When the few colonial subjects of India, Africa, and the Caribbean went to British Empire London they found a world foreign and barbaric. These English people placed a magical belief in an old woman who was their demigod, paper and shiny coins were imbued with the ability to command; these peoples kept a popular delusion, a myth, of European nations which boxed you into homeland, and forced you into reading scribbles in thick books so as to become more like them, saved even by it at the same time you were expected to traumatise yourself and die for special soil. These people blackened their air with fumes, cut the earth into vulgar crisscrosses and plundered other people’s lands—yours—to build bigger and to store evermore specimens. How long have we seen through western eyes, and not theirs, what we in our daily lives consider ‘normal’!
Europeans conquered most of the world and brought modern capitalism, globalisation, and inductive science to the world. Our worldview has been so sculpted by these events that it is impossible to imagine the world without employing that very inherited worldview to some degree; to argue against some points of empire—brutality, genocides, value imposition—we still use western exported values like (humanist) human rights and (Christian equal souls, equal selves) equality and claims to (European philosophy predicated) Reason, to explain imperial folly.
A merit of anthropology is showing how the notion of those concepts being one-way traffic to the colonies is misleading, and how similar values, like the sanctity of life, have emerged independently of western influence. Though at the global scale, western values have clearly been most influential. (Why else the nations and global trade?) What interests and troubles is the contradiction between the relativism—each culture is equal, what should be is relative to community manifestation—rife in anthropology, and the aspirations of anthropology to explain human behaviour and communities. The greatest taboo in anthropology is ethnocentrism, defined as “the evaluation of other cultures according to preconceptions and values originating in the standards and customs of one’s own culture”. However the taboo of ethnocentrism and the value of not being prejudiced against another culture is itself ethnocentric, and western. And if values are relative to the culture how can ethnocentrism be bad without merely endorsing a western view? Only westernised anthropologists and westerners are so quick to say values are relative to culture, and in propagating that belief there must be a faith that anthropology somehow overcomes culture’s limits, and there is wisdom in relativism. Although the esteem for science, objectivity, and relativism comes from secularised western culture, it is covertly deemed separated—if not transcending—from ‘culture’. As Allan Bloom says in the revelatory and at times wrong, The Closing of The American Mind:
Only in the Western nations i.e. those influenced by Greek philosophy is there some willingness to doubt the identification of the good with one’s own way. One should conclude from the study of non-western cultures that not only to prefer one’s own way but to believe it best, superior to all others, is primary and even natural—exactly the opposite of what is required by having students study those cultures. What we are really doing is applying a western prejudice—which we covertly take to indicate the superiority of our culture—and deforming the evidence of other cultures to attest its validity.
It is easy to say that this claim is reductive and facile, but how else does anthropology justify itself? The value-judgements behind what makes anthropological research worthwhile and its knowledge worth acquiring are assumed, with some questioning but scarce answering. As anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen says, “anthropology chooses to not answer these questions”. Yet in the project to understand humans, norms and values, choosing to not answer questions is dubious; choosing to say they are not answerable negates the point of scientific research which is based on a logic of finding answers; creating explanatory systems for others while not for oneself is a problematic subject-observer relationship. One where the subject cannot observe themself without infinite regress. In a world where communities and traditions are being undermined by trade economy and there is no way of justifying the obfuscation of communities and diversity—as observed by biological anthropologist Jared Diamond in homogenising Papua New Guinea—anthropologists study these changes and some even assist in developing these communities into something new at the same time they say new can’t be ‘better’ in a non-relative way. Because western culture deems sins of doing (commission) as worse than sins of inaction (omission) communities are changed into a western wage-worker and agricultural mould (about a dozen hunter-gatherer groups are left), with anthropologists accepting their diminishing study subjects. Some anthropologists take to studying locally, for instance language exchange and community in fast food restaurants—studies liable to reveal less than the few pockets of different humans left.
In principle western culture is humble but in practice tyrannous. Arguably, it should be less humble in human rights principle, lest it lose the comfortable position of being right but inactively doing wrong, to more self-assured China—a civilisation unto itself—which does not embrace relativism, but world dominating plans with better than western technology instead: the billions backed silk road and global belt plans to span the world. If the forces operating in the world are weighing against principles which are relative, the very principles which ground the autonomy of individuals and human rights, are precarious. A merit of western civilisation is being comfortable with human liberty and accepting the contingencies of individuals and cultures. Though ought not to lose sight of how the reduction of trauma and spread of liberty are important and more tangible than vague ‘culture’ may misguide us to believe.
Anthropology which appears to contradict itself, arguably should accept cultural contingencies and scientific objectivity can co-exist. For instance, instead of blaming harshly people we can blame their rudeness to our and their culture clashing, misdeeds to multifactorial causes, while we can also know clean water doesn’t come from spirits and it’s good to know that when the water needs purifying, and accept that female genital mutilation hurts and causes objective trauma despite groups of people including the women who perform it believing it good, desirable, necessary, western culture should – and will – eradicate the practice.
There are more useful cultural and scientific distinctions: heterosexual and bisexual men evolved with a naturally inborn predisposition to find breasts attractive as evidence of baby-feeding ability but the cultural concealment of breasts is what makes them artificially fetished now, in nurture modulated nature, to the point such fetishes cannot be unlearnt at the microscale of individuals but is overdetermined by culture (performativity cannot be undone by merely knowing the facts and the causal chains). Culture can make breastfeeding unfashionable for status and money reasons—wrongfully and shamefully because most obviously breasts evolved to feed babies and studies show breastfed children fare better; yet it takes hard-won campaigns to change people’s acculturated behaviour even back to the original, default. Levi-Strauss disagreed with Sartre that our feeling of progress was a privileged position because we have an itch to improve and busy ourselves which can run counter to our happiness and relationships and the present tense mind of other people’s – including our ancestors – is obscured by the artificially large group called society and by technology (including writing) which trains us in linear rather than holistic thinking.
Anthropology does have some paradoxes, including the old age dilemma of relativism. But those paradoxes are metaphorically healthy for a thriving organism: vital to explore and understand, and pragmatically do the best we can. Anthropologists matter exactly because they show how contingent rather than inevitable culture is, how obsfucating and ideological the idea of ‘natural’ can be, but also illustrate how we can organise ourselves and humbly use its knowledge, without dogma and the realisation that no one is unbiased, no one and no thing culture free. And to understand is to see as best we can through one another’s eyes, yes, but to organise multiple eyes we have to believe in objectivity, the right and good even if we admit there is no Godly foundation to them.