decolonizing anthropology

Professor Robert Thornton (031RTHOR@MUSE.ARTS.WITS.AC.ZA)
Fri, 10 Feb 1995 09:30:24 -0500

Well, OK, you have accepted my challenge to show how your
'propositions' apply to the cases I have described. You will keep
your satire to a 'minimum' -- good: more than a minimum of satire
ceases to be satire. You have exceded the limits on your past posts,
so at least I have a right to expect no further satire. . . .

I am distressed
by you gatuitous disrespect to people like Clifford Geertz, Ralph
Holloway, Anita Cohen, me, and the others you have insulted. I
challenged you, fearing that your might, as I said, be a couple of
bricks short of a full load. I can see that you are. I'm sorry
about that. You are clearly one of those who have been hurt in the
academic fray. You have lost things that are of value to you, and to
us as (potential) colleagues. I suspect that you have lost self
respect, and that that is one of the sources of your sad disrespect
for others in your field. I don't know what else you have lost, but
look around you : Colorado is beautiful. Life is not as bad as you
think. Even those who suffer find joy in it.
Now about those bricks. . . The first thing you must know is that
you are short of a few. It shows. The second thing you must know is
that you can find them again, or make new ones. But you must first
ackowledge that you are missing something here and there: humantiy
and collegiality, amongst other things. Don't throw the bricks.
Build something with them.

But the challenge is another matter. I did not issue it to 'beat the
hell out of you'. That is not what i am about. Sadly, I can not feel
good about being thought a worthy opponent since I do not trust
you're feelings about what and whom to respect and how or why. But
you did accept the challenge saying that it 'is going to be a
considerable challenge for both of us'. That's wrong.

The point about the challenge, and the questions that I asked you to
answer along with it, is that it is a Sphynx's riddle: There is no
Answer to these questions. That is the answer.

Quite frankly, I fear the answer you might have for why the Bosnian
Serbs who were mistaken as Muslims should/should not suffer on the
basis of your principles. People like you have already answered
these questions through the history of the twentieth century, adn we
have suffered enough from their answers. The notion that you can
answer the question of how a SErbian student deprives Africans of
their 'cultural rights' by learning about their culture, or why a
Zairean should be beaten nearly to death for being Zairean in South
Africa, is in itself a dangerous notion. To presume to answer these
questions underpins the erroneous assumptions on which they were
phrased. For any potential answers that you might have to these
questions, in order to implement them, we would have to ask how much
force we would be allowed to use -- indeed, I asked that question.
To answer that question, hwoever, is to assume that people can be
forced into these positions. I would have thought that Hitler,
PolPot, Idi Amin, Stalin, Verwoerd, and other would have answered
this question quite decisively. The answer, again, is that there is
no amount of force that can accomplish these fantasy goals.

A couple of other points: I am not a man of 'great courage' : I try
hard to make sense of things, and that is what I do. I haVE lost a
few things, including a few bricks from time to time, and I try to
find them again or make them again. It doesn't take
courage, it takes a lot of hard work and hard thought. I do not
'fight for my beliefs': I argue and try to persuade others that what
I have to say is worth hearing, and that it is worth thinking about.
I have beliefs, yes, but I am probably rahter more obsessive and
demanding than most people in trying to ground those beliefs in
either good argument or evidence, preferable both. That is really
the biggest fight I engage in, to ground my beliefs and to make sense
of the world as I see it for myself and for my students, and it is a
fight that mainly goes on inside my head. You can't join me there.

You want a perfect world, AND you want revenge for a world that is
not perfect. Maybe when you die, you can talk to someone about it,
if you say your prayers, but then again, who knows? There are a lot
of contingencies here.

Sorry, Robert Johnson, you lost this challenge by accepting it. Of
course, you have all the time in the world to formulate your answers.
But remember: the Sphynx does not mark essays.

=====Professor Robert Thornton, Department of Social Anthropology====
University of the Witwatersrand, PO Wits, 2050 Johannesburg
South Africa
Office tel. : (011) 716-2900
Secretary, fax and answering machine: (011) 716-2766
Home tel: (011) 646-2578
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