Reply to Fox/Anthropological Ethics

John Mcreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Sat, 8 Oct 1994 11:46:20 JST

To my friend, the Fox

You write,

"one of the things I see as the absolutely SACRED mandate of
anthropology is the project of preserving, succoring, translating, and
defending those diverse other visions of the possible and the
desirable that are washing down the mountains along with the
cyanide and copper-tailings in the Sepik River"

I find myself inclined to agree: applying to cultural diversity the
same line of thought that sees genetic diversity as an essential
survival strategy for us all. Then, I begin to think more carefully
about "preserving," "succoring" and "defending." If preservation
means recording for posterity, so that the cultures we study live on
in history if not in life, I've got no problem there. Shades of Boas and
Levi-Strauss, it's what we've been doing all along. If, however,
preservation means preserving the way of life itself, I find I've got
lots of problems.

I think of Plains Indians at the height of their horse-riding, buffalo-
hunting flourescence. I read _Black Elk Speaks_ and, yes, I want that
to be part of my tradition, too. I think, again, from the point of view
of the Woodland Agriculturists who lived on the fringes of the
plains, or along the Missouri, weren't the people whose way-of-life
I'm talking about preserving (in a totally, hypothetical, no chance
now, way), the moral equivalent of the Mongol hordes that
periodically laid waste to northern China. Would I really want to
preserve and succor the way of life of someone who, on a smaller
scale of course, resembles Attila, Genghis Khan or Tamerlane?

Switch scenes: the English coal miners described by D.H. Lawrence in
_Sons and Lovers_. Would we keep them brutally exploited to keep
their way of life intact?

Then, dear Fox, you also write,

"And so, the question specifically related to the anthropological
participation in advertising is: what is the ethical status of selling
people's sacred visions literally and figuratively down that polluted

Before I'd answer that question, I'd have to know whose sacred
visions I'm talking about on which polluted river. I see no apriori
reason to draw a line between Kuna, Maori, Nuer, Yanomamo, Manus,
Trobriand.....visions and those of Romanoffs (or Bolsheviks),
Chairman Mao (or Chiang Kai-shek).

If you ask me about Nestle selling formula to third-world mothers,
resulting in undernourished babies and higher infant mortality, I feel
no qualms about my resonse: It's evil and ought to be stopped.

If you ask me about selling cigarettes to Asian consumers: I refuse
to work on tobacco advertising and support no-smoking bans. But I
won't quit my job because the company I work for makes tobacco
ads. Idon't feel good about this, but I recognize my addiction to the
salary I make. I admire saints; I cannot pretend to be one.

Do I share your conclusion?

"So maybe it's a matter of working -- and I mean *comfortably*
working -- within the system as it is for a change."

One would like to think so, but somehow, stated that way, it sounds
so weak and wimpy. I'd like to believe that with all the smart people
we know, we could come up with something a bit more concrete and
convincing. Any ideas?