Cultural Anthropology 101

Martin Jacques has some thoughts on globalization, or on one version of globalization anyway. He starts with Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.

Benedict, a cultural anthropologist, was assigned by the US office of war administration to work on a project to try and understand Japan as the US began to contemplate the challenge that would be posed by its defeat, occupation and subsequent administration. Her book is written with a complete absence of judgmental attitude or sense of superiority, which one might expect; she treats Japan’s culture as of equal merit, virtue and logic to that of the US. In other words, its tone and approach could not be more different from the present US attitude towards Iraq or that country’s arrogant and condescending manner towards the rest of the world. This prompts a deeper question: has the world, since then, gone backwards? Has the effect of globalisation been to promote a less respectful and more intolerant attitude in the west, and certainly on the part of the US, towards other cultures, religions and societies?

But that’s a silly question, at least the way Jacques puts it. Of course the approach of a cultural anthropologist will be different from ‘the present US attitude towards Iraq’ – if by that he means either the attitude of the Bush administration or that of the US people in general – because neither entity consists entirely of cultural anthropologists. Cultural anthropologists are necessarily professionally cultural relativists, in a technical sense that is a little different from the more colloquial sense in which Guardian columnists and B&W and other chatters use it. Cultural anthropologists take a value-neutral approach to other cultures in order to study them properly; that does not entail endorsing or agreeing with everything (or in fact anything) about other cultures, it simply entails understanding that other cultures have their own internal logic. If Jacques just means that the Bush administration would have done well to get more information about Iraq (preferably from people who knew a lot more about Iraq than Benedict knew about Japan – her book has its critics, who think it oversimplifies rather seriously), then of course he’s right, but he seems to be making a much larger claim.

In contrast, the underlying assumption with globalisation is that the whole world is moving in the same direction, towards the same destination: it is becoming, and should become, more and more like the west. Where once democracy was not suitable for anyone else, now everyone is required to adopt it, with all its western-style accoutrements…At the heart of globalisation is a new kind of intolerance in the west towards other cultures, traditions and values, less brutal than in the era of colonialism, but more comprehensive and totalitarian. The idea that each culture is possessed of its own specific wisdom and characteristics, its own novelty and uniqueness, born of its own individual struggle over thousands of years to cope with nature and circumstance, has been drowned out by the hue and cry that the world is now one, that the western model – neoliberal markets, democracy and the rest – is the template for all.

Note, as Norm does, the equation of intolerance with the idea that ‘democracy…is the template for all’. Note the oddity of that thought; note how insulting it is. Note the fatalism of the idea that ‘each culture is possessed of its own specific wisdom and characteristics’ and therefore some ‘cultures’ don’t want or need democracy, and nor do the people inside those cultures. Note the assumption that idea rests on, which is that cultures are monolithic and dissent-free and that therefore there is not so much as a hair’s width room for disagreement with or criticism of any aspect of that culture including its tyrannical or dictatorial or unaccountable and unrepresentative form of governance. But if a culture is undemocratic, how can Jacques be confident that all the people within that culture approve of its undemocratic character? Since, by definition, they haven’t been asked, how does he know that?

And how does he know they all think alike? Why does he assume that Other Cultures have no disagreement or dissent? Why does he assume that Other People are incapable of looking around them and thinking about their situations and wanting something different? Why does he assume Other People are incapable of saying No?

It would be interesting to know why he assumes that. Someone ought to assign a cultural anthropologist to study Martin Jacques and figure it out.

12 Responses to “Cultural Anthropology 101”