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Lines on Water

by on August 28, 2015

                                                                    Lines on Water

                                                                  by Marco M. Pardi

Note: All comments are appreciated, read, and responded to accordingly.  The comments sections for all previous articles have been opened for use.  I will certainly look forward to your comments.

“Man is essentially, so necessarily, a moral being that, when he denies the existence of all morality, that very denial already becomes the foundation of a new morality.” Maurice Maeterlinck (1862 – 1949)

One of the criticisms of Anthropology I heard early on was directed at the dogma of Cultural Relativism.  Put simply, this epistemological response to the crude 19th century equation of a society’s technology with the people’s intellectual capacity and ethical development sought to affirm the existential uniqueness of every culture.  Terms such as “primitive”, “savage”, “backward” and so on were forcefully challenged.  Having heard American G.I.s use grossly disparaging terms for local peoples around the world, I fully adopted Cultural Relativism.  Indeed, I extended it to all non-human animals, forcefully countering terms such as “lower animals”.

I also challenged representatives from the Peace Corps who came to our graduate school to pitch membership.  Many host countries accept these people simply as a means of staying in good graces with USAID.  How do the PC members present their way of doing things without inherently condemning the indigenous ways?  While living among the people, what training prepares them to observe, and even participate in everyday practices they have been culturally trained to find repellent?  The case was less fuzzy with two Jesuit priests who mistakenly enrolled in our department to prepare themselves as missionaries.  Their blatant message was: “You are wrong; we are right.”

But just as Anthropology, as a field, can be criticized today for either failing to intervene when a cultural disaster is imminent, or for assuming a knee-jerk advocacy for less developed cultures versus super-power cultures, so too can an individual be scrutinized, at least by the self,  for twisting on an ethical hook of feeling that a certain policy is wrong but having to support it anyway.

Politicians are masters of this.  They frequently justify support of odious policies by claiming that support for policies with which they disagree allows them to remain in office and further those policies they support.  The means serve the end.  Give and take, compromise, “reaching across the aisle” are common terms in American politics, and quickly becoming anathema to groups such as the Tea Party,  a group dedicated to enforcing its own extremely narrow version of “freedom”.  Yet,  Situational Ethics is a charge that frequently sticks.

The rationale of the means serving the end can be found in many other venues as well.  Indeed, to put it in more common usage, there are many manifestations of “the end justifying the means”. Law enforcement investigators on all levels routinely allow and document certain criminal activity as a means of “building a case” and/or following the path from the little guys on the street to the big guys running the organization.  I have personally been involved in such operations, not from a law enforcement perspective but from an intelligence gathering one.  Yet, in the law enforcement context there are at least two scenarios I am certain I could not abide for the sake of the larger case:  Child pornography/sexual assault, and animal cruelty – such as fighting, production of “snuff films”, and brutal slaughter.  When I see these cases developed in the media I think of those investigators sitting day after day, night after night looking at the evidence and waiting until enough is gathered to make an effective case.  What must life be like for them while they wait? How are they able to resist going in and terminating each and every end user of child pornography they find?  How do they interact with their families, their children, their non-human animal companions?  Where is the Star Chamber?  My application is already filled out.

And so another area opens in which there is the chance of accusations of “situational ethics”: the Death Penalty.  Looking at cases wherein there is absolutely no doubt of guilt I am not automatically in favor of or against the death penalty.  Having seen lifeless bodies get shot further and having seen and participated in autopsies I am comfortably certain death puts an end to punishment.  My discomfort lies in the interpretation of, and the absurd safeguards against “cruel and unusual” punishment.  Had, for example, the Sandy Hook shooter been taken alive I would have ensured a long life for him, of utter misery day and night.  If that sounds like revenge against the one who is caught, so be it. If ten murderers are loose and I catch only one I do not go soft on the one because I haven’t caught the other nine.  In cases where rehabilitation is most unlikely and punishment is ineffective I would not wring my hands and tear my hair over whether a lethal injection might cause “discomfort” in the execution process;  and there are efficient and inexpensive ways to deliver instantaneous and painless death. And no, despite the socially correct protestations of so many, I have no doubt my sentiments are widely shared.  In fact, when I hear the outcries against the death penalty I think: Oh, members of the most rapacious, cancerous predator species the planet has ever known,  bringing itself “creature comforts” by enslaving, exploiting and killing all other life forms including members of its own species are getting prissy and pompous over the elimination of someone so odious they actually violated the gang rules by which this species lives. So maybe we should say, “The nice prison officials did all they could but they had to put the prisoner to sleep.”  Throughout my daughter’s childhood I never gave her the bullshit story that the nice vet had to put our companion animal “to sleep”.  And she has grown to embody the name I gave her: Wisdom.   

Speaking in the vein of life and death,  I had difficulties reacting quickly to potential Pelvic Inflammatory Disease cases when I knew the girl(s) in question had already had three children by age 20 and had dumped these kids with their grandmother while she spent all her time at the “crack house”.  I’m supposed to rush to the crack house and get her to treatment so she won’t be medically hampered in having more children?

Most of us have seen the television ads and internet solicitations for starving children in various areas of the world.  Yes, they are living; I’ve seen them. Yes, many will likely die; I’ve seen that too.  But we know many of the affected cultures resist contraception for basically two reasons: the governments overseeing those cultures are built on personal greed fed by resource extraction (the U.S. being a leading consumer) and accumulation of costly weapons (the U.S. being the leading provider) leaving the people with no social safety net of any kind to ensure life beyond working age; and, the cultures in many cases have been thoroughly colonized by predominately Western religions preaching that contraception is sinful.

It could be said that feeding the children is feeding the problem.  Yet it is highly unlikely these governments will willingly change.  Do we withhold aid to the children until they do so? How likely is it that Arms Merchants would willingly see a reduction in their sales so those financial resources could instead go into a social security system?  How many children are we willing to let starve to death during this stand-off?  Where do we draw the line?

In what some would see as a less extreme but still egregious example, we still see female genital mutilation (crude excision of the clitoris or the clitoris and hood) routinely practiced where cultures assert their traditional rights to do so.  Amazingly, it is the mothers of the girls who most often perform this. And, their common response when asked why is, “No man would marry her if I did not do this.”  I don’t need to be the father of a daughter and the grandfather of two grand daughters to be quite certain I would be close to slitting the woman’s throat before she could get her knife hand raised.  But: 1. Going to prison for stopping one mutilation does not solve the problem; and, 2. as an anthropologist I’m supposed to be gathering information which might later support some legislative attempt to perhaps change people’s beliefs. In the meantime, a little girl lies sobbing in her hut.

Our cycle of gun related violence is predictably punctuated by calls for re-examination of traditions surrounding guns, formulation of new plans for control of guns, but only recently a proposal for serious study of the prescribed pharmaceuticals the overwhelming majority of the shooters, since 1989, were or had been taking up to the point of the crime.  But it is easier to find ways to control guns than it is to control pharmaceuticals produced by billions of dollars per year industries, and the people for whom they are prescribed.  Is the easier way the ethical way? Or should we devise an altogether new plan?  Maybe even a review of the evening network news, which seem to be wholly owned subsidiaries of the mega-pharmaceutical empires, now marketing “Pink Viagra” to women for yet another non-existent disease.  

A cardinal rule in combat is:  “In battle, the first casualty is the plan.” That simple statement captures the essence of fluid reality; facile decisions of right and wrong meet new knowledge, shifting ground, hidden foes and allies, and the deeply personal discomfort of realizing “it ain’t all that simple”.

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  1. Ethnocentricity is one of the “big words” I learned in your class, and each of us is guilty of it in some way, and to some degree. Until we are exposed to other cultures for a long enough time period to assimilate, we have only our own on which to base an opinion. Scientists are supposed to observe without prejudice, but that is harder than it sounds. Most differences are just that; neither better or worse, just different. Some (like female mutilation) are an exception to this; they horrify in their reality.

    Any time you change a culture, even if the intent is genuinely to help (and does), I think the world loses a bit. Even benevolent change alters a culture. The (not so benevolent) changes rendered by the “Indian” reservations in our own country stand witness to that.

    How many times have we heard, “That’s not how we do it in (fill in the blank).” One of my high school teachers advised a student to stop comparing his old school to the current one, while at the same time being guilty of making the same comparisons to this state to her previous one.

    Before my sister’s wedding, the preacher who was to perform the ceremony visited her at home. While there, he discovered that I was soon to move to Italy. I will never forget his comment to me, “Don’t forget to preach the gospel to all those heathens there.” I am still appalled!


  2. Thank you, Rose. You clearly make the point that our actions – even the act of not acting, are based on commonly unexamined presumptions. Then we wonder what went wrong.

    I’m still amused at the numbers of people who presume Italian means Catholic.


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