human rights, one more time

Mike Lieber (U28550@UICVM.BITNET)
Thu, 15 Dec 1994 12:38:13 CST

I was going to let Bjorn's last post go on by until I saw Patsy Evans'
comment. Patsy and I agree on most everything that's important, but I'm afraid
we part ways on this one--kinda.

I found Bjorn's post to be a defense of the conceptual apparatus that he began
the thread with--the individual vs. the collective, with the cultural complexty
pointed out in other postings being reduced to absolutism vs. relativism. I
have no doubt as to Bjorn's commitment to human rights, and his passion for a
fundamental problem of our times gives me hope. My problem with his
formulation is its inherent ethnocentrism, which he is not ready to give up.
Not that there is anything wrong with framing the problem of human rights in
terms of the rights of the individual. Whatever motivates Bjorn or anyone
else to help make people's lives better, more secure, and more comfortable is
just fine with me. The problem comes when you try to implement programs in
communities that don't define the person as an individual--and there is nothing
effete or superficial about the concept of the person. This is one of the two
most profoundly important cultural constructs in any community (the other being
the local theory of knowledge, which more often than not is part of the
definition of the person, distinguishing people from non-human animals).

The concept of the individual is of recent vintage, the earliest hints of it
being in the writings of Albertus Magnus, the teacher of St. Thomas Acquinas.
The idea develops during the renaissance (I'm not sure about the difference
between R. and the Enlightenment, so I sand to be corrected). You can see the
development of the concept in paintings and sculpture--both showing likenesses
of people, e.g., the Medici clan, rather than Biblical characters. In writings
you can see it with the beginnings of autobiographies, e.g., Benvenuto Cellini.
The modern concept of the individual is profoundly shaped by the industrial
revolution, disconnecting the person from the "estate" and from the family and
enabling an industrial system in which people had to be replaceable parts.
Eliminated from the idea of the individual was the middle term that had
characterized its nearest antecedent, the Roman idea of the person as citizen.
Romans distinguished between _personam_, _communitas_, and _societas_.
Communitas was the middle term, and it meant "social relationship," i.e., the
idea of societas (the community) was as a nexus of social relationships. You
can see the middle term operating in Roman court cases. Remove that, and what
you have left is the individual-collective dichotomy, which social science has
quite uncritically adopted as received wisdom.

So what happens when you treat people as individuals when they don't define
themselves as such? Let me give an example from my own field research, a
blatant example, no doubt, but blatant examples are the easiest ones to get the
point across. In 1981, the Community Action Agency, which had an office on
Ponpei Island, the State and Federated States of Micronesia capitol, decided to
implement a program to aid older people in Micronesia. The thinking went like
this. Older people are individuals, too, and just because they are no longer
productive doesn't mean that they don't have the same rights as younger, more
productive people. Now, American admnistrators of CAA knew very well that
older people (the model is Americans) want to stay independent as long as
possible. They don't want to move in with and be supported by their children.
So in order to help old people, one thing to do is to provide them with housing
that can keep them independent. So CAA did a survey of old people on the
islands in Pohnpei State, one of which is Kapingamarangi Atoll, a Polynesian
outlier. Finding five older people who were hoe-bound, CAA sent down enough
building materials for 5 houses with instructions to the island council to
build the houses for these five older people. The council complied, and that's
when the trouble started.

These houses were substantial enough, but with their corrugated iron roofs,
they were like ovens during the daytime. Five old people were told to move
into them, and all of them screamed bloody murder. Why? Didn't their
families want them anymore? Old people are left alone only when they can't
move anymore, and then they are made comfortable in outhouses that sit on the
reef or beach so they can pee without having to crawl a great distance.
Otherwise, older people belong in their households with their families, where
they help with babysitting, cooking, craft work, etc.. They are integral
parts of their families--they see themselves and are seen by others in this
way. Moving into houses that they never asked for left them isolated, useless,
and bitter. The less mobile of the five suffered terribly in the heat. Within
two weeks, all had abandoned their houses, and no one else wanted to move in
because of the discomfort. But they made good storeage sheds, so five families
did get storeage facilities out of the program.

Had Kapinga people defined themselves as individuals, they might have
appreciated the houses for their original purposes. Had the program organizers
thought to ask old people whether they wanted the houses for themselves, the
CAA might have put its money to better uses. The ethnographic record is full
of examples like this one. James Noutopolis told me about a program in Greek
villages in the 1950s to eliminate the village wells by piping running water
directly into individual households. Village women complained bitterly at
the elimination of their major (and legitimate) place for social gatherings
during the day. What is important to people who see themselves as individuals
may be an imposition on people who define themselves as consociates. You
don't know until you ask. And asking is what anthropologists are for.

No matter how pure the motive, you ignore ethnography at your own, and worse,
other people's risk.
Mike Lieber