Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The genetic gallacy and argument from tradition in action...

I saw this post over on Zero Anthropology about Sergei Lavrov's recent statements on international relations, and I left a comment saying that Lavrov's words were nice enough, but they attempted to excuse barbaric acts on the grounds that they are 'tradition'.  I was told that I'm Eurocentric (somehow) and backward, and there was the not-so-subtle implication that I'm an imperialist pig-dog who supports the United States government in everything it does (I'm not even American, of course).  You can see the short exchange so far on the site.

Unfortunately, the comments have a gatekeeper, and the comment I posted in response has not appeared.  So I'll post it here:
How is it backward and Eurocentric to think that tradition can be wrong and barbaric?  Clearly, it can be, unless you believe that, say, FGM isn't barbaric simply because it's traditional, or that headhunting in southeast Asia - certainly an interesting and important tradition - wasn't a horrible series of grisly crimes.  Lavrov is saying that tradition should be respected just because it's tradition.  He doesn't give a further argument as to why this should be; he assumes that tradition alone should command our respect.  It's not Eurocentric to reject that line of thinking (how could it be?) - it's just good sense.  I notice that you haven't bothered to argue against the position either, and instead have resorted to the genetic fallacy.  I hope you understand that that isn't sufficient to undermine what I'm saying.

It's not bigoted, either.  It's traditions, not entire groups of people, that rouse my ire, and they do so precisely because they are harmful to the people involved.  Female genital mutilation is not something I'm willing to respect, and that isn't because I despise the ethnic groups who practice it.  Rather, it's because I see them as human, and therefore inherently deserving of respects *as humans*, not as cogs in a cultural machine that produces traditions.
Let's be clear about what you're saying here.  You're saying that people - human beings like you and me - are less important than traditions, and that traditions, even harmful and horrifying ones, cannot be criticized.  That's *appalling*.

And as for the Russian Orthodox Church: do you know anything at all about Russia?  Have you heard of Pussy Riot?  Are you really unaware that the symbiosis between the church and Putin's authoritarian regime is complete, and that they are pushing together for a socially conservative, anti-egalitarian, homophobic, repressive nation of Russian nationalist-church-goers where democracy is impossible?

You're right that the church is under no obligation to change from me, but you seem to be ignoring the very real fact that church-supported hooligans regularly assault gay rights activists and ordinary gay people in the street, and that they have cooperated with the state since the end of the Soviet Union to keep women's rights down.  Either you're unaware, or you think that tradition is more important than the rights of gay people to live as they wish to.
I thought that views like those of the author of that post were not really found among anthropologists, or among anyone, really.  I thought that these were the views of straw men only.  But apparently there are people out there who think that you can never criticise a tradition for being appalling or awful, no matter how appalling and awful it obviously is.

UPDATE:  There's been a reply on Zero Anthropology, an unconvincing, authoritarian-supporting, anti-democratic reply.  So I've replied to it, and as before, the comment has disappeared until the blogkeeper has had time to answer it.  So I'm going to post it here.

"Clearly, many if not most Russians disagree with your calling their traditions “wrong” or “barbaric”–so you are speaking from a particular vantage point, and it’s not the vantage point of either a Russian or anyone outside of the dominant, liberal imperial elites of the West."

And how on earth do you know that they like their traditions?  How do you know that they don't feel compelled to follow them by the threat of violence?  I agree that it comes from a certain standpoint, but so, technically, do all positions.  Your unquestioning acceptance of the idea that tradition is good for its own sake, *including other peoples' traditions*, is also a minority position and one found only among 'dominant, liberal' Western elites.  Is your position not similarly Eurocentric by your own confused metric?

Do you really think that there aren't any closet homosexuals in Russia who want to come out but can't?  Do you really think the church represents the views of everyone in a nation of 150,000,000 people?  Do you really believe that women in Russia want to be held down by the men in their society (which they are)?  Do you *really* believe that anthropologists should endorse the tyranny of the majority?

Your comments imply that majority rule is acceptable, that judging tradition from a moral standpoint is never acceptable (even when you yourself are trying to make a moral claim), and that there is no stand we can take on any tradition.  This is the least ethical approach to humans you could ever take.  Would you have similarly refused to take a moral stand against German antisemitism in the 1930s, indubitably heir to an old tradition?  Or is it only some traditions that you like and others that you don't?
And why is it acceptable for M. Jamil Hanifi to say that "America is unsurpassed in the abuse, exploitation, and vulgarization of women and womanhood", presumably engaging in a moral denunciation of American culture (with which, by the way, 'many if not most' Americans are in agreement), when I cannot denounce Russian culture in the same terms?

"unlike the State Department script that you so eagerly follow without question"

I'm not even American!  And I'm not arguing for any particular standpoint on Syria.  It's just that I have a lot of Russian friends - I worked with Russian students of all ages for years and retain many lasting friendships.  There are a lot of disgruntled Russians who disagree with the majority but cannot speak for fear of violence, losing their job, or some similar outrage.  Lavrov is trying to get everyone to agree to the unquestioning acceptance of tradition in other countries, even when that tradition causes harm to the people living under its sway.  That isn't a good position.  You call my position Eurocentric, but you haven't even bothered to argue against it (again).  You've just lambasted it as 'Eurocentric' and seem to believe that that's enough.  It isn't, and I'm not.

"the self-determination of peoples"

Wow.  Amazing.  Let's be clear: this is a mistaken principle.  It takes 'peoples' to be more important than 'people'.  It is assumes that within any nation or ethnic group, there is a collective will which they all possess and which causes them to believe the same thing, which is transparently false (an anthropologist should know that!).  It assumes that ethnic groups/nations are wholes more important than the sum of their parts.  And it endorses the ethno-nationalist and authoritarian principle that ideas that are deemed to be good by the supposed collective belief are more important than the rights of individual humans.

Invoking the 'self-determination of peoples', instead of the freedom of human beings, has always been controversial and always should be.  It's not a good principle, and you cannot invoke it without argument as to why it is good.

Putin is popular in Russia, but he is an authoritarian dictator.  It is unbelievable that an anthropologist claiming to be against empire, colonialism, and oppression could support Putin, a man trying to suppress opposition (*especially* ethnic opposition from non-European-Russian ethnic groups) while using homosexuals as a scapegoat.


  1. The term "respect" has several senses. You're reading it as "to hold in esteem or honour", but in this context, I would think the more likely sense is "to refrain from intruding upon or interfering with". Plenty of traditions don't deserve to be respected in the former sense, but do deserve to be respected in the latter sense. What Lavrov is defending is the old-fashioned Westphalian idea: cuius regio, eius religio, and how a state treats its own population is not the business of any other state. That idea isn't an ideal – each signatory to the original Treaty of Westphalia was no doubt rather disgusted at having to agree that other monarchs were allowed to persecute his co-religionists. But it is a way of dealing with the realities that, by and large, inter-state war does worse damage than tyranny, and that no one state has (or should be trusted with!) the power to force the whole world to abide by its own ideas of right and wrong.

  2. It's almost irrelevant to me what Lavrov said, because it is, of course, pablum. It's the speech of a politician in an environment designed to portray his country in the best possible light, and the remarks make most sense as an attempt to capitalise on the wave of (relative) good feeling towards Russia as a result of its move towards active, sensible peace-making in the Middle East and thereby remove opposition to the Sochi Olympics and to Russia's extremely regressive homophobic legislation. So the remarks are less important to me than the reaction to them on that blog.

    Which was frankly amazing to me. I had no idea people still believed in the 'self-determination of peoples'. Not only is that ontologically ridiculous ('peoples' just are people, and people do not all agree about the direction of their supposed self-determination), it also demonstrates an incredibly poor understanding of how culture works, which is not as a unified field of thoughts and beliefs but as something that people wrangle and fight over in their daily lives. People disagree, and they live as individuals, not as parts of a larger cultural whole. There is no whole. And, there being no whole, there is nothing to violate in criticising traditions that harm some of those people on whom the traditions are imposed.

    So when this guy, Maximilian Forte, accuses me of not being good enough for this debate, it irks me. It irks me because Forte is himself clearly not good enough for this debate; he is espousing a position that is both intellectually flawed and, well, downright evil. He is saying, explicitly, that it is Russian homosexuals' problem, not mine, and that I have no right to intervene or even to express disgust at their treatment. What he's saying, and as I said, he's quite explicit, is that had he been around in the 1930s, he wouldn't have done anything about the Holocaust even if he could have, because of the principle of the self-determination of peoples.

    It boggles the mind that people like this exist. What he's saying isn't slightly wrong or merely empirically incorrect, although it is that. What he's saying is downright evil, that we can never intervene in the affairs of other ethnic groups or nations even if they are immoral and cause death and misery, simply because of the notion of an arbitrary border separating ethnic groups from one another. This sick man believes that we should do nothing to help gay people in Russia, and that we shouldn't even do anything to denounce their public and legal vilification in that country, simply because they live in a different country.

    This isn't a Westphalian principle. It's not even a legal one in any terms. It's a moral one - or, in fact, an immoral one.

    I'm genuinely angry that this man has the gall to say that I'm not worthy of this debate when he spends his time defending principles that are not only old, out-dated, and incorrect, he defends them in the context of immoral and disgusting activities.

    If that's what anthropology is, then fuck anthropology into the ground with a hammer.

  3. Obviously I'm ranting here, and I wrote that after coming home from work, tired and a little dehydrated (and still recovering from illness). But I stand by it; what this fellow is saying is so incredibly unethical that I find it hard to comprehend.

  4. Every time I start trusting anthropology anthropologists have to come over and ruin it.

    "People disagree, and they live as individuals, not as parts of a larger cultural whole. There is no whole."

    That hits it on the head. I had a discussion recently with a cultural anthropologist about 'hegemonic' and 'counter-hegemonic' cultures. The whole conversation was surreal for reasons I could not quite articulate - but this is it. This is exactly it.

  5. Yes, those reactions are pretty astonishing – several of them really read like self-parody. However...

    "Intervene" is another tricky word – it could cover anything from writing complaint letters to total war. And the more violent end of the spectrum is not exactly hypothetical – as I'm sure you know, there's a long history of empires using the moral failings of the natives as a pretext for ruling them, and the broader context of Lavrov's quote is the debate over the US's right to bomb countries whose governments violate what it considers to be international moral norms.

    If you're advocating that we should criticise immoral practices outside our own societies and try to change people's minds, I'm with you – though we won't always agree on which practices are immoral, and it's rather important to listen, not just preach. If you're advocating forcible imposition of your moral norms on a society where practically no one agrees with them (as is the case in some places for FGM or toleration of homosexuality), then, for almost anything short of genocide, that's a really bad idea. Prohibition in the US is a great case study in what happens when you ban a widespread practice without first convincing enough people that it's morally wrong. And any group with the power to force that many people to act against their own convictions has more power than it can be trusted with. That's the reality that underlies the far too broad slogan of "self-determination for peoples".

  6. I wasn't even talking about intervening - just denouncing, or criticizing. And if we think of 'intervening' in terms of supporting activists in other societies with donations or messages of support, then that seems acceptable too. Of course you'd find it hard to impose a moral code on a majority that doesn't find it acceptable, but that isn't what Forte et al are arguing. They aren't saying that it's a shame that Russians don't want to accept homosexuals in their society and that it's a shame we can't do anything to help gay people there. They're saying that it's not our problem at all, and that Russian gays should rise up themselves. Well, they should, but should we really let gay people suffer and die just because they live in another country?

    Morality doesn't have borders, I don't think.

  7. "Let" implies you have some power to prevent it. Donations, messages of support, and denunciation or criticism do not confer such a power.

    Morality doesn't have borders, but enforcement does.

  8. Again, the point was that there are people who refuse even to acknowledge that what other people do in other societies can be wrong or barbaric, not that we should use some kind of force to make Russia change its ways. If you want me to acknowledge your point, then I will: you are trivially correct that we can do nothing of substance about homophobia in Russia (or any similar concern), certainly nothing guaranteed to put it to an end. But that's a practical point, not exactly an ethical one.

    The real point here is that there are people who think that even criticizing the beliefs and actions of people in other ethnic groups or nations is a bad and Eurocentric thing to do. And that's something I find ridiculous.

  9. To be clear, I totally agree with you that it's ridiculous to think that criticizing the beliefs and actions of people in other ethnic groups or nations is automatically bad or Eurocentric. I focused on the question of when force is justified since that's what the Lavrov quote is about, and since it has the potential to do a lot more harm. I don't agree that non-intervention is an exclusively practical point: if you were powerful enough to compel Russia to change its laws under the threat of violence, that still wouldn't make it a good idea. However, if you think this is a distraction from the main point of the post, I'll say no more about it.


You can post anonymously if you really want to, but I would appreciate it if you could provide some means of identifying who you are, if only for the purpose of knowing who has written what.