Nukes and Bosnia

William M. Loker (wloker@RA.MSSTATE.EDU)
Fri, 21 Jul 1995 23:30:45 -0500

I agree with a previous poster who asserted that it is easier for us
(especially as anthropologists) to condemn nuclear testing than ethnic
cleansing because nuclear weapons represent a
*technology* (a 'thingie' in D. Foss's inimitable terminology) and thus
somehow easier to condem, criticize and try to control. Thingies are so
much easier to get a handle on.

But I think there is another dimension to the problem with events in
Bosnia that hamstrings anthropologists from critical commentary. It
is precisely the ethnic nature of the conflict that has us tongue-tied.
We are more accustomed to championing of ethnic diversity than condemning
ethnically-based behavior. We have promoted respect for cultural difference as
virtually an unquestioned principle of our intellectual trade.
Anthropologists have long been advocates (and justifiably so) of cultural
diversity, which in the current era is translated into championing ethnic
diversity. It is only a small step from supporting ethnic diversity to
encouraging ethnic pride, to ... ethnic chauvinism, ethnocentrism and
ethnic cleansing.

We have tended to see cultural/ethnic diversity as an unmitigated positive
phenomenon, to be encouraged. again, with some good reason. We seemed to
have been given a loaded choice in the modern-industrial-western-world
system society of either advocating for ethnic/indigenous/cultural rights OR
being on the side of the dominant society that would extinguish
ethnic/cultural minorities.

How do we react then, when this same phenomenon we have championed ---
ethnic/cultural diversity and pride -- is taken to extremes by an "ethnic
group" (admittedly a very loose category) and used in a campaign of
genocide against Others. This places us in the very
tricky position of recognizing ethnicity as a good, but also as a
potentially destructive force. (Kind of like the "friendly atom"!) We
encourage ethnic minorities to mobilize, but must condemn
ethnically-based mobilizations that "go too far." It seems difficult
intellectually to find the right balance between advocating for people's
cultural rights and ethnic pride, while at the same time saying, "Hey,
don't take that sentiment of pride too far and become ethnocentric" --
especially violently so.

Of course, the obvious place to draw the line is when ethnic pride gives
way to violence. In Bosnia, ethnic pride would not be a problem if
those who claim such pride weren't violently exterminating "Others." The
fundamental problem intellectually as well as socially seems to be in
reconciling multiculturalism and ethnic pride with Liberal notions of
equality and individual rights. We draw the line intellectually and
socially where pride gives way to violence. But that line is so easily
crosssed in the world of conflicting group interests and competition for

Again, nukes are easy to oppose: bad technology, bad stateist violence
against the "human community" (not to mention the rest of the biosphere).
But when the human community becomes divided: Us agianst Them, defined
along ethnic lines, it becomes more difficult for
anthropologists to pronounce themselves, at least based on their
*discipline's* (as opposed to personal) principles.

Make no mistake, I condemn ethnic cleansing in all its forms -- from the
Indian Removal Act of 1830 to the siege of Moslem "safe areas" in
Bosnia. I feel as one poster to this list so eloquently put it
that regardless of ethnic identity they are "our people." Its too bad
ethnic identity can so easily get in the way of feeling that sense of
unity, of *one* human community.

Sorry about the length of the post ...

Bill Loker