gaining the allegiance of conquered or even of invading groups (Brubaker 1992). It is based on the principle of the jus soli, the law of residence, rather than on the contrasting principle of the jus sanguinis, the law of descent (Nicholas 1962). It means that you can be a citizen based on where you live rather than on where you came from. The idea emerged again in the chartered cities of the mediaeval and early modern periods but did not achieve national scope until the French Revolution overthrew the privileges of the ancien regime, and even there only native Frenchmen could be citizens. (Brubaker 1992). There is a substantial literature on these developments in international law and allied disciplines (e.g. Donner 1983, Dummet and Nicol 1990, Riesenberg 1992, Banfield 1992).

Not until the geographical movements of people were substantial, and not until such migrants had to be incorporated in some way in the body politic or at least in some well functioning organic social structure, were the principles of the jus soli and the jus sanguinis ordinarily in conflict. More broadly, however, the extension of "rights" beyond the area of political participation, for example in equality of employment, of housing, of what we now usually call "civil rights", into areas of social differentiation by gender and other categories, places this problem in a broader framework. It is the nongeographical but social migration of persons that achieves this broader frame, raising questions beyond those confronted by the Romans with the extension of their borders or the barbarian incursions or indeed by the United States as it sought to accommodate a diverse immigrant flood.

It would be hard to find a Euro-American anthropologist who would deny the existence and validity of civil rights or of human rights, although they might shrink from some local applications. For example, there are some who disagree in principle on programs of affirmative action, despite their belief in equality and civil rights (or maybe because of it). This is a difference not of goals but of means. And many Euro-American anthropologists would support efforts to ensure civil rights for ethnic minorities, for women, for the homeless, for homosexuals, and other social categories not only in their own country but around the world.

Therein lies our particular Gordian knot. It is not difficult to support civil or human rights in countries that share our own legal tradition coming out of the Enlightenment. It took no great leap of faith to denounce apartheid, even for those who on other grounds were opposed to economic sanctions (again a difference not of goals but of means). It takes no leap of faith to oppose military dictatorships in countries of the Western tradition like Haiti or to denounce exclusion or subservient ascription on ethnic grounds in democracies like Israel or Japan. In this we only affirm the principles on which our shared concept of democracy (even if recently borrowed) is based, and deplore deviations from them.

What of countries not of the Enlightenment tradition? By what principle short of imperialism do we insist on the application of civil or human rights in societies that have not come to these ideas through their own histories? By what principle are women equal to men in China, in the sense in which we purport to understand "equal"? By what principle are Eta, or Ainu, or Koreans as good as anyone else in Japan? By what principle are individuals paramount, in societies in which the social unit is historically the family, the village, the lineage, or even the class or estate? By what logic do we insist on a mechanical solidarity of identical equality as opposed to an organic solidarity of social differentiation and exchange, stubbornly imposing on any instance of the latter the taint of hierarchical distance? Why, for us, are inequality and subordination synonymous?

In a particular and doubtless to all of us disgusting application of this train of thought, let us consider war rape, such as the rape and forced insemination and birth reliably reported from Croatia and Bosnia. Rape, like vengeance homicide, is disliked by its victims (and by the male kin and coethnics of the rape victims). Nevertheless, these males (at whom the symbolism of rape may be directed) may be quite willing to retaliate in kind. Both they and the women of their social units may regard such retaliation is just. By so doing they admit the cultural legitimacy of the acts perpetrated. By what principle do we seek to halt such actions or punish those who engage in them?

There is no such principle short of the culturally imperialistic imposition of a rigid moral standard -- our moral standard. Personally, I do not shrink from such imposition, but I insist on recognizing my own imperialism. Cultural relativism is in my view a worthless concept when the issues are those of life and death, of personal degradation, of all of those values that are at the core of our own concepts of civil and human rights. The problem for us as a society in general and as anthropologists in particular is, which of our numerous rigid moral standards are we willing to impose on societies that do not share them natively? Do we stop with violations of the body and of the soul, or do we insist on particular ideologies (like democratic voting systems, for example)? What methods do we use? We have a long experience with the export of the worship of Jesus Christ to other cultures. Do we use only sweet persuasion as a few missionaries have done? Do we use medical services or food distribution as bait? Do we impose economic sanctions? Do we go to war, killing in order to pacify or convert?

It is unlikely that we will find any clean answers to these questions. The selection of what moral standards to impose on others will be part of the general political debate. The decision to take one or another action in enforcement will be part of the general political debate. Within anthropology, we have a more serious problem, that of the principles of relativism that were once used to defend civil rights within our cultural tradition and their extension beyond it.

I have no personal problem with the idea of tracking down proven rapists in Bosnia and hanging them from the nearest cottonwood (or the relativistic cultural equivalent thereof), with due apologies to those who abhor the death penalty. Vengeance in the name of the degraded would be my aim. I have no problems as a vigilante, just as an anthropologist. Those of us who work in societies that are not composed simply of Western colonialists and nonWestern natives, and especially those of us who work in societies in which all civil order is consumed by the flames of war, will be hard put to find our way. What if, as Hayden asks, Boas was wrong?

References Cited

Banfield, Edward C.

1992 Civility and citizenship in liberal democratic societies. New York: Paragon.

Brubaker, Rogers

1992 Citizenship and nationhood in France and Germany. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Denich, Bette

1993 Unmaking multi-ethnicity in Yugoslavia: metamorphosis observed. In Kideckel and Halpern 1993, pp. 43-53.

Donner, Ruth

1983 The regulation of nationality in international law. Commentationes Scientiarum Socialium 21. Helsinki: Sociestas Scientiarum Fennica.

Dummet, Ann and Andrew Nicol

1990 Subjects, citizens, aliens and others: nationality and immigration law. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Halpern, Joel M. and E. A. Hammel

1969 Observations on the intellectual history of ethnology and other social sciences in Yugoslavia. Journal of Comparative Studies in Society and History 11:17-26.

Hammel, E. A.

1993a The Yugoslav Labyrinth. In Kideckel and Halpern 1993, pp. 35-42..

1993b Demography and the origins of the Yugoslav civil war. Anthropology Today 9:4-9.

Hayden, Robert M.

1993 The triumph of chauvinistic nationalisms in Yugoslavia: bleak implications for anthropology. In Kideckel and Halpern 1993, pp. 63-68.

Kideckel, David A. and Joel M. Halpern

1993 The Yugoslav conflict. Special Issue. The Anthropology of East Europe Review 11, nos. 1-2.

Nicholas, Barry

1962 An introduction to Roman law. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Riesenberg, Peter

1992 Citizenship in the western tradition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.