Re: human rights

Michelle B. Golden (mgolden@UNIX.CC.EMORY.EDU)
Mon, 5 Dec 1994 12:39:47 -0500


I haven't been following this thread very closely, so apologies in
advance for any clueless comments inspired by lack of attention.

I find Mike's post very interesting, because, while it is ostensibly
about individual rights vs. collective interests, it is also about
culture and oppression. This is a subject that interests me a great deal.
I believe that there is a clear difference between culture and
oppression--in this case, gender oppression. However, Mike's message
reflects a dilemma for anthropologists: in culturally contextualizing
oppression (in this case, of females among the Yanamamo), do we as
anthropologists serve as apologists for that oppression? There are
several layers to this. First, there is the practice of oppression. Then,
there is the economic and cultural context in which that oppression
manifests itself. Third, there's the power relationship between us as
Western anthropologists and the people whose cultures we "study." (note:
by listing these as "first" etc, I don't mean to imply that one of these
layers is more "basic" than the others).

I do not support the idea that our role as anthropologists is to promote
oppression by saying that it is part of the culture (political, economic,
religious, or otherwise) of those we "study." However, it also isn't
useful for us to be the great white benign "oppression police," because
we exist as actors within a global context that defines Western culture
as more civilized and us as morally superior, a perspective which I do
not want to promote either. (I'm thinking, for example, of the way in
which sati--wife-burning in India--was used by the British as an argument
against Indian self-rule because it "proved" that Indians were not

It seems to me as though we could walk the tightrope, using (in this
example) both a gendered analysis, *and* an analysis that takes into account
our context as Western anthropologists. I'm also interested (in this case) of
learning more about the larger economic context in which the Yanomamo
exist (does the systematic destruction of the rainforests have anything
to do with any of this? I really have no idea. But this is the kind of
contextualizing that would be useful).

Mike is right about the dangers of absolutism. I'd add that the dangers
of extreme relativism are just as great.

Michelle (

PS Did anyone else out there go to the (Fri 8am) panel, "Americanist
anthropology as if race, gender and class really matters"? I went and
thought it was EXCELLENT.

On Mon, 5 Dec 1994, Mike Lieber wrote:

> I am a bit confused as to why Bjorn has decided to embark on this thread on
> anthro-l. I would have thought that putting the "collective vs. individual"
> problem in an anthropological context would elicit the sort of response that
> one can expect from scholars whose balliwick is that of human variability.
> This is indeed the response that Bjorn has gotten, but it is clearly not the
> one that he wanted. If it is clear that the construct of the individual is but
> one parochial way of defining personhood, then Bjorn's retort is that
> personhood is somehow irrelevant to human rights. But if that is the case,
> then what is the subject of human rights? If the individual is an absolute
> along with human rights as derived from the concept of the individual, then
> why would anthropological knowledge of human variation be of any interest to
> Bjorn? If one size fits all, then variability among human communities is an
> inconvenient stumbling block on the way to establishing human rights as Bjorn
> and many others understand that idea.
> Take, for example, the Yanamamo practice of female infanticide. From the
> point of view of the individual, this is clearly a violation of individual
> rights, and someone should put a stop to it. But if one takes the time and
> trouble (and research) to delineate the context--and this is what anthropology
> is about--one sees a different picture. Yanamamo live in villages enmeshed in
> shifting alliances and enemies constantly at war with one another. They
> practice swidden agriculture in the Amazonian rain forest where six month of
> rain keeps most land under water. They must plant only on high ground,
> severely limiting available arable land. They also hunt in the area around the
> villages. It takes about two years until the land is sterile and the game are
> exhausted, and the village has to relocate. When the population of a village
> reaches about 200, the village splits, usually over the issue of wife stealing.
> If they cease the practice of female infanticide, there will be more girls
> surviving to adulthood and thus more wives and more children. The population
> will grow and the problem will be feeding them, leading to more intensive
> hunting and gardening. The game will run out faster as will the land. Village
> warfare will now be directed at competition for garden land and game, and since
> there are more women to go around, exchange of women between allies will not
> cement alliances, as the exchange value of women is now nil. Thus alliances
> will be less stable, promoting increasing conflicts with larger death tolls.
> This is a rather dramatic example of a very common pattern. More mundane
> examples are the many disease control programs in the third world that have led
> to overpopulation and death through starvation. The introduction of birth
> control in many of the target populations has fallen flat, leading to forced
> birth control in places like India and China. The Yanamamo case is a clear
> example of subordinating the interest of the individual to the survival of
> the "collective." Australian aboriginal groups studied by Birdsell in areas
> of very low rainfall have shown the same pattern. So if promoting individual
> rights means violating the rights of the "collective", what have you
> promoted? And who gave you or anyone else the right to decided whose rights
> you will violate and abrogate? Does the end, unexamined as it is, justify the
> means?
> There is nothing more dangerous in this world than an absolutist with a cause.
> Mike Lieber